Yoga off the mat: AHIMSA, the practice of nonviolence
Updated: Jul 16, 2019
This is the start of a new 'Yoga off the mat' blog series where I want to explore the first two limbs of yoga - the yamas and niyamas. And this means exploring yoga in it's wholeness, not just the Downward Facing Dogs and Warrior poses.
Yoga isn't just about bringing more awareness to your body by practising the poses but also about encouraging to bring more awareness to your mind and thoughts.
These two limbs can be seen as guidelines and ethical disciplines or restraints and observances.
Yamas are the restraints. They include nonviolence, truthfulness, nonstealing, nonexcess and nonpossessiveness.
Niyamas are the observances and include purity, contentment, self-discipline, self-study and surrender.
We are starting off with the most important and foundational yama, Ahimsa. The word translates to nonviolence and invites us to find ways to do no harm to ourselves and others, which includes actions and thoughts. This sounds easier than it really is.
I'm sure you'd consider yourself a non-violent, loving and kind person, right? After all you do yoga. Duh.
As those 'all-loving' yoga students, we still tend to evaluate the progress of our yoga practice by our ability, or inability to perform a certain pose. However, the real fruits of your practice will show up in the interactions you have with other human beings. As Ram Das, one of my favourite spiritual teachers, says "If you think you are enlightened, go spend a week with your family.”
Ahimsa reminds us to bring more peace within us so that there is more peace in our troubled world. Our capacity to do this depends on our practice of courage, balance, self-love and compassion for others.
Where there is fear, there is violence. If you look closely into the root of violence, whether it's wars in the world or arguments you have with members of your family, it is usually fear. Fear of not having enough and lacking in something, of being rejected or fear of the unfamiliar. The latter creates turmoil in our minds as we let the imagination run through dark tunnels with no way out. Even the thought of doing something new, unknown gives us a funny feeling in the gut. It brings dis-ease, without you even taking part in that 'oh-so-scary' activity!
For me, the idea of public speaking in front of large groups of people is pretty scary. Thinking that as a Maid of Honour at my friend's wedding, which is happening in 3 months time, I should probably make a speech is already giving me a tummy ache!
This is only happening because I'm letting myself be paralysed by the idea of me having to do this. If I can let go, live in the present moment and not in the imagination of that 'scary' event, I can be nonviolent to myself.
Think of the things that scare you in your life and explore how you can find a nonviolent way of being with this.
It is useful to apply this to your yoga practice, too. What are the poses that scare you? Why do they scare you? What are your believes about the difficulty level or your ability to perform them? Can you find the beginners-mind? The child-like, explorative approach next time a headstand practice comes up in the class, and leave all the preconditioned ideas you have about it outside of your head?
Balance creates harmony within which expresses itself outwardly in our relationships with people. We are more likely to snap at someone or be 'short' with them when we are tired or agitated from the constant ups and downs caused by excessive sugar or caffeine intake. Not only what we consume or how well we sleep impacts the internal balance. Look at your calendar or daily activities list? Is there a balance between work and play? Do you have the time to relax? To reflect? To be creative? To connect with other people or nature?
My honest answer is no to almost every single one of those questions. This is where I create most violence for myself and those around me.
These days, we are all busy. Spreading ourselves thin may look impressive, but in the end, we are the first to lose.
Let's remember that we are a human-beings, not a human-doings. So let's allow ourselves to be. Be, in whatever your body requires at the time, letting the guidance come from the body rather than the head.
Can you notice how you create imbalance by observing your yoga practice?
Do you tend to push yourself too much because the person next to you looks like they can do that pose better than you can, or because you measure your self-worth based on your ability to perform those poses?
Or do you come to your class and allow yourself to go through the practice being flimsy with a wondering mind, lost in the train of thoughts, without any attention or awareness of what's going on in your body at the point of practice?
I can recall many moments when contemplations about the state of the nail varnish on my toes and what colour I'm going to apply next was far more interesting than paying attention to my practice. Or when I turned my laziness into a convincing story of how my body needs a gentle form of yoga that day.
Question why does that happen? What story are you telling yourself and believing in?
"We instantly believe in everything we think. Isn't that insane? It's good for us to explore the depravity of our minds so we can know we are just as crazy as everyone else!" Krishna Das
Your love of the self can be easily analysed when you observe how you treat others and how you think about them. If you're judgemental or critical of others, you are offering yourself exactly the same. How can we expect to be loving and compassionate with people around us, if we are harsh and too hard on ourselves?
A while ago, I read an idea that to cultivate self-love you have to fall in love with yourself. When I first started thinking about it, my whole body felt so uncomfortable with the idea, as if it was trying to reject it. This to me was a clear indication of how little self-love I had at the time.
Ponder about this idea and notice what sorts of emotions are coming up? Can you find it in yourself to love, a person like yourself, unconditionally? To love yourself like you'd love a baby when it's born, seeing it as perfect, whole and complete?
To find that pure love we need to forgive ourselves for all the things we still feel guilty about. This, too, isn't easy. Often we'll try to shove that hard work under the carpet and focus on other people. We become the worrier, fixer or supporter. We tell ourselves that worrying about others shows how much we care. But worrying about people and trying to fix things for them shows that we do not trust in this person's ability to do it themselves. We devalue them and deprive them of valuable lessons which means we are in fact being violent to them.
When I give classes I have to be very mindful of how and what I say so that I don't impose my own experience of yoga into my students. Yoga is to be experienced and explored by the individual.
How about you? Is there an area of life you are avoiding by showing too much interest in someone else's life? Are you trying to fix something for a loved one? Or is someone constantly doing that to you? How does that make you feel?
As Sharon Salzberg says, compassion can be learnt. We can develop more compassion as we let the boundaries of our hearts dissolve, as we allow ourselves to feel comfortable with the fact things are not as neat as we imagine them to be.
"Every pair of eyes facing you has probably experienced something you could not endure." Lucille Clifton
If we can keep in mind that people's behaviours are shaped by their experiences and that most people have many painful stories which they are still holding onto, we can begin to soften our attitude towards those around us.
There is a special meditation which can help you to grow this muscle. It's called the Loving Kindness meditation, or Metta practice, and if you're a subscriber you'll be receiving an email with more information and how to practice best :)
All in all, Ahimsa, or nonviolence points us to doing no harm to ourselves, others, the planet and everything else that resides on it. Bringing more awareness into your personal practice of Ahimsa, helps to create a more harmonious world as the way you are will directly or indirectly affect hundreds of people every day, who will then pass it forward. So let's try passing forward peace, kindness, ease, playfulness and love!
Share your thoughts or experiences in the comments below!
Next time I will explore few ways how you can practice Ahimsa in every day life. Until then I think you have enough food for thought :)
May you find the courage, balance, love of self and compassions in all you do. Have a good weekend and week ahead, friends.