Yoga philosophy

Yoga philosophy and altruism

Be the change you want to see in the world – Mahatma Gandhi

Yoga philosophy offers many ideas that may contribute to a better world. It sparks a process of self-inquiry and lifestyle changes, helping you to live in alignment with your intentions. Ultimately, yoga philosophy goes beyond the purposes of your life as an individual. It helps you to be part of the bigger picture. For example, yoga philosophy promotes the practice of altruism. If this surprises you, read on to learn how.

Yoga as a life philosophy

Maybe it’s good to start with the basics: what is yoga about? Many people think of yoga as a physical practice or a way to relax and wind down. Others associate yoga with meditation and spiritual practice. All of these are correct, but yoga is more than that. You could describe yoga as a multi-faceted approach of life, as a life philosophy. Specifically, yoga philosophy has its foundation in life values that may guide you towards a more meaningful life. These values are called the yamas and niyamas. The yamas consist of five main virtues (non-violence, truthfulness, non-stealing, continence, and non-greed), and the niyamas of five observances (purity, contentment, austerity, self-inquiry and devotion). It is beyond the scope of this blog to dive into all of these principles, but I’d like to share some of my thoughts on one of the yamas: ahimsa.

Yoga philosophy and non-violence

Ahimsa is the first principle of the yamas, and it’s often translated as ‘non-violence’ or ‘not harming’. The definition could also be described more positively, describing ahimsa as the willingness to take care of others and the world around you. In his commentary on the Yoga Sutras, Vyasa begins his explanation of ahimsa: “Ahimsa means in no way and at no time to do injury to any living being.” As you can see, it is a principle that can help you to contribute to a compassionate and caring world. So how could you integrate this principle into your life?

How to practice non-violence

There’s a large range of ways to put yoga philosophy into practice. In the end, the Yoga Sutras are pretty concise and do not prescribe any specific method. This means you may benefit from the teachings of others, but you can also learn how to make wise decisions yourself, using yoga philosophy as a compass. One of the other ideas that is often practiced in yoga nowadays is compassion. Compassion is closely connected with non-violence.

Compassion is an unconditional form of love for all beings. It is about acceptance without judgement. This is a principle you can practice both on the mat and off the mat. For example, on the mat you could practice self-compassion, not judging your own body or the way your mind responds. A nice way to express compassion off the mat is through random acts of kindness. Random acts of kindness include anything, big or small, that make other people happier. You may leave a note wishing someone a nice day, give a smile to a stranger, or help an elderly person passing the street. Your practice of compassion can also be more subtle. Think of allowing others to be as they are, listening to their ideas in a conversation or create some space to express their feelings. Can you see how the practice of compassion is intertwined with the principle of non-violence?

Altruism means you are aware of the impact you have on the planet and all living beings you share it with – Mathieu Ricard

Non-violence and altruism

To take it a little bit further, the concept of ahimsa may also be understood through the lens of altruism. As the Buddhist monk Mathieu Ricard describes in his book titled ‘Altruism’, altruism means you are aware of the impact you have on the planet and all living beings you share it with. It’s not only about being compassionate and kind, it’s also about making selfless choices. Choices that do not necessarily benefit yourself, but that are better for other people and our planet. 

There’s elaborate discussions in the field of social science on altruism, often questioning whether humankind is actually capable of altruistic behaviour. Some say that altruism is something we are capable of, but it’s not always our first tendency. Humans often tend to make selfish choices – at least, it seems they do. In his book ‘Humankind’, the Dutch writer and historian Rutger Bregman posits that the innate kindness and cooperation of human beings is the greatest factor of our (evolutionary) success on the planet. Kindness and altruism sometimes appear to be selfless choices, but from an evolutionary perspective, it benefits the survival of a species. It depends on the angle you’re looking from. 

So you could say that altruism is an innate capability, maybe an evolutionary necessity, that is sometimes practiced for the good of humankind. However, human beings have another unique capacity: self-awareness. We can be aware of our own behaviour and change it. We could choose to practice altruism if we believe it will make a positive difference in the world. This would be a choice in line with the principle of non-violence.

Contributing to the bigger picture

Yoga teaches us to observing the way we feel, to notice our automatic responses, to be aware of the way we perceive the world. Yoga also offers a profound philosophy that goes beyond our individual lives, that inspires us to connect with the world around us, and to live according to values contributing to the bigger picture. One of those values is ahimsa, or non-violence. This is a value that promotes altruism and thereby helps us to build a more compassionate and caring world.

What do you think? How does yoga philosophy inspire you to contribute to the bigger picture? And how do you put the principle of ahimsa into practice?

I’d really love it if you’d share your ideas in the comments below, thereby helping each other to learn and grow!


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