Ahimsa: The First Yama
Yoga is considered to be an eight-limbed path to reach pure bliss, Samadhi. On this path, the yoga asanas, the physical practice, is the third limb. Most of us, when we start yoga bypass the first two limbs and jump into the physical practice unaware there is more to yoga than warrior 2, downdog, and savasana. For many of us, when we really begin to get into our practice, we start to notice that what happens on the mat begins to trickle into our everyday life. We start finding more patience or at least become aware of our own impatience. We find ourselves breathing more, or feeling better at work because our back no longer hurts. Then, eventually, we are led to the first two limbs of the yogic path
The first limb is the Yamas – the attitude and actions we take towards others. Throughout the next ten weeks, I will be addressing the yamas and niyamas. The very first yama is Ahimsa, non-harming or non-violence ( “a’ means not and “himsa” means violence). Ahimsa is said to be the most important of all the yamas and niyamas and therefore is the first one we learn. Ahimsa teaches is all beings are equal and no living being should harm another in thought, speech, or action. Now if we were to live in true ahimsa, we would all be dead. When we breathe or drink water we take in germs and bacteria. Even when we walk we may kill ants and small insects. Instead of beating yourself up trying to wrap your mind around the concept of non-violence, observe your intention or motive behind each thought and action. Are you acting in self-defense for survival? Are you reacting from ego or a past experience? For instance, we put down our animals when they are in agony. We think our boss is a moron and wish them ill-feelings because of our ego was bruised. Which, do you believe, is ahmisa and which is himsa?
According to Deborah Adele “Our capacity to be nonviolent depends on our proactive practice of courage, balance, love of self, and compassion for others.”[i] To find courage, to bring balance into our lives and become compassionate towards others, we need to tap into self-love. Each of us needs to become of aware of how we think, how we see the world and ourselves, and work to change our negative, harmful tendencies as they creep in. How we treat ourselves is how we treat others.
Our culture is not a peaceful one. I feel like I hear about a shooting once a week. Watching the Super Bowl commercials I was appalled at the violence I saw – people hitting each other, a guy hitting a shark, a man tying-up a cheetah. There are magazines, television and internet shows, dedicated to insulting what celebrities wear and how they look. Our culture thrives on himsa and sadly, we are part of our culture. Without even knowing it we are constantly making judgments, putting others down, and worse, acting violent to ourselves. We cut our faces and our bodies to look younger and more attractive. We work hard without rest and berate ourselves for resting when we do, we push ourselves to exhaustion, we eat processed foods, we medicate our bodies to stay awake, we medicate our bodies to go to sleep. Many of us have lost the capacity and patience to feel sad, confused, lost, happy, pleased, and content. We look down on the “beginner’s mind” – the modest mind which allows oneself to come from a place of learning, patience, and boundaries knowing that only hard work and humility will lead past the present edges currently being honored.
Today, play with awareness: observe how you react to situations, how you talk to yourself, and how you think about others. As you go through your day notice your thoughts. How do you talk to yourself? Remove the words “should and would” from your vocabulary. These words are violent words that only lead you to feeling guilty (“I should be…”) and minimize your worth (“I would if…”). Begin to keep to a gratitude journal. Each day find time to write down what you are grateful for in your day. What lessons did you learn from the co-worker that you annoyed you? Or the super-slow driver that was in front of you when you were late to work? When you begin to verbalize a negative thought, hold it, and replace it with something positive and nurturing. Start being gentle to You and this compassion will naturally begin to move to those around you.
[i] Adele, Deborah. Yamas and Niyamas: Exploring Yoga’s Ethical Practice. Duluth: On-Word Bound Books, 2009. Web.