In the eight-limbed Yoga known as Raja Yoga, the very first limb consists of the yamas (codes of self-regulation). The first of the yamas is ahimsa, non-violence. It is the most important of the yamas.
So, in a way, because ahimsa is the first practice of the first limb of Yoga, it can be thought of as the first practice in Yoga.
Often, Yoga students do not understand ahimsa. Its practice does not require suppressing our anger and violence, but something much more profound. The practice of ahimsa means cultivating such a peacefulness and sweetness in our mind that the inclination to do harm does not even arise – so that even in the presence of stimuli that would normally give rise to violent thoughts in most minds, in our mind it does not do so.
Let me give you an example: One time, while assisting Swami Veda Bharati, I became very angry at him over something he did. So, I went to him and said, “I’m angry at you!”
He lovingly put his arm around my shoulders and said, “Let’s take a walk. It’s okay if you’re angry at me, but I don’t get angry back. Tell me what’s wrong.”
I felt his love flow over me like cooling water, and I couldn’t hold onto my anger. So, it was hard telling him why I was angry because the anger had washed away.
In that moment, through his example, Swami Veda showed me what ahimsa means. In the face of my anger, he emitted love.
In Yoga, there is actually a method for purifying our emotions in this way. This isn’t something accomplished in a day or a year. It’s a life’s work. But every little bit of violence we remove from our minds is a great step. As Swami Veda showed me, it is possible to accomplish this task.
The world is full of violence. Every act of violence, small or large, has its victims, who then, usually, react with more violence. So, every violent tendency we can remove from our own minds, is a great victory. It is only through doing so that the world can come to know true love and peace.
Here is a poem Swami Rama wrote on the subject of violence that shows the importance of ahimsa:
“When for a moment I cast aside rationalism
and transport myself into the clear mountain air
on the solitary rock,
I spontaneously go into silence.
“Solitude keeps me alive in a society
that knows no laws of love and harmony.
“Violence, violence, violence
“I do not understand the law
that prompts mortal beings to injure each other.
How do they forget that all creatures are breathing
one and the same breath?
“Why are they ungrateful and why do they forget
that all breathing beings
are the children of one Father
who is giving the life breath to all equally?
“From where arises this violence?
Which is the power that instigates them
to annihilate each other's existence?
“I return to my silence
without any reply
and with a simple conclusion
that human beings have not yet really found out
the art of living harmoniously.
“The evil that forces one to commit such heinous crimes
is because of himsa, the absence of love,
consideration, kindness, and awareness that we all belong to One.
“By killing others
we are cutting the roots of the same tree
whose limbs we are.”
- Swami Rama, Sadhana, The Essence of Spiritual Life, Pp. 116-117.