Yama #1: Ahimsa- non-harming or non-violence
When I first did my yoga teacher training many moons ago it felt a bit like my brain was going to explode. There was so much new knowledge going in, ideas, concepts, philosophy, safety and a new language. Some made sense and really stuck, other bits felt foreign and bounced off my brain never to be seen again.
The anatomy really stuck. If you’ve ever been to a class of mine you will know I love anatomy, specifically alignment for every body type. The philosophy side of it all was a lot less sticky. It felt less concrete and harder to action. Now 4 years later I am going back to some of the philosophy concepts and it’s really clicking into place.
When I got my pre-reading books one of them was the Yoga Sutras by Sri Patanjali. Let me tell you I was lost. The exact creation of the yoga sutras is difficult to pin down exactly. They were put together by Sri Patanjali let’s say around approximately 400CE. The text he created disappeared for a long time but resurfaced in the 19th century becoming the back bone to ashtanga yoga practice as we know it. These sutras are the guidelines of yoga both on and off the mat, a bit like a self help book but maybe the first ever of its kind. The yamas are the don’t’s and the niyamas are to do’s. You probably all know one of the niyamas, asana, the physical postures of yoga and you might even know pranayama, the breathing techniques…but most of the others you might not have heard of unless you’ve studied yoga and philosophy. In the next few blogs I am going to be breaking down the yamas of yoga but in a way that is both accessible and modern. I recently read an incredible book called ‘Greed Sex Intention. Living like a yogi in the 21st Century’ and it completely transfixed me. It was so real, so honest and didn’t tip toe around yogic philosophy the way so many other texts do that make contextualising the readings almost impossible. I read the book, I learned the lessons and I want to share them. They might not be the same lessons as Patanjali once studied back in 400CE but we also aren’t the same people
Yep got it. Don’t punch, kick or bite. We learned these things as toddlers and for most of us, most of the time, we have pretty much stuck to them. But this yama really means so much more and this is what I struggled to grasp when I first studied it. Let’s take our yoga practice to start. Can you remember a time where you pushed too hard, pulled a muscle, winded yourself or hurt yourself? What about other sports? How often does the ego get in the way and we do something we know we really aren’t ready to do? Does this not go against ahimsa? If we were truly listening to our bodies, taking the time to warm up properly, to build strength rather than chucking ourselves into poses to feel accomplished we wouldn’t be harming ourselves. Can we let the ego go and practice for ourselves only, modifying when we need to, taking breaks when we need to and building the proper strength we need before attempting gravity defying practices.
In 2018 I decided I wanted to accomplish Pincha Mayrurasana (a forearm balance with your head off the floor. I have always been strong and able to get myself into balances and inversions BUT this one was HARD! I just kept chucking myself into it. Day after day. Week after week. Yes I was seeing progress and was starting to get the pose but my shoulder was also starting to really hurt at night too. I ignored this and kept pushing. Eventually the pain got so bad that my left arm started going numb and I thought I might have broken my collar bone. I didn’t. I had RSI and an injured rotator cuff. Turns out ignoring your body’s signals that you’re hurting yourself isn’t a good idea. My shoulder is still not healed and by trying to achieve one posture I have lost so many more now that my mobility in my left arm is so limited. I know teach poses with a strict eye watching my students and understanding what may or may not be available to them. I study injuries, rehab, modifications that make people feel like they are still progressing with the class and not being left behind. I have learnt ahimsa the hard way.
What about that little voice in your head? You know the one. Always has an opinion, can make you completely redo your hair or change your entire outfit and SOMETIMES it gets so loud that you cancel plans entirely and just stay home instead. I know that my voice has said some seriously f*%$ed up shit about me and it would make my cheeks red if I admitted some of it out loud. The words my self critic uses definitely don’t follow the yama, ahimsa. That mean comparison at work; ‘you’ll never get that promotion because you’re lazy’, with friends; ‘you know they all talk about how annoying you are when you go to the toilet’ and on the mat at yoga; ‘I don’t know why she even bothers…she can barely move because of the size of her belly,’ isn’t looking out for your best interest. It’s only goal is to aid in self sabotage.
This is all compounded by the pressure of social media. A constant barrage of healthy food pictures, perfect hair pictures, happy family pictures and perfect yoga posture pictures…how can we measure up? In sanskrit this voice or these imprint are called ‘samskaras’ and they can inform the way we think and behave. Part of practicing ahimsa is noting these thoughts, this voice, and taking action to change them and ignore them. Yoga is ‘yoga chitta vrtti niirodha’ the cessation of the modifications of the mind. Or so cleverly put in the book ‘yoga is owning up to your own bullshit!’ We’ve all got it. I’ve got LOADS of my own bullshit.
One of the ways I have started battling the negative voice in my head is a gratitude journal. I am a naturally negative person. I always have been. The glass is ALWAYS half empty. I don’t enjoy this part of my personality and I wanted to change it. My current coach at the time, Pandora Paloma, told me to start a gratitude journal and write 20 things each night I was grateful for. TWENTY THINGS! How can one have that many. At the beginning I could come up with about 5 and then it was ‘I am breathing’, ‘Harriet and I are still married’ ‘Hudson is cute.’ But as time went on it became easier and easier to write more things I was grateful for. It wasn’t that I was all the sudden super lucky and living my best life it was that I was starting to shift my mindset. I was going through my day noticing the good rather than fixating on the bad. When something good would happen I would take note in my head and remind myself of that for my journal. I became more tuned into the positive and I honestly went to bed every night feeling more happy and content. I was living a more ahimsa life.
With everything we do we should start with the intention. If the intention is to help, to heal or to aid than this is ahimsa. If the intention is something else, to make someone jealous, to lie or to belittle, even if it’s not intended than aren’t we causing harm? We can also go as far as to examine our diet, something that is becoming more and more necessary with the change to our environment. Vegetarian, vegan, organic, eating in season and avoiding single use plastics are all ways to practice ahimsa. Food and diet are extremely controversial and you will find it difficult to get a collection of people together who wholeheartedly agree on one way of eating that is best for us nutritionally and environmentally. Perhaps just starting to think about where ahimsa comes into play with our diet is the first step. Perhaps you don’t want to stop eating eggs but you purchase free range only OR get a chicken yourself. Maybe you want to still eat meat but you eat less and purchase only grass fed and free range. Maybe you can’t afford organic all the time but you start a vegetable garden of your own this summer.
We don’t have to be perfect and go in 100% vegan, organic, plastic free and whole foods. This is difficult to do and has a very high failure rate. It all comes back to intention again. Start small. Start making more intentional choices about the foods you eat, about where you get your food and what makes you happy and less guilty eating it. I’ve recently cut out meat from my diet. This was an easy change for me as I have never been that driven by meat. I still eat fish sometimes but plan on reducing or eliminating this in the future. My biggest challenge will be cutting out dairy, more specifically cheese. I love it. I may never stop eating cheese completely and I guess I am okay with that. One day I would love to grow my own vegetables and herbs and maybe even have a chicken too, if Hudson and the chicken can make friends!
Yoga and the yamas are about balance. Taking one small change each day, each week, each year and in turn noticing how this makes you feel, how does it change you on the inside? So simply try to do the best you can. Live each thing that you do with a connection to your intention. Living a more yogic life is one that is more switched on, one that isn’t robotic and one that aims to be the least harmful in every way possible.