Yoga Lifestyle: Ahimsa & Yoga Off The Mat

What Does It Mean to Live a Yoga Lifestyle? Ahimsa & Yoga Off the Mat

What does it mean to live a yoga lifestyle? Does it just mean you do yoga, or is it something more? The answer begins with ahimsa.

Just like yoga on the mat aligns, harmonizes, and purifies your body-mind-spirit system, taking your yoga off the mat brings balance and harmony to your whole life. It’s a disciplined path designed – just as intentionally and skillfully as the poses and breathwork we do – to produce a specific effect. To live your yoga is to truly live in alignment with your highest self. And just like on the mat, first and foremost we want to make sure we don’t injure ourselves, a yoga lifestyle begins with a commitment to non-harming.

Yamas & Niyamas: The Yoga Lifestyle Rx

When you’re ready to take your yoga journey beyond the physical practices on your mat – and align your outer life with the process of refinement you’re cultivating in your inner life – the Yamas and Niyamas offer direction. Yoga’s 8-Limbed Path prescribes these 10 life disciplines and observances to lay the foundation for accomplishing yoga’s supreme goal.

What is that goal? Union with the atman – soul, highest Self – such that the entrapments and filters of your ego no longer drive your thoughts, words, and actions. The yogic lifestyle moves you into alignment with the pure intentions of your soul. It awakens your heart and mind to the all-encompassing state of consciousness from which all life springs, and of which all beings are a part.

So we can say, a yoga lifestyle means infusing one’s everyday living with the yamas and niyamas. However, to fully incorporate all 10 of these powerful principles takes time. It takes practice over time for your body to get stronger and more flexible, and for your mind to learn how to settle down for meditation. Likewise, transforming how you live – how you relate to life itself – is a gradual process.

To embody the yamas and niyamas, it’s helpful to concentrate on working with them one at a time. And ahimsa, which means non-harming, is the perfect place to start.

The Yoga Lifestyle & Ahimsa

In Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, ahimsa is the first yama mentioned. And the yamas are the first limb of the 8-limbed yogic path. Which makes ahimsa the very first practice prescribed for a yoga lifestyle. Does this mean Patanjali intended us to take-up ahimsa as our first discipline? I don’t know.

But when you think about it, doing so makes sense. Most of us naturally value the principle of non-harming. We don’t want to be harmed. And most of the time, we don’t want to harm or see anyone else harmed either. So ahimsa is a little more straightforward and instinctual than some of the other yamas, like bramacharya (right use of energy) and aparigraha (non-greed). This means, we can incorporate it into our lives more easily and find a sense of success in our yoga lifestyle early-on. The fruits of our ahimsa practice organically motivate us to dive deeper and move on to the other, perhaps less innate disciplines.

What Is Ahimsa?

Ahimsa grows out of our natural inclination to not want to kill or injure others, or to be killed or injured ourselves. However, once we focus our attention and intention on cultivating ahimsa in our daily yoga lifestyle, we find truly embodying this principle asks much more of us.

What does it mean to not harm? Is harming just the physical act of killing or injuring another person? What about the animals? And what about other forms of hurt – like emotional pain, mental anguish, damaging someone’s reputation? Or, doing or saying something that would cause someone else to harm another person in one of these ways?

If we really think about it, there are myriad ways we might cause harm in the world, aren’t there? To truly align our lifestyle with the yoga principle of ahimsa, we have to consider how everything we do might impact others.

Inevitably, as we deeply contemplate ahimsa, we bump into the truth of karma. Which is, the reality that all our words, thoughts, and actions create consequences. Further, not only do others experience these consequences, but we do too. We are responsible for – and inextricably linked to – the effects that arise as a result of what we choose to think, say, and do. This isn’t a moral platitude involving punishment or reward, guilt or worthiness. It’s simply the nature of things.

Ahimsa, Interconnectedness & Karma

To understand this, take the microcosm of the body as illustration. If you’re at the point of wanting to take your yoga off the mat and live a more yogic lifestyle, chances are you’ve already spent a good amount of time on the mat, getting to know your body. You’ve probably grasped, at some level, how interconnected everything in your body is. We can use that awareness to visualize how interconnected everything in the world is.

Our organs, bones, muscles, and nerves all work in synergy to not only keep us alive, but to give us the conscious experience of being alive. Further, just about everything in our body is surrounded by connective tissue. This connective tissue does exactly what its name describes – it connects our body, holds it together, and supports the holistic experience of all our different parts.

