June 4, 2013

The Yamas Uncovered: Ahimsa. ~ Katinka Sætersdal Remøe

I have a confession to make.

I am a fake yogini who’s had an embarrassing limited yoga practice.

I tell people I’ve practiced yoga for over 10 years but the truth is that my practice has been a lot more of a try-new-poses-and-sequences kinda practice than a calm-my-monkeymind practice (my monkeymind might have been tranquilized from time to time but not always with me being aware of it..). The Ashtanga Primary Series, the Sivananda series, Vinyasa, Iyengar…you name a style and I’ve most probably sweated my body through its asana sequence.

My practice has focused on the third step (limb) of Patanjali’s eight-fold path for practicing yoga, ignoring the ethical principles that are to be practiced first, the Yamas and Niyamas.

The thing is, I fell in love with yoga because of the beauty of the asanas and my yoga journey has been characterized by an asana mania ever since.

I am quite sure I am not alone with this experience.

For many people (and I dare say most people in the western part of the world) the postures represent the doorway into the yoga world, the first layer of a very, very big yoga cake. But the more you bite into this first layer, the more you realize that it’s indeed just the first layer.That there are so many more, hiding a mountain of deliciousness.

It took me a teacher training, several hundred pages of yogic literature and a whole lot of life experience to realize what yoga really had to offer:

A remedy for a chronic monkeymind.

 A recipe for uncovering the many disillusions about this and that.

 A steady ground to put dreamy feet when they embark on a lift-off.

But, in order for it to be so, a yoga practice has to go beyond that of the asanas. Among other things, it implies studying thousand-year-old texts such as the Yoga Sutras, understanding its complicated yet so simple concepts and integrate them into everyday life.

And that brings me to the point of this article.

For me, studying yoga philosophy is hard. Understanding and practicing it is even harder. And being all by myself with no possibility for a lil’ piece of advice from a more experienced yogi doesn’t make it easier.

So, in order to deal with this challenge I have made a little commitment to myself. I will go in-depth of the the Yamas and Niyamas, (check out this article on basic yoga philosophy by Peg Mulqueen…super!), and write about it here. Wise translations by wise yogis, my not-as-smart-reflections and monkeymind-thoughts taken from my diary, quotes, practices etc.

Feel free to join in with comments, personal experiences and the like, I am more than happy for any input I can get on the subject!


Kicking it off with the first Yama: Ahimsa

As Donna Fahri describes quite nicely in Yoga Mind, Body & Spirit, “the sages recognized that stealing from your neighbor was likely to promote discord, lying to your wife would cause suffering, and violence begets more violence; the results are hardly conducive to living a peaceful life.”

After a whole lot of observation and systematic studies, these very wise guys came up with 5 ethical principles, the Yamas, on how we can best live in harmony with the people around us. The first one is Ahimsa, or “non-violence.”

It goes without saying that being non-violent means not hitting someone in the face in anger, or, taken to the extreme, not to kill. 

But it also implies not thinking violent thoughts, or saying hurtful words. Indeed, the principle of Ahimsa goes beyond that of acting. It is, according to B.K.S. Iyengar, a “state of mind.”

So, when you’re jealous of your friend’s job promotion, congratulating her while secretly hoping she’ll fail and get fired, you’re not being very Ahimsa-like. Nor so if you tell her explicitly that she’s not cut up for the job, knowing your words will hurt.

In fact, being Ahimsa-like is ultimately about having the right intention with what you think, say or do. 

Don’t yell at your mom during a big, family dinner when you know her nerves are fragile.

Don’t let jealousy over a friend’s career darken your thoughts and make them irrational.

Don’t eat that last piece of chocolate when your friend is crying on your shoulder because of a break-up and you know a lil’ cocoa could soothen things up at least for a minute or two…

Yup, Ahimsa is all about compassion. For your friends, family and collegues. For the seller in the newspaperstand on the corner and the lady behind the counter at Walmart. For the taxi driver, the flight attendant and the waitress.

But, it is also about having compassion for yourself.



Let me quote Fahri on this one:

“If we were able to play back the often unkind, unhelpful, and destructive comments and judgments silently made toward our self in any given day, this may give us some idea of the enormity of the challenge of self-acceptance. If we were to speak these thoughts out loud to another person, we would realize how truly devastating violence to the self can be. 

In truth, few of us would dare to be as unkind to others as we are to ourselves.”

So true. And I do not base that opinion on solely theoretical absorptions. My diary notes from the past weeks is a pure reflection of Fahri’s quote, with a surprisingly lot more self-criticism and reflections about my doubts than the wow-I-am-so-proud-of-myself kinda words.

And why am I surprised? Because I didn’t know I was so hard on myself.

Being conscious about our behavior towards others is, in my opinion, easier than being conscious about our behavior towards ourselves. Why? Maybe because our society teaches us that it’s more “acknowledged” , more “right,” to put others first and therefore it does not come as natural to us to focus our own, self-destructive thoughts.



But the thing is that the two go hand in hand.

How can we genuinely have compassion for others if  we don’t treat ourselves the same way? Is it possible to practice being compassionate towards our family, friends or the seller in the newsstand on the corner if we’re unable to put our self through the same practice..?

Maybe practicing the principle of Ahimsa starts by just giving ourselves some slack.



Katinka is an adventure-seeking, wine-loving yogini with a passion for the unknown. Her curiosity has led her into many peculiar situations, from having tea with Sudanese ministers and roadtripping through India’s heartland searching for guerrilla soldiers to crossing the Alps on skis. She loves contrasts, which is why you find a mix of high heels, climbing shoes, cowboy hats and yogamats in her closet, and strongly believes it enriches her life. When she is not in the classroom teaching French, you will find her daydreaming on a mountaintop, working on her handstand or under a blanket reading while sipping a tempered Côte de Rhône. Get in touch with her by e-mail or facebook.


Like elephant yoga on Facebook.

Ed: Kate Bartolotta

Read 2 Comments and Reply

Read 2 comments and reply

Top Contributors Latest

Elephant journal  |  Contribution: 1,375,490