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Below is an excerpt from Foundations of Yoga, Abbot George’s important work on Yama and Niyama of Patanjali’s Ashtanga (eight limbed) Yoga from the Yoga Sutras.
Ahimsa: non-violence, non-injury, harmlessness
In his commentary on the Yoga Sutras, Vyasa begins his exposition of ahimsa: “Ahimsa means in no way and at no time to do injury to any living being.” “In no capacity and in no fashion to give injury to any being,” says Shankara. This would include injury by word or thought as well as the obvious injury perpetrated by deed, for Shankara comments: “Ahimsa is to be practiced in every capacity–body, speech, and mind.”
Even a simple understanding of the law of karma enables us to realize the terrible consequences of murder for the murderer. As Vyasa explains:
“The killer deprives the victim of spirit, hurts him with a blow of a weapon, and then tears him away from life. Because he has deprived another of spirit, the supports of his own life, animate or inanimate, become weakened. Because he has caused pain, he experiences pain himself…. Because he has torn another from life, he goes to live in a life in which every moment he wishes to die, because the retribution as pain has to work itself right out, while he is panting for death.”
Ahimsa is not willfully causing any harm or pain whatsoever to any being whatsoever, in any degree whatsoever. Ahimsa includes strict abstinence from any form of injury in act, speech, or thought. Violence, verbal or physical, causing mental injury or pain, and angry or malicious damage or misuse of physical objects are all violations of ahimsa, unthinkable for the yogi.
Harmlessness—the primal observance
Vyasa immediately points out that all the other abstinences and observances–yama and niyama–are really rooted in ahimsa, for they involve preventing harm to ourselves and to others through negative action or the neglect of positive action:
“The other niyamas and yamas are rooted in this, and they are practiced only to bring this to its culmination, only for perfecting this. They are taught only as means to bring this out in its purity. For so it is said: ‘Whatever many vows the man of Brahman [God] would undertake, only in so far as he thereby refrains from doing harm impelled by delusion, does he bring out ahimsa in its purity.’”
And Shankara explains that Vyasa is referring to delusion that is “rooted in violence and causing violence.”
In his autobiography Paramhansa Yogananda relates that his guru, Swami Yukteswar Giri, said that ahimsa is absence of the desire to injure. In the highest sense ahimsa is a state of mind from which non-injury will naturally proceed.
“Ahimsa really denotes an attitude and mode of behavior towards all living creatures based on the recognition of the underlying unity of life,”
the modern commentator Taimni declares. Shankara remarks that when ahimsa and the others are observed “the cause of one’s doing harm becomes inoperative.” The ego itself becomes “harmless” by being put into a state of non-function. And meditation dissolves it utterly. But until that interior state is established, we must work backwards from outward to inner, and abstain from all forms of injury.
The aspiring yogi must clearly realize that the observance of ahimsa must include strict abstinence from the eating of animal flesh in any form or degree as well as the use of anything obtained by or derived from the slaughter of animals.
He must do nothing in thought, word, or deed that harms his body, mind, or spirit. On the other hand, he must do whatever benefits the body, mind, and spirit, for their omission is also a form of self-injury, as is the non-observance of any of the yama or niyamas.
It is no simple thing to be a yogi.