Because of all this, when one part of the body moves or experiences some kind of a change, the other parts can’t help but be affected. The whole system shifts at some level. And the results of that holistic change reverberate back to affect the part of the body that was initially changed.

In the isolated system of our body, we could call the change that ripples back to the original body part karma.

Our Symbiotic Nature

Likewise, at a multitude of macrocosmic levels (and even more microcosmic levels), we’re all interconnected in symbiotic relationship. We have interpersonal relationships, like friendships. We’re part of family units that function as systems. Community groups, schools, cities, states, nations, etc. Additionally, we’re part of the vast, seemingly infinite and intricate web of life we call Earth. When we eat bread, we’re not just consuming all the ingredients needed to make bread. We’re taking in the sunlight, rain, and nutrients from the soil that came together to form those ingredients. (Try this mindful eating practice to connect to this truth more deeply.)

If we want to take it further, we can look at the cosmos – the particles of which we’re constantly taking-up and shedding to form our physical selves. The same particles that form us one day will form our neighbor across the globe another day. And sometime in the past, they formed a star.

We can find evidence of this interconnectedness everywhere, if we look for it. (Thich Nhat Hanh calls this inter-relatedness “inter-being”. You can find his eloquent description of it here.)

The Karmic Chain

When one part of any of these symbiotic relationships is harmed, the whole system experiences the ripple effects of that harm. Every part of the system is changed in some way, however subtle or gross.

It can be difficult to identify precisely how our thoughts, words, and actions might impact the whole world, because their effect gets diffused in that expansive context. This doesn’t mean we’re not sending out ripples that do cause shifts. It just means it’s harder to trace them than in a more closely knit relationship, like a circle of friends. So, let’s examine the karmic chain reaction through that smaller lens.

Poisoning The Well

When we hurt someone, they’re not the only one impacted. We are too. And through a chain of effects, even more people.

Let’s say for example, we gossip about a friend. We share a story about them that paints them in a negative light. Maybe we do this with malicious intent. But more often, we do it somewhat mindlessly. If we do harbor less-than-noble intentions (i.e. jealousy, judgment, competitiveness), we may not be acknowledging it. Whatever the case, we might say it’s harmless talk.

However, because we’re saying something negative about our friend, it’s inherently harm-full, isn’t it? We’re harming their reputation. We’re creating a change in an interwoven system of relationships – our circle of friends. For instance, the person hearing the gossip now has a lowered opinion of our friend. How might that alter the way they interact with our friend moving forward? That change will impact both our friend and the person with whom we’ve gossiped. Intentionally or not, we’ve poisoned the well.

What happens if our friend learns of our negative words? They feel the harm more directly. And likely, because of the friendship, they feel the pain deeply. How might that affect their other relationships? Will they feel and act less trusting? Could their heart close a little?

What about us? How might this choice to spread gossip create consequences in our own life? For one, maybe this other friend we’ve shared gossip with will begin to see us as untrustworthy. So a shift in that relationship occurs. But more importantly, this seemingly harmless act of gossip poisons our own well. It distances us from the goals of our yoga lifestyle.

Karma & Our Yoga Lifestyle

When we choose to think, do, or say something harmful, we create disharmony in our self. This can happen in two ways.

First, if we’re actively pursuing a yoga lifestyle, or any other conscientious way of living, deep down we know doing something that causes harm – however small – is incongruent with our values. So it breeds cognitive dissonance within us. And when we have such inner conflict, we’re not harmonious. What do we do with that?

Well, we can stay in a state of disharmony, which has its own implications. Repeatedly choosing to not live in alignment with our values leaves us feeling lost, phony, and potentially even unworthy of love.

Otherwise, if we want to reestablish inner congruence, we have to do one of the following:

  • Shift our values to match our behavior.
  • Or acknowledge our behavior was out of alignment and commit to living our values moving forward (i.e. practicing ahimsa).

Truly, the last option is the only one that prevents our self from being harmed. Because if we shift our values to allow for the harming of others, even in micro ways, then we’ve harmed our self. We’ve closed our own heart a little to the suffering of others. And that’s a slippery slope. In the long run, closing our heart to the suffering of others cuts us off from love and kindness – not only with other people, but also with our own self. Because our heart has hardened.

Remember The Goal Of A Yoga Lifestyle…

On a grander scale, when we fail to recognize or acknowledge how harming someone else also harms us – via our interconnectedness – we move away from the goal of a yoga lifestyle. Which is, of course, union with our soul, or higher Self.

