If you are new to yoga, you may only know it as a physical practice. One where you step onto your mat, move your body in comfortable clothing, and focus on breathing and de-stressing. That is part of yoga, yes…but the physical practice of yoga (referred to as Asana in sanskrit) is only one small piece of the yogic path.
Yoga adheres to an eight-limbed system as outlined in the Yoga Sutras by Patanjali. Gaining mastery over our minds is done by following the steps mentioned in each of the eight limbs, and Asana is the third limb.
The first limb, the Yamas, teaches us how to control or restrain certain actions, so that we can be good to others and to the environment. And the first ethical principal discussed in the Yamas is ahimsa (non-violence, non-harming).
Ahimsa is derived from the Sanskrit verb root san, which means “to kill”. The form hims means “desirous to kill“; the prefix a- is a negation. So a-himsa literally means “lacking any desire to kill”.
Gandhi taught that the one who possesses nonviolence is blessed. Blessed is the man who can perceive the law of ahimsa (nonviolence) in the midst of the raging fire of himsa all around him.
In May, all my yoga classes focused on some aspect of ahimsa. Each week I wove in an important nugget or two, and I hope that my students walked away from each class with a better understanding of how ahimsa relates to their physical practice (3rd limb).
Kindness to Ourselves
One of the core teachings I’ve discovered is that ahimsa starts with how we treat ourselves. I love this quote by Sadhguru, who is considered to be one of the great teachers:
“If we do not keep our minds peaceful, how can the world be peaceful? The conflicts in the world are a manifestation of the human mind”.Sadhguru
You can work on being kind to yourself in many ways. The Buddhists say that when we suffer misfortune. two arrows fly: the first arrow is the actual event and the second is our reaction to it – our suffering.
We all have sharp arrows that pierce our heart. Things such as injury, loss, betrayal, sickness and misplaced comments can all fly at us unannounced and with fury. These first arrows are unavoidable, and they are called life. But how we choose to react to the first arrow can be the cause of further suffering. Maybe we create a story of how things SHOULD be, perhaps we feel sorry for ourselves, maybe we lash out or ruminate on all the things that aren’t as we think they should be. When we do this, we invite negative self talk in, and it acts like an ally to take us deeper into the darkness.
Ahimsa reminds us, gently, to be gracious towards our day-to-day struggles. When we can bring self-awareness to our second arrow — embracing and acknowledging how we feel with humanity and compassion — that’s when we are caring for ourselves in the kindest way.
When engaging in the physical practice of yoga, you can build your self-awareness by understanding how you’re feeling in that moment. Take some time at the beginning of your practice to note what you have brought with you to your practice (i.e., what emotions you are dealing with) and how your body is feeling. Choose poses (or variations of poses, if you’re in a group class) that feel the kindest to you based on where you are in that moment. Also, choose at least one pose (or variation) that you have a complicated relationship with and practice watching for that second arrow…pain is inevitable but suffering is up to you. (For me, Hero Pose is the one I have the most complicated relationship with, always inviting in the negative self talk about how horrible I am. So when I practice this pose, I work a lot on finding variations that feel good to my body while also making me feel accomplished.)
Kindness to Others
You’ll find that as you become more self-aware and practice kindness towards yourself, it naturally radiates outward and touches the lives of others. With all that is happening in the world today, you might think it’s not worth it, it doesn’t do any good. This poem by Sean Thomas Dougherty, called Why Bother?, talks about this concept:
Why Bother? Because right now, there is someone out there with a wound in the exact shape of your words.
In our last class of the month, I incorporated a Tonglen meditation at the end of class to help in spreading kindness to others. A Tonglen meditation helps you absorb the pain and suffering of the people or situations in your life, and then send them good wishes of healing, health and energy. It moves us away from avoiding difficulties towards absorbing them. It helps us learn compassion and empathy on the inhale as we seek to take on others’ hurts; and generosity of spirit on the exhale as we send positive energy out into the world. Here’s one way to do a Tonglen meditation:
- Bring to mind a person who is not at ease. Maybe you know them, perhaps it’s someone that has been affected by recent events that you don’t know. If you prefer, you could turn your attention to a situation, an animal or the environment.
- As you breathe in, visualize you are drawing negative energy — their pain or hardship — inwards. As you breathe out, imagine you are sending warmth, light and positivity to that person, situation or thing. Do a few rounds of this.
- Take a few moments to feel the after-wave of the meditation.
Today, take a few moments to reflect on ahimsa. What are you doing (or what have you done) to focus on your own individual transformation? How are you expressing kindness towards others?
I’d love to know your thoughts, so please comment on this post to share them with me. You can also email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Namaste and Have a Sparkling Day!
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