Ahimsa: Yoga, Applied to Real Life
The First Yama…
Yoga is so much more than breath and movement. Yoga, with all its tools and wisdom, can help you to squeeze the juice out of life! It can make your life easier – and who doesn’t need some of that?
I like to imagine the whole of yoga as a great, tall tree, with a thick, round trunk. At the base of this trunk lie eight thick roots, often called the ‘eight limbs’ of yoga, and they merge together to help us grow, like the tree, into our fullest potential. These roots are:
– The 5 Yamas – universal observances.
– The 5 Niyamas – personal observances.
– Asana – physical postures.
– Pranayama – breathwork.
– Pratyahara – withdrawal from the outer senses.
– Dharana – concentration.
– Dhyana – meditation.
– Samadhi – merging into bliss.
Together, they form the framework for a happy and healthy inner and outer life, and they are at the heart of yoga philosophy. In this monthly blog series, we’ll look at each of the Yamas and Niyamas in turn, and explore practical ways to bring them into everyday life.
First, Do No Harm
First up is the Yama called Ahimsa, meaning non-violence, or a peaceful attitude towards all beings and to our planet. Whilst it’s pretty obvious that killing or being physically violent is a bad thing, there are far subtler ways in which we inflict violence.
Ahimsa begins with our attitude towards ourselves. When we offer compassion to ourselves, as we would to a friend or loved one, rather than beating ourselves up for some perceived shortcoming, we are practising ahimsa. In times when we take care of our bodies by nourishing them with fresh, healthy food and exercise, rather than filling them with junk and not moving enough, we are practising ahimsa. When we make sure that we get adequate sleep and downtime, rather than staying up too late and pushing ourselves into burnout, we are practising ahimsa. It’s all about non-harming; offering compassion to ourselves and all things; not making things worse and perhaps making them a tiny bit better.
Implementing Ahimsa to your Daily Life
The renowned Astanga teacher, David Swenson, has a lovely interpretation of what makes a yogi. He says that “a yogi leaves a place a little nicer than they found it”. So how else can we bring this lovely idea into daily life? There are myriad ways, but here are some suggestions to get you started – try them on for size, add your own, and see if you can maintain a background awareness of ahimsa throughout this month.
– In your yoga class, offer your body appreciation for what it CAN do, rather than comparing it with the super-bendy person next to you. So they have very open hips – it doesn’t make them a better person! Don’t push or force your body beyond where it wants to go – sensation is fine, pain never is. Your amazing body carries you around all day and lets you experience life, so give it some love and recognition. After all, where else are you going to live?
– Leave an environment (your bedroom, the office, nature) at least as nice as you found it. Clear up after yourself, and if you can see something else (a coffee cup, a bit of litter) that wasn’t your mess, that you could deal with in seconds, do that too.
– Choose nourishing food that your body (not just your taste-buds or your emotions!) wants. I find that imagining my internal organs makes me think twice when I’m tempted by unhealthy snacks!
– Ahimsa is often interpreted as necessitating a vegetarian diet. That’s a personal choice, but if you choose to eat meat and fish, try buying less and buying better. Organically reared meat and dairy animals have higher standards of care; in buying responsibly sourced fish rather than trawled we help sustain our precious oceans; and replacing some of your animal-based intake with plant-based means a reduced impact on the planet’s resources.
– Words can hurt or heal, so think before you speak. Ask yourself: ‘Is it true? Is it kind? Is it necessary?’
– Be kind, even when someone is being unkind. Especially when someone is being unkind. We don’t know what goes on in other people’s lives, so try to reserve judgment – they might be having an awful time in their personal lives and you just happened to be in the line of fire. That doesn’t mean being a doormat – if you’re being treated unfairly, of course you should stand up for yourself – that’s ahimsa too. But there’s always a way to do that without attacking the other person – it can be as simple as saying, ‘this is not ok’ or ‘I’m not prepared to be spoken to in that way’, or ‘when you do x, I feel as though y – could we find a time to talk about this please?’
Those are just a few ideas – what else can you think of? We can all make our shared world a better place to be by practising ahimsa. It’s a fantastic way to start bringing the deeper aspects of yoga into your everyday life – just imagine a world in which everyone practised ahimsa! It starts with each and every one of us, in each and every moment.
And as the Dalai Lama says: ‘Be kind whenever possible. It’s always possible.’
Written by Becky Pell.