In the Yoga Sutras, the sage Patanjali outlines eight limbs of yoga. The first of these limbs he deems the yamas. The five yamas outline five restraints that an individual can practice in order to reach spiritual awakening. The first of these yamas is the practice of ahimsa.
Ahimsa is a Sanskrit term that means nonviolence, both to yourself and the world around you. This refers not only to actions, but also to thoughts, words, and intentions.
The following are three ways to practice ahimsa through being mindful about how much you eat, how you eat, and where your food comes from.
1. Practice Mindful Eating
Today’s culture is hyper-focused on appearance and diet. This can make it difficult to trust or know what your body is saying when it comes to food intake. People often link food deprivation with moral integrity or spiritual strength. However, depriving yourself of food by skipping meals or ignoring hunger is a form of harm to yourself. This violates ahimsa.
Alternately, overeating or regularly indulging in processed and non-nurturing foods is also a violation of ahimsa. In this case, you are inflicting harm on yourself by bombarding your bodily systems with a calorie burden; your body must work overtime to digest the excess food. Overeating can lead to health consequences such as being overweight, heart disease, and diabetes.
Here are some ways to practice ahimsa through mindful eating:
- Honor your body’s own cues for both hunger and satiety; respect these signals.
- Notice cravings without judgment. Maybe you are craving ice cream because your body-mind needs more grounding.
- As you pay attention to your cravings, honor what your body is asking for—either by indulging in a small portion of that which you crave, or by seeking this quality through something else. For instance, if you crave ice cream and notice that your body needs grounding, you may benefit from a warm blanket, hot tea, and quiet meditation. By listening to—rather than ignoring—cravings, you may use your body’s cues as a way to maintain your own balance.
2. Allow Yourself to Receive
You may think that by always giving, you are ensuring non-harm and open generosity to others. Ahimsa, right? Maybe to others, but what about yourself?
Do you ever feel depleted in the role of giving—cooking meals, grocery shopping, and feeding and nurturing others? If your answer to this question is yes, then you are not practicing ahimsa toward yourself. Remember that ahimsa is directed inward as well as outward. By allowing yourself to run dry, you are inflicting harm.
Here are a few ways to let yourself receive when it comes to eating and meal preparation:
- Allow others to care for you in the form of meals. This means sometimes allowing or asking others to do the grocery shopping or meal preparation.
- If you do not have a person to do this for you, you can rely on your greater community. Many large cities have delivery services to bring your groceries to your door. Let yourself enjoy the benefits of these services on occasion.
- Allow yourself to go out to eat for a meal and let the chefs cook for you.
- Host a potluck where everyone brings an item to share.
In these ways, you can practice ahimsa by letting yourself receive nurturing food.
3. Choose a Plant-Based Diet
A plant-based diet is defined as a diet that focuses on whole-food nutrition that discourages meat and dairy, eggs, and processed or refined foods. That is not to say, though, that an individual must choose vegetarianism (though that option is in line with the practice of ahimsa).
The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) recommends that half of each meal plate contain fruits and vegetables, with an additional fourth coming from whole grains, and the remaining fourth protein. Most Americans consume far more protein than this. The National Center for Health Statistics found that American adults consume, on average, almost twice the amount of daily protein recommended in the recommended daily allowances (RDAs).
How Does This Imbalance Violate Ahimsa?
For one, it is not healthy for the individual. A diet rich in fruits and vegetables helps to prevent chronic diseases. When you consume a diet heavy in animal proteins, you may be displacing space on your plate that plant foods—fruits, vegetables, and whole grains—would otherwise occupy. By over-indulging in animal protein, you risk missing out on the antioxidants, vitamins, minerals, and fiber that plants have to offer.
A diet with an unbalanced amount of animal protein also violates ahimsa for the environment as well as for the animals you eat. In a simple way, consuming more food from animals than is necessary is in itself disrespectful of other living beings.
Aside from this, the impact to the environment is real. If you eat a plant, you are consuming the energy that plant obtained from the sun. However, when you eat the animals that eat the plants, you consume more resources, which results in a higher toll to the environment.
If you do choose to eat meat, practice mindfulness in your consumption. Here are a few ways to do so:
- Evaluate your meat intake. See if you can decrease (or further decrease) animal protein. You could try having a Meatless Monday every week or going vegetarian most days of the week.
- Make an effort to use as much of the animal as possible. Food waste is generated when only desired cuts of the animal are eaten. You may consider buying whole animals or splitting with a friend, saving the bones to make homemade bone broth, and finding ways to cook less familiar cuts of meat.
- Take a moment following your meal to pause and give gratitude for the animal that was your food, and the life energy that it transferred to you.
Ahimsa Is Hard
When you wash your hands, you kill bacteria. Undeniably, there are times that you may have no option but to do some sort of harm to an organism. The important thing is that your intentions are pure—you make every effort to be mindful of the effects of your actions, and choose the most gentle paths that generate the least harm.
Practice noticing everyday triggers which may provide an opportunity for ahimsa:
- When you feel your body sending you a message of being either hungry or full
- When you feel exhausted
- When you are making your weekly grocery list and choosing the foods you will eat
Noticing is only the first step to mindfulness. Once you begin to notice the times in your life where your decision affects another’s (or your own) well-being, you create space to make intentional decisions.
Mindfulness and intentional decision-making are the two best stepping stones on the path of ahimsa.
*Editor’s Note: The information in this article is intended for your educational use only; does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Chopra Center's Mind-Body Medical Group; and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health providers with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition and before undertaking any diet, supplement, fitness, or other health program.
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