Let there never be harm to anyone on account of me.
—Santideva, Bodhicharyavatara 3.14
In yoga, the yamas refer to practices of self-discipline which one should culivate. Classical yoga, and in particular the text of the Yoga Sutra by Patanjali, describes the yamas as the first step on the eightfold path. That is, the yamas should be explored before beginning asana (postures) pranayama (breath exercises) or dhyana (meditation). In this tradition, the yamas lay the ground for spiritual growth. The foundational yama is ahimsa—nonharming. Ahimsa applies both to how we treat ourselves and how we relate to others.
When I first encountered the word ahimsa, it was as the title of a vegetarian publication. However, ahimsa does not only mean not killing. It asks us to not cause harm in thought, word, or deed. Ahimsa requires that we begin by not doing things (or cultivating habits) that cause harm to ourselves.
During the physical practice of yoga asana we might practice nonharming by honoring where we are in that particular moment. For example, I might wish to practice a certain posture, but my body might not be ready. Daily practice of asana give us a place to practice ahimsa toward ourselves by refraining from self-criticism or other thought patterns that prevent us from being in the present moment.
Practicing mindfulness during asana can help us immensely in life off of the mat. When we learn to watch our breath, to observe our passing thoughts, it can help us refrain from causing harm to other with harsh speech or quick-tempered responses.
As we examine our practice of ahimsa, we might discover habits that get in the way of reaching our goals. For example, we might want to eat more healthful foods, yet find ourselves reaching for empty foods that deplete our energies. Taking time to reflect on ahimsa and how it fits into our lives can guide us toward making wiser choices.
Some would argue that if we can do something of benefit, and we choose not to do it, that also causes harm. We might take to heart the advice of Kyabje Dudjom Rinpoche: “Never neglect even the slightest positive deed. Just do it….Strive with a good heart to do everything that benefits others.” (Counsels from My Heart)