Ahimsa in Patañjali’s Yoga-Sutra

Unlike the moral principles of the Baghavad Gita, Patañjali defined the ethical guidelines of the Yoga-Sutras in a way that can be understood and practiced even if the practitioner has no knowledge of Hinduism. Furthermore, as recommended practices for spirituality without religious affiliation, the Yama, first of all, Ahimsa, can bridge the deepest gaps between cultures and different religious ‘universalisms’ – a truly cosmopolitan practice.

However, in the Yoga-Sutra, Patañjali refers to Ahimsa directly only in two Sutras. In Sutra 2.30: ‘ahimsa satya asteya brahmacarya aparigraha yamah‘. As well as in Sutra 2.35, which emphasizes the positive effects of the Ahimsa attitude: ‘ahimsa pratisthayam tat sannidhau vairatyagaha‘. “As the Yogin becomes established in noninjury, all beings coming near him cease to be hostile.”1

Similarly important is Sutra 2.31 which refers to the binding nature of the Yama. “If a person lives in perfect harmony with the Yama, he will never deviate from it, no matter what vocation he follows, in what place and time he lives, and what his present circumstances are.2

Ahimsa as a vow

Admittedly, this ‘perfect accordance’ only comes about after a long intensive practice of the attitudes described by the Yamas. However, the effects of Ahimsa, as Patañjali promises, only come about when the yogi has made the conscious decision to let this intention permeate all areas of life.

Is it a coincidence that Patañjali placed Ahimsa as the first Yama? Indeed, this prominent position of Ahimsa points to the importance of this very first Yama for the yoga path. Although in some situations, one may be forced to give priority to one Yama over another, Patañjali calls the Yama and Niyamauniversal vows‘. Accordingly, one should follow them regardless of one’s origin, circumstances, professional obligations, time, and place.

Consequently, someone who has the intention to implement the Yama Ahimsa consistently, cannot claim as an exception the fact, that he has to kill for his country as a soldier. Therefore followers of Jainism, who have placed Ahimsa at the center of their practice, excluded certain professions.

Actions not performed by oneself

Furthermore, in Sutra 2.34 Patañjali points out that not only do actions performed by the yogi him/herself count, but also those performed by others. In addition, actions that s/he only agrees to perform also count. For this reason, the incitement or consent of a desk perpetrator to commit a crime or the obedience of a bureaucrat would likewise break the vow of non-violence.

Each of these [direct or indirect violent acts] is again of three kinds. Through greed (as killing an animal) for skin and meat; through anger as ‘this man has done me a harm, therefore he can be harmed’, through delusion as in animal sacrifice for acquiring merit. Greed, anger, and delusion can again be of three kinds – mild, moderate, and intense.”3

Indirect violence

However, in expanding to the above-mentioned indirect violence, we should also consider all those acts, which do not preserve others from avoidable exposure to harm. Since violence has many facets and the practice of nonviolence should not mainly be considered from an individualist point of view, but from an institutional or interdividual one:

Even physical violence belongs to broader structures of racial, gender, and sexual violence, and if we focus on the physical blow at the expense of the broader structure, we run the risk of failing to account for those kinds of violence that are linguistic, emotional, institutional, and economic – those that expose life to harm or death, but do not take the literal form of a blow. […] If irrigation systems are destroyed, or if populations are abandoned to disease, [war, and poverty] are these not rightly understood as operations of violence?”4


When we are involved in emotions such as fear, jealousy, envy, or anger, the nonviolent attitude becomes a challenge. Thus, to calm down and let go of feelings and thoughts in such situations without suppressing them is the true art of Ahimsa. It transforms everyone who engages in this process on an existential level and deepens the connection with others.

