by Sadie Leigh
Though many of us in the west come to yoga through the physical practice (myself included!), this deep and beautiful tradition goes far beyond the poses. According to the Yoga Sutras, there are eight steps towards attaining bliss, and asana (that’s the Sanskrit word for the poses) is actually the third step! So before you even unroll your mat, you can be practicing yoga through steps one and two, namely the Yamas and Niyamas. The wonderful Juliana will offer a more in depth look at the Yamas and Niyamas in next week’s post, but in brief, these two concepts outline the ethical principles of yoga. And the first of the Yamas is– you guessed it! Ahimsa.
Ahimsa, or nonviolence, being the very first part of the very first step in the practice of yoga is no mistake. My teacher Sri Dharma says that ahimsa is like the umbrella, it covers everything else on the yogic path, so practice compassion and everything else comes automatically. Practicing Ahimsa means practicing nonviolence in your physical actions, your verbal interactions, and even in your internal thoughts. And this approach, this unyielding dedication to compassion, applies to everyone you meet, including yourself.
In a studio, or on your mat, this might look like greeting the folks around you as fellow humans as you enter the space. Not judging or comparing anyone in the room. And being very kind and compassionate with yourself as you move through the poses. Maybe you’re trying a new or challenging pose and can quite get it today. Oh well! Practicing Ahimsa with yourself in that moment takes the pressure off. You tried, and you’ll try again, but where you’re at right now is perfect. The opposite of this might be trying so hard and being so attached to the result that you end up straining and hurting yourself. Or it might be that you’re not trying at all, and that’s not particularly kind to yourself either, you see? You’d be cheating yourself out of the experience. So practicing Ahimsa in this scenario doesn’t translate to “taking it easy,” it means doing the best that you can for yourself in that moment, while maintaining a sense of self-love and acceptance. Sometimes easier said than done, but that’s why it’s called “practice!”
Of course, Ahimsa can and should be practiced outside the studio walls. In any given situation, you might ask yourself, “how can I approach this situation as compassionately as possible?” You can pause to ask yourself this question when interacting with friends, family, your partner, your colleagues. Ahimsa extends to strangers on the bus, the person behind the cash register, the screaming baby on the plane or at the movies, everyone. It applies to your pets, and as Sri Dharma would say, beyond just the pets! That’s why many people who practice yoga keep a vegetarian diet, or even go vegan. I know this might sound kind of out there, but I’ve even stopped swatting mosquitos. Practicing Ahimsa means not removing the comfort of any living being; all beings love life and fear violence, all beings want to be happy and free. Practice Ahimsa by not standing in the way of that happiness and freedom. Imagine if we all lived this way, how different the world would look. How different the news would be. How much cleaner and vibrant the Earth would be.
One beautiful way to practice Ahimsa is to try to see yourself in others. As you read this, I invite you to bring your attention to the center of your chest. You can imagine there a bright point of light, shining deep inside your body. That light is the representation of your true self, and yoga teaches us that this light inside of you is made of the same stuff as the light inside every living being everywhere. So see if you can spend the rest of the day, or even the next hour, or possibly just the next few minutes (gotta start somewhere!), feeling that deep, inextricable link between all living beings. When you see yourself in others, you become incapable of anything but compassion, and then you’re practicing Ahimsa – and truly practicing yoga – all the time!
“You don’t have to be standing on your head or meditating for an hour every day to be practicing yoga. You just have to practice being nice, and it’s called practice, so just try your best.” Brittanie DeChino