The subject of today’s talk is Patanjali’s Ashtanga Yoga. “Ashtanga” literally means eight-limbed, but we translate it more accurately as “eight-fold.” The term “eight-limbed” falsely suggests things radiating outward from a trunk or spine, whereas these are stages of growth leading toward spiritual fulfillment. All of these stages are a part of our present reality, but we need to express them more perfectly. As we unfold spiritually, there is a directional development that naturally leads us to more perfected expressions of these stages.
Another thing to understand is that Patanjali isn’t describing stages of practice except incidentally. These are stages of unfoldment, though certainly there are practices that help us to perfect those stages. But the steps are universal, while the practices associated with them are particular, and therefore secondary.
The stages of the eight-fold path are subtle, universal principles that everyone automatically achieves as he begins to refine his nature. That being the case, what we’re trying to do is discover what we can do to hasten a natural process rather than impose something foreign on our nature. That is why we say these stages describe the automatic unfoldment of the consciousness as we grow spiritually.
The first principle on the eight-fold path is called “yama,” which means “control.” These are the “don’ts” on the spiritual path—the things that you begin to withdraw from. And the first of these is “ahimsa,” or non-injury.
The wish to not injure springs up automatically when you realize that you are not separate from the world around you. You see that what goes on in the world is part of your inner essence, so you no longer want to hurt or even control things around you. The thought then naturally arises of what you can do to be of help without any desire to change or dominate.
This attitude of ahimsa reflects spiritual refinement, but then comes the outer practice. How do we practice non-injury, and why is it such an important principle for our spiritual growth? We need to understand that everything in its deepest reality is our own self—that there is only one underlying reality of which we are all expressions.
It isn’t as if you are really me in disguise, but both of us are disguising the essential spirit which is one and everywhere. The wave can’t say it’s the ocean, but we can say that the ocean has become this and all other waves.
Thus we can see that to injure anything is to go against that principle. If we’re trying to develop the realization that our deepest reality is expressed in everything, then we cannot pretend that certain things are less that reality than others. We must wish well toward everything.
That again is what is so interesting about the yamas: all the principles are put in negative terms. Patanjali speaks of non-injury to others rather than of blessing them. The assumption is that you will automatically bless people once you reach that level of realization where you see that all is one.
Thus when you give up that thought of separateness from others, the thought of oneness with them grows effortlessly. You don’t have to emphasize the underlying oneness because you know that’s the reality. What you have to do is get rid of the delusion that prevents you from perceiving that truth. Therefore, when one perfectly practices ahimsa, or any of the yamas or niyamas, one becomes a master.
Non-injury doesn’t just mean non-killing. You can injure others in many ways: by discouraging a person who is full of enthusiasm for a good thing, by putting people down, or even by being cold to them.
It’s very difficult to try to practice ahimsa literally. There are times when you have to defend yourself and not be a doormat for everybody.
Living in this world of relativity forces us, even if inadvertently, to perform some injurious acts. When you drive down the freeway, think of all the bugs that get squashed on your windshield. When you walk on the grass, who knows how many ants you step on?
The Jains in India make a big thing of trying not to kill anything. They carry this to such a degree that they wear masks over their mouths and boil their water so they won’t kill the germs when they drink it. Of course, they’re killing the germs when they boil the water, so what’s the difference? It’s just not possible to live without causing some injury. If you don’t eat meat, then you’re killing vegetables, for they obviously have life, too.
The important thing is the intent. What makes an act wrong is the wish to injure. The American Indians who depended upon hunting for their survival would mentally contact a herd of deer and say, “We need to eat. Would you offer one of your tribe?” Then one deer would separate itself from the herd as the offering, and they would kill that particular animal.
In the fascinating book, The Secret Life of Plants, the authors discuss research that scientists have done to see whether or not plants have emotional responses. They attached polygraphs, lie detectors, to plants and found that they do respond. If a person has a wish to bless them, the plants are very happy. If somebody wishes to harm them, they become trembling or weak.
They experimented by having one person in the laboratory behave as the “heavy.” Every time he came into the room, the graph started showing agitation. When the person who’d been caring for the plants telephoned, even from a great distance, the plants somehow picked up that vibration and started showing very harmonious wave patterns.
But the most interesting thing that they found was that the plants didn’t respond just to pain inflicted on them, but to the intention to inflict pain. If, for example, you burnt a plant with a cigarette without conscious intent to harm, it wasn’t bothered very much. But if you had the intention to cause pain even before you touched the cigarette to the plant, it showed great agitation.
Ahimsa essentially applies to intention because it’s not possible to live without doing some harm in this relativistic world. But if you can overcome the will to injure, if you can recognize that God is in everything, then you are embracing the true principle that Patanjali is speaking about.
Non-injury is necessary as a starting point to achieve deeper states of consciousness. As long as there is any thought of separation between you and the rest of life, there will be tension. That’s why Jesus said that if you have anything against your brother, make peace with him before you go into the temple. He was really talking about the inner temple of communion with God. Meditation itself is a process of progressive relaxation. As long as there’s any kind of tension—physically, mentally, or emotionally—you won’t be able to relax. With deeper levels of relaxation, you are able to release attachment to the body, to the mind, and to the world. Ultimately you relax into Samadhi, or cosmic consciousness, which Patanjali says is the final stage on the journey to God, which we call Ashtanga Yoga.
Excerpted from a talk given by Swami Kriyananda in 1983 entitled “Patanjali’s Ashtanga Yoga.”
by Swami Kriyananda
Ahimsa is a term that was popularized in our times by Mahatma Gandhi. By non-violent resistance he led India to political emancipation from Britain. But alas, he was not able to teach the Indian people the deeper implications of this teaching. It is seen by most people even today as the last hope of the underdog. Yet ahimsa, rightly understood, is the Ultimate Weapon of a strong man; it turns one’s enemy into a friend, thereby banishing the possibility of further conflict.
In the practice of yoga, it is important to understand that the life flowing in our veins is the same life which flows in the veins of all creatures. All of us are expressions of God, in the same way (to use a favorite illustration of my guru’s) that the individual jets on a gas burner, though appearing separate from one another, are only manifestations of the unifying gas underneath. If I hurt you, I am in a real sense hurting myself. The saying of Jesus, “Love thy neighbor as thyself,” means, in a deeper sense, “Love thy neighbor; he is thy Self.”