Yoga is a discipline that currently enjoys renewed awareness and interest, particularly in the US, where it has become rather ubiquitous. Yoga has hit the mainstream, showing up in commercials and numerous television programs, even occasionally as the topic of controversy in the news. Studios have sprung up everywhere, like mushrooms in a damp forest, and one can practice in a group class or with a virtual instructor via various apps, YouTube videos, and online classes.
In the West, most people view Yoga as an alternative to, or a complement for their regular fitness regimen. Although Yoga does offer extraordinary physical benefits, such as increased strength, flexibility, stamina and balance, as well as enhanced cardiovascular and metabolic functioning, to name only a few, there are additional benefits of which many people may not be aware.
Traditionally, Yoga encompasses many disciplines, all of which are seen as paths toward greater awareness. These ultimately lead to liberation through our expanded consciousness. What we know of today as the asana, or physical postures seen in magazines and videos, are only one aspect of the Yoga practice, called Hatha Yoga. These postures were actually introduced as a means for the earliest yogis to sit in meditation for longer periods of time, in their efforts to reach these higher states of consciousness.
Underlying asana and pranayama (breath cultivation) are ten, more fundamental, building blocks upon which our yoga practice is built. The first five are called the yamas, mindfulness principles or spiritual practices at the foundation of the Eight Limbs of Yoga, concerned, primarily, with the right use of our energy in relationship to others and the environment. Though, as will become evident, the yamas easily and assuredly must translate first to our treatment of self. When we consistently put these practices into action, our lives, inevitably, flow more smoothly, because we are in greater alignment with the larger currents, rhythms and cycles of nature and the universe.
Yama originally meant “bridle” or “rein,” which is similar in principle to yug, the root of the word yoga, which means “to yolk”. Each of these tools allows us to steer our lives in productive and creative directions.
We will begin our exploration of the yamas by looking first at ahimsa.
AHIMSA: Compassion for all living things
Himsa means “injustice” or “cruelty” in Sanskrit. Ahimsa is, then, the absence of himsa. (In Sanskrit, the prefix “a” always acts as a negation.) When we consider the practice of ahimsa it is more than just the absence of violence. It also implies practicing compassion, loving-kindness, friendliness, and thoughtful consideration for our self, and others. This includes all beings, animate and seemingly inanimate.
We must also note that violence can take many forms, not only physical or sexual. An ill intentioned thought, word, emotion, or action might be equally destructive. The childhood rhyme expressing that “Sticks and stones may break my bones,” would have us believe that names cannot do us any harm. This could not be farther from the truth. Words have a specific vibration that can impact us deeply. Choosing to think, speak, and behave in ways that are supportive of our highest good and that of others is a potent and beneficial practice of ahimsa.
It is important to recognize just how brutalizing our own thoughts can be to our self, and others. We may find we are being overly judgmental of some aspect of our life, or our yoga practice. We may be in the habit of condemning others for how they choose to live or practice yoga. This, for example, can take the form of inwardly berating ourselves for not being enough, not practicing enough. It can also manifest as comparing ourselves to others we observe in our daily experience, in the studio or online, in videos and photos, which, ultimately, leads to a diminishment of our sense of self worth, or an over-inflation of the ego, neither of which is a productive use of our energy.
In our practice on the mat, we employ ahimsa by being gentle with our body. When we push ourselves beyond the limit of what our body is presently capable of doing, we can do great harm. We must be willing to accept our current state of physical limitation, knowing it is a temporary condition. It took us, in most cases, many years to cultivate our patterns of limitation, we must give ourselves the latitude and grace of time to release the old, unproductive patterns and replace them with new, more supportive and sustaining ones.
We may habitually focus more energy and attention on those aspects of our body or our practice we feel are lacking, rather than honoring the beauty of the design, the strength and suppleness we are cultivating, and the progress we have made so far. This pattern of self-shame only serves as an impediment to our greater growth on and off the mat.
It is not to say that we can easily eliminate every petty thought, judgment or jealousy, or that we all must eat a vegetarian or vegan diet. What it does require is that we adopt a considered attitude, and learn to view the world through compassionate eyes. When we begin to recognize the deeper roots of our feelings, emotions and behavioral patterns, we can begin to see how often we project them onto others. When we acknowledge and accept our own areas of physical, mental, emotional and spiritual imbalance, we may begin to alter our negative perceptions of ourselves, and ultimately others.
We all begin somewhere on our yoga journey, and everyone is taking their own path. The goal is the same: Self Awareness, Self Realization, Self Love. If we are willing to be compassionate with our self, through all of the peaks and valleys of our exploration into the vast expanse that is Yoga, and beyond, we are more likely to have greater patience and empathy for others, who may also be struggling to find their way home, back to center, to a state of balance and union with the highest aspect of their own being.
The next installment will focus on Satya: Right Use of Speech and Action.