Very often yoga consists of cute clothes, a fun colored manduka mat, a hip playlist, and a power class where arm balances are the party trick entrance to an advanced practice.
But the asana practice, the physical poses of yoga, are the third of the eight limbs of yoga as put forth in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, the foundational text of yoga. Traditionally, before you even practiced, you were expected to master the first two limbs of yoga, the Yamas and Niyamas. They are sort of the ten commandments of Yoga. The Yamas represent the moral restraints and the Niyamas are our self restraints.
The first Yama is Ahimsa and it means non-harm. I believe Ahimsa is the umbrella onto which all the other “commandments” find shelter. What is the concept of Ahimsa, non-harm? The obvious answer is “thou shalt not kill” and thus many of us yogis have flirted and/or embraced vegetarianism.
When we embrace this concept of Ahimsa in all aspects of our lives, we transcend our separateness, our ego — we get to see ourselves in others. In every situation we adopt a sense of compassion and consideration for others AND ourselves. Negative thoughts about others and ourselves are harming. On the yoga mat, pushing ourselves past our edge because we were able to do hanumanasana (a full split) twenty years ago is harming. A kind person who generously gives to others at the expense of herself is not practicing ahimsa.
Ahimsa has boundaries and a voice. It is pure love, universal love. Ahimsa is forgiveness. Ahimsa is strength. It is beyond intellectual power, it is the cultivation of the heart. Tests to Ahimsa occur every moment of every day, especially when caught in the current of anger, revenge, greed, disloyalty, addiction, sadness, and shame.
There is a vigilance to Ahimsa, a devotion to our intentions that demands truthfulness at the deepest level of ourselves, our spirit, our mind, the energy inside which animates us, the care of our physical self.
Ana and Emma, the two main characters of my book, “Inside the River,” interact, butt up against, fight, and surrender to this concept as their lives move forward. I don’t believe you can hook into the authentic flow of your life if you are not consciously choosing non-harm. Ana and Emma are faced with a suffering beyond their control. The story does not center on their pain, but rather the choices they make (we all make) afterwards. Choosing Ahimsa is hard…it sucks sometimes, but it is the only path to freedom. And as one of my yoga teachers once said (the origin I don’t know) “Paradise is a walled in garden,” thus the Yamas and Niyamas are restraints.
I would love to hear your thoughts about Ahimsa…