It is the accumulated pressure of feelings that causes thoughts. One feeling, for instance, can create literally thousands of thoughts over a period of time. Think, for instance, of one painful memory from early life, one terrible regret that has been hidden. Look at all the years and years of thoughts associated with this single event. If we could surrender the underlying painful feeling, all those thoughts would disappear instantly and we would forget the event.5

Ethical guidelines

Therefore, the intention not to hurt should facilitate the yogic path. For this reason, Patañjali introduces these guidelines, by promoting each of the Yama and Niyama. Individually he shows the yogi, what positive effects this attitude will have on his/her life. The Yama and Niyama are ethical guidelines, not moral commands as proclaimed in the scriptures of the monotheistic religions. These ethical guidelines protect our environment from the effects of unrestrained active or passive egoism.

Patañjali was well aware of the difficulty of implementing these ethical principles and the futility of ‘prohibiting’ anything. The Yamas Ahimsa, Satya, Asteya, Brahmacharya, and Aparigraha are counteracting against the strongest human drive: the instinct of self-preservation (Abhinivesha).


However, the Intention not to hurt should not be confused with an exaggerated striving for harmony. The aim of Ahimsa is not to avoid any conflict. Therefore, Satya, the truthfulness, is not by chance occupying the second position among the Yamas.

Sutra 2.36: “When Truthfulness [Satya] is achieved, the words (of the yogin) acquire the power of making them fruitful.”6

The fear of hurting someone often leads one to shy away from exposing him/her to an unpleasant truth. But this can make the other person feel betrayed if s/he is kept in ignorance for a long time.

Clarity of intention

To have the ability, to be honest with other people and at the same time to have the sensitivity not to hurt anyone, requires an inner attitude of extraordinary clarity. A person who has achieved this does not make any mistake when he acts .”7

On the other hand, an accusation disguised as ‘truth’ is often made with the unacknowledged, concealed intention of subtle revenge. For example when it is no longer in the power of the other to undo an action that has been carried out. Thus, the desire for an ‘apology’ is often a subtle desire to see the other person in a weak position.

The mentality of retribution is often accompanied by a desire to see the other side crawl. What I call ‘transactional forgiveness’ calls for a performance of repentance and humiliation, which itself has an accounting function and can thus be a type of retribution.8

Yama and Niyama

Therefore, a life in accordance with the Yama and Niyama does not only reduce the karmic entanglements. Furthermore, it leads to an emotional balance (Sattva) between Tamas (inertia) and Rajas (being driven by passions). The niyama – those regulations concerning the yogi’s relationship to him/herself – in particular, illustrate this goal of emotional balance. Namely: Shaucha (cleanliness), Santosha (contentment), Tapah (discipline), Svadyaya (the study of the self and of the yoga scriptures), and Isvara Pranidhana (surrender to a higher principle).


Shaucha refers not only to the body and the environment but also to thoughts and intentions. Often certain thought patterns trigger the same negative emotions in us over and over again. Therefore, dissolving these disturbing thought patterns (Samskara) can be a necessary step towards emotional balance (Sattva).

Sutra 2.41: “The yogin, practicing cleanliness gets purification of heart which leads to mental bliss, or spontaneous feeling of joy. From mental bliss develops one-pointedness which leads to the subjugation of the senses. From subjugation of the organs, Buddhi [intelligence] develops the power of realizing the self. All these are attained by the establishment in purification.”9


The reduction of expectations or even the attitude of gratitude works against rajas. It makes us less focussed on the future and thereby less driven and tense. Sutra 2.42: “Deep satisfaction allows us to experience boundless happiness.”10


Tapah (the transformative heat or enthusiasm), counteracts tamas (dullness). Accordingly, in spiritual practice, the following principle applies: only if it is carried out consistently does it have an effect. This principle of regular practice is called ‘Abhyasa‘ in the Yoga Sutra. Indeed, it is the most important principle of spiritual practice (Sadhana), besides ‘Vairagya‘ (the non-attachment to the results of practice).


Svadhyaya lets us realize when something in our yoga practice is going in the wrong direction. Are we too rigorous and reckless against ourselves? Are we too impatient and driven by competition? Do we want to reach our goals too quickly?