That’s because we’re clinging to the ego’s perspective. We’re identifying with the isolation of our egoic thoughts and motivations, not our higher Self. Ego tells us we aren’t connected to all life or to the higher essence that permeates all life. It says, so long as we’re not the one being harmed (in this case, gossiped about), everything’s okay.

The yoga lifestyle – in fact, the whole of yoga – seeks to bring us closer and closer to the awareness we are not isolated. We’re not even just one part of a larger system that could exist separately, like a wheel to a car. When we transcend the perspective of our ego, we find we are something else altogether. Something beyond the physical that is whole and pure and outside our capacity to describe with words. We can approximate it by saying, we are consciousness itself. We are Soul.

But ego makes us forget that. It convinces us we are this physical form only. Thus, we get ourselves all caught-up in the dramas that arise naturally on the physical plane. And the more we create (and suffer) harm, the more we’re bound to the drama of life. Because now we’ve got more stuff to feel intensely. More to chew on mentally and try to work-out somehow, so we can find our way back to peace.

The karmic wheel turns and turns. And the drama it creates keeps us distracted and blinded to our true nature – which is, by its very nature, peace.

Committing to ahimsa is one powerful way to step out of that cycle. The less harm we create and suffer, the more easily we can let go (non-attach) and real-ize our true nature.

How To Cultivate Your Yogic Lifestyle Through Ahimsa

That was a lot of esoteric stuff, I know. But it’s helpful to contemplate it before trying to cultivate your yogic lifestyle through ahimsa. Understanding the interconnectedness of harmful activities – how others as well as our own selves can be impacted – helps us identify what sorts of thoughts, words, and actions we want to avoid. Additionally, recognizing the ultimate goal of ahimsa is to break free from karmic chains and from the limited perspective of our ego can provide both motivation and insight to guide our practice.

Reflections To Guide Your Yoga Lifestyle

What sorts of thoughts, words, and actions might inflict harm? We can determine that by considering the following:

  • Is this going to cause another living being to suffer?
  • Who might be affected by this, and how?
  • Would it cause me to suffer if someone thought, did, or said this about or to me?
  • What’s motivating this thought, word, or action – really?
  • Is there something else I could think, say, or do that would be less harmful?
  • Is this likely to bind me to further drama or karmic entanglement?
  • What thoughts, words, or actions could free me to move into more alignment with my higher Self?

I’d like to point out that while using our own self as a guide for knowing what might be harmful is an excellent starting point, it can be limiting. What we find harmful might not feel so for others. And vice versa, what others experience as harmful might not feel so for us. It’s important to listen to what other people tell us when it comes to identifying ways we might potentially cause them suffering. We don’t have to agree or see things the same way. We just have to acknowledge what they’ve shared as their real experience and do our best to not cause them suffering in accordance with it.

If you dive into these sorts of deeper contemplations around your life choices, you’ll eventually run into some inner resistance. That’s because the yoga lifestyle you’re trying to cultivate is likely going to conflict with some deeply ingrained habits. In yoga, these are called samskaras.

Samskaras & Resistance To Your Yogic Lifestyle

Your mind has carved-out many pathways of thought and feeling over many years (some might say many lifetimes). They contain directives, so to speak, that tell you something like when A happens, I respond with B, D, or sometimes C, but never X, Y, or Z. Or perhaps, because I want this, I’m willing to do and say this. Samskaras get entrenched by past hurts, trauma, deeply rooted fears and emotional triggers, as well as any cause-effect relationships we’ve inferred based on past observations and experiences (accurate & healthy or not).

Of course, this all happens quietly, often below the radar of our conscious attention. So, to get intentional about ahimsa, you’ll need to bring these inner workings up to the surface, where they can be examined and shifted.

For instance, let’s say someone says something hurtful to you. In the past, your usual response to this might have been to lash back with something just as, if not more, hurtful. Of course, to do that would go against your newfound commitment to a yoga lifestyle of non-harming. But, your mind and nervous system haven’t yet carved-out tried and true pathways for a new response. You feel the old surge of fiery anger shoot through you, demanding an outlet. What do you do?

Choosing Ahimsa

You’ll need to create some space between the impulse to react in your old way and the action you actually take. Take a few breaths. Step away if you need to. Allow the surge of energy that came with that initial impulse to subside. Once it does, you can contemplate the reflection questions mentioned earlier. Then, find a response that best aligns you with your yoga lifestyle.

