In this article I offer practical tools and exercises to practice the first Yama: ahiṃsā, on and off your mat.
What are Yamas?
As we saw in the last article on the eight limbs of Yoga; in the traditional Yoga system the first aspect of practice is called Yama or the practice of relationship, which underscores the importance of connection to others as being integral to all expressions of Yoga. Yamas are ethical practices that guide us towards healthy, fulfilled relationship with others and in turn, ourselves.
The five yamas:
Ahiṃsā - non-violence, respect for life, kindness
Satya - truthfulness
Asteya - honesty, integrity
Brahmacharya - non-excess, moderation
Aparigraha - non-possessiveness
The principle of non-violence, kindness is the very foundation of Yoga practice. You will see that ahiṃsā infuses into all the other principles of Yoga. One cannot call themselves a true yogi if they are unkind, if they hold another being (whether human, animal or any living being) outside of their heart.
There are situations where you might say “but this person deserves unkindness; they killed, they tortured, they hurt”, someone may need to be punished for their deeds but is it your job to punish them? Knowing that holding the anger, the hate inside your heart is, in fact, most harmful to you. Wanting justice is fair, but can we still hold the person who harmed in our heart? It doesn’t mean understanding them, making excuses for them, forgiving them, but can we hold them in our heart. Can we wish them no harm.
Kindness doesn’t mean being naive or blind. It means applying kindness to all situations appropriately, sometimes it may look like taking a day off, offering a present to someone but sometimes it make look like saying “no”, like setting boundaries.
Remember that harm can be caused physically but also verbally and through thought. Ultimately, wishing harm to somebody will cause deep mental unrest because it breeds distortion and results in wrong action.
So how does kindness manifest in our day-to-day lives?
- I see someone struggling to carry their suitcase up the stairs, I decide to offer a hand,
- I see a homeless person on the street, I decide to offer them a meal or money,
- My child hurts themselves, I khold them tight and soothe them,
- I have a very long hard-working week, I decide to take some time out to recharge.
Let me offer other (perhaps not as obvious) ways to practice kindness:
- I choose to bless the food I eat before I dig in, thanking everyone and everything that were involved in the process of being able to eat it,
- If someone crosses a boundary and hurts me, I choose to tell them how I feel to make sure they never do it again,
- If I feel heavy and sluggish after a big meal, I can choose to soothe myself with gentle breathing and kind words instead of punishing myself physically or verbally for it.
As you can see with the examples above, ahiṃsā can be as subtle as observing the thoughts that run through our head. I really believe that most people are extremely unkind with themselves, and we mostly never realise it, which means our thoughts end up becoming beliefs, which end up manifesting negatively in our lives.
Kindness does not mean living in fairy-land and practicing spiritual bypassing, what it means is to find the most kind decision in every situation, even if it feels uncomfortable, it is to always have the intention to lead your life with kindness and love, whether it is with yourself or others.
When we avoid conflict or uncomfortable situations to make peace with other people, we start a war within ourselves. There is nothing more unkind than that.
Therefore ahiṃsā can become a practice of self-love, self-respect and actually teach you to stand in your power. That is what the world needs, people who can lead with ahiṃsā, it is the ground of all authentic connection and thriving becomes easy for all.