Sutra 2.44: “Through intense self-study and search for wisdom a connection to higher forces develops. This leads to a deep understanding of even the most complex things within us. […] If we find the right path for our quest for wisdom, we learn to see our weaknesses and strengths clearly and to reduce, respectively increase them accordingly. As a result, there are no more limits to our understanding.”11

Knowing one’s limits

Certain highly effective techniques can trigger strong emotions if we are not enough prepared. For this reason, it is crucial to know our own limits and to be able to assess where we are at the moment. Do we need the guidance of an experienced yogi, a spiritual master, who can guide us through his experiences and warn us of dangers? Furthermore, the study of the yoga scriptures can also act as a corrective to our attitude towards ourselves and others.

Surrender to a higher principle

Finally, Ishvara Pranidhana leads directly to Samadhi. “Other Yama and Niyama conduce the attainment of Samadhi by other means, but devotion to God directly leads to Samadhi, because it is a form of contemplation favorable to Samadhi. […] Surrendering of all thoughts to God means mentally merging oneself into God.”12

Sattva, the emotional equilibrium produced by the Niyama, is the prerequisite for mental readiness to practice the higher limbs of yoga: Dharana (concentration), Dhyana (meditation), and Samadhi (deep immersion in the object of knowledge), in order to finally bring every mental movement to a voluntary halt.

Conflict of the Yamas

However, in certain situations, it must be decided individually which yama should be given the priority: Ahimsa, Satya (the truthfulness), Asteya (non-stealing or the absence of envy), Brahmacharya (the responsible handling of sexual energy), Aparigraha (the incorruptibility or absence of greed and possessiveness).

Again Patañjali introduces each yama by demonstrating its positive effects:

Aparigraha (Sutra 2.37): “Someone who can confine himself to what he needs and what he is entitled to feel safe. Such a person will find time for reflection, and he will gain a complete understanding of himself.”13

Asteya (Sutra 2.37): “If a person desires nothing that belongs to others, other people will want to share everything with him however precious it may be.”14

How to decide

Therefore, Sutra 2.33 gives an indication of how yogis can deal with obstacles on their path to the realization of the Yama: “When we get into a conflict about how we should behave [in a particular situation], it can be helpful to imagine various other possible solutions and to think about the expected effects of each of these solutions.”15

Therefore, the Ahimsa attitude not only requires the development of a sensitivity to the vulnerability of other living beings. Above all, it involves imaginativeness or the ‘sense of possibility16. However, since we can never know exactly what makes others feel hurt, the intention not to hurt always counts in the end. As a result, intuition and sensitivity to the needs of others come naturally with this benevolent and emphatic intention.

Dynamic compassion

The author Nathaniel Altman points out that Ahimsa is not just a passive attitude. Rather, it requires a sensitivity to the vulnerability of others, which arises from the feeling of connectedness in being alive‘. Hence, Altmann calls this attitude in his book about Ahimsadynamic compassion‘.

Since the true impact of compassion is directly in proportion to our underlying intent for practicing it, we must be very honest with ourselves about our motivations […]. Dynamic compassion is by far the most applicable in our daily lives, and thus offers the widest range of creative expression. Dynamic compassion does not only call for renouncing himsa […] but calls upon us to utilize loving, healing, and unifying action in all circumstances.”17


Ahimsa is more than the omission of hurtful intentions. Marshall B. Rosenberg also speaks of the fact that it requires empathy in order to even be able to feel what the other needs ‘in his/her liveliness’. Empathy, in turn, requires being able to be present with the other person – face to face. It presupposes exactly that mental state that we strive for in the eight-part yoga path: bringing the mental movements and thoughts to rest.

When we empathize, it’s about just being fully present, being in the moment. That also means bringing the thoughts to a standstill, because when we are fully present, we do not bring anything from the past with us into this moment. […] Everything that is brought into the moment from the past blocks empathy. […] If I am not sure whether I am still connected to the energy flowing through the other person, I tell them what feelings and needs I am hearing. And the other person then has the opportunity to correct me if something else is going on, and that’s how we re-establish the connection.18

Author: Eva Pudill


Estimated reading time: 11 minutes

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