But maybe your usual reaction to the scenario given above isn’t to lash out. Maybe your M.O. is to say nothing, then stew on it inwardly for days. You mull all those thoughts over and over until they manifest as passive-aggressive words and actions at a later time.

This can be sneaky, because on the surface it looks like you’ve avoided saying or doing something hurtful. But deep down, the dynamic is much the same. The only difference is you’ve allowed yourself to be poisoned by the whole ordeal for days. Your passive-aggression does end up causing harm to both you and the other person. And you’re no less karmically entangled than if you’d lashed out in anger.

What might you do instead? Well, rather than mulling what transpired, reflect on ahimsa. Ask yourself how you can approach the situation in the least harmful way possible. One possibility might be voicing your feelings rather than stewing on them. Tell the other person how they’ve hurt you, without expectation. Simply to free yourself of the burden and to (perhaps) enlighten them about how they’ve caused harm. Or, practice compassion – for your suffering first, and then theirs. This kind of response aligns with your yoga lifestyle, as it brings you closer to the perspective of your Soul.

Bringing Patience To Your Yoga Lifestyle Goals

Of course, the really deep samskaras are harder to override. You may find you misstep and go along mindlessly or just can’t resist responding in an old way, even after contemplation. Don’t beat yourself up about it – causing more harm to yourself. Just reflect on it afterward. Learn from it. Commit to doing something more skillful the next time. And however you can, ease any harm that was inflicted.

The good thing to know is, with time, you can create new samskaras that make it easier and more natural for you to choose ahimsa.

The Yoga Lifestyle, Ahimsa & The Bigger Picture

So far, we’ve mostly focused on how your yoga lifestyle looks with regards to interpersonal relationships. But there’s a much bigger picture to consider too. Committing to ahimsa involves getting intentional about how our choices impact the whole web of life on this planet.

It could be said the very act of our existence causes harm. After all, we have to eat. At that level alone, we cause the demise of another lifeform. When we walk, we’re bound to squash a bug. To create shelter, clothing and other items we need to survive, other lifeforms meet their end.

The practice of ahimsa doesn’t deny us such necessities of life. Neither does it demand we become so obsessed with not harming others that we ourselves are harmed. It’s really just a matter of being mindful of how we might be causing harm, and choosing not to do so when we can. Most importantly, it’s committing to not harming another intentionally.

So, keeping that in mind, here are some questions you might contemplate to gain insight around how your lifestyle might be impacting the bigger picture:

  • Does the food you eat or the products you use contribute to the suffering of animals?
  • Do your habits harm the earth itself? How can you eliminate or minimize that harm?
  • Can you be more mindful about how you deal with insects?
  • How can you encourage human rights and the elevation of living conditions for other humans by being selective about what products you buy?

These online resources can help you start exploring how to live less harmfully:

Our Role In Setting The Collective Tone

Something else to consider is how we might be contributing to a collective mindset that causes harm. Does supporting movies that depict violence – especially gratuitous – help perpetuate violence in our world? When we speak aggressively on social media platforms – even when it’s not directed at any one person – are we helping set the collective tone for anger, aggression, even violence?

Are we all influencers, at some level, if we’re participating in the collective dialogue? Not just by speaking our mind, but by liking and sharing others’ content. How might we be participating in the shaping of others’ mindsets – especially impressionable young minds? And what shape are we helping to mold?

No matter how strongly we believe or feel about something, can we practice ahimsa as we speak (and even think) about it?

Closing Thoughts…

It’s a lot to consider, isn’t it? Just this one little limb of the yoga lifestyle touches so many aspects of our life. Don’t let it overwhelm you, though. The point isn’t to make you neurotic about every little decision you make. That certainly wouldn’t support the goal of yoga.

However, focusing some intention and effort on ahimsa creates inner shifts that gradually make finding the non-harmful choice easier to identify and align with. Your whole self begins to vibrate at the energetic level of love, compassion, and a naturally non-harming essence. Let this be your intention and go from there.

I’d love to hear your thoughts about ahimsa. Including any ideas or resources for living less harmfully. Please share in the comments section! And help spread the goodwill by sharing this post with anyone you think might appreciate it.


Author: Rose Hahn

Rose Hahn's passion for inspiring intentional wellness has evolved over the past 20 years from a personal practice, to working as a yoga teacher and yoga therapist, to founding the first neuroscience and mindfulness-based addiction treatment center in Texas with her husband. Currently, her energy is focused on her wellness blog, an upcoming book, and her yoga/music/arts event production company.

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