8 limbs of yoga for modern life: Ahimsa

If you’ve been practising yoga for a while now, or are a regular student of mine you will know that the practise of yoga is so much more than the physical ‘asana’ or postures which we practice in the studio every week.

You may also know that the practice of yoga is actually made up of 8 ‘limbs’ or ‘ways of living’ which guide us towards yoga as a full holistic practice, rather than just a physical workout.

If you have practised yoga for a while and didn’t know this, then don’t fret. I first learned about these limbs in India on my yoga teacher training. I had been practising yoga for 5 years without a teacher ever talking about these extra limbs (or maybe they did I just wasn’t ready to listen). In today’s modern world we are so focussed on the physical side of yoga, that the rest of it tends to get lost. The thing is, it’s these other less-talked-about limbs which are arguably the most important part of the practice!

In my YTT we learned the 8 limbs from a very traditional yogic perspective, rooted in the history of the practice, which was incredibly important, but in all truth, quite hard for me to wrap my head around in the context of modern living. With that in mind, and true to my mission of bringing the practice of yoga in to every day modern life, accessible for all, not just the true yogi types dedicated to the practice, this is the first in a series of blog posts designed to demystify these 8 limbs so we can perceive and understand them from the perspective of 2019 thinking.

 The Yamas

The first ‘limb’ or code for living is a group of 5 sub-codes known as the ‘yamas’, which are forms of social conduct (think of them like moral codes, or commandments – although yoga is not a religion).

They are as follows:

·        Ahimsa (in my traditional training translated as: non-violence)

·        Satya (in my traditional training translated as: truthfulness)

·        Asteya (in my traditional training translated as: not stealing)

·        Brahmacharya (in my traditional training translated as: celibacy)

·        Aparigraha (in my traditional training translated as: non-possessiveness)

 

I’m going to talk about some of these in future posts, but for the purpose of today’s post my focus will be the first yama: AHIMSA

What does Ahimsa mean?

The most common translation of Ahimsa is ‘non-violence’, which seems like a pretty obvious code for social conduct, however I tend to think of Ahimsa as meaning ‘do no harm’. Going further with the translation, Ahimsa can go as far to mean compassion, empathy & kindness, which in today’s world seems to be harder and harder to achieve. From our action, to our inaction, our words to our silence; harm can be caused not only to other people, but also to the world around us, and to ourselves in a huge variety of ways.

A person may cause evil to others not only by his actions but by his inaction, and in either case he is justly accountable to them for the injury
— John Stuart Mill, On Liberty

How Can We Practice Ahimsa in 2019?

I hope if you’re reading this you’re not waging war, or going around causing bodily harm to those around you. But maybe you might not realise how you could be doing better when it comes to practising Ahimsa? I know I sometimes need a reminder!

 Social media: the question of whether social media has been a blessing or a burden on the world today is well-debated. I personally think it is a powerful tool for inspiration, connection, community & helps those who may not otherwise be able to express themselves to find a voice. Unfortunately, it is also a place for hatred and violence to rear its ugly head, aided by the protection of anonymity, and worsened by the fact that tone cannot be expressed in written form.

I often find myself floored by judgemental, exclusive, racist, sexist and downright offensive comments which fly around the social spaces I frequent. I luckily have never been on the receiving end of anything negative, but I also have never felt brave enough to put myself in a position which might invite such comments.

I am in awe of everyone putting themselves out there, completely & vulnerably & bravely for all to criticise, and equally sad when they get targeted for it. The lack of compassion for others, kindness & general positivity online seems to me to be a huge problem (even amongst the ‘yogi’ communities!) and I personally believe that there is a huge need for Ahimsa to be practised more mindfully in this space. As my mother always told me: if you can’t say anything nice, then don’t say anything at all.

 The environment: in the midst of huge climate-change protests and the clear crisis the world is facing when it comes to the future of our planet we all can practice Ahimsa daily. There is a constant ongoing debate in the yoga world as to whether you can truly be a ‘yogi’ if you are not vegan, because eating animal products is doing harm. I personally am not vegan, but I also am not claiming to be a yogi, or perfect 😉

I do eat a mostly vegetarian diet, however, and try my best to do my bit. From carrying a reusable water bottle, coffee cup & shopping bag, to picking supermarket items without plastic where possible, turning off lights & not running the tap unnecessarily. We use storage boxes rather than cling film to store food in the fridge, recycle old clothes by donating them to charity and I use public transport or walk wherever possible.

When it comes to the environment, inaction is just as harmful as violent action. There are so many ways to actively practice Ahimsa towards the world around us, which is ultimately going to be good for all of us in the long run.

Inside our own heads: when we look deeply at yogic teachings, Ahimsa can even mean practising non-violent thoughts. In today’s modern world of divisive politics and the #metoo movement, ridding our heads of non-violent thoughts is extremely difficult!

The thought manifests as the word; the word manifests as the deed; the deed develops into habit; and habit hardens into character. So watch the thought & its ways with care, and let it spring from love born out of concern for all beings....As the shadow follows the body, as we think, so we become
— Buddha

When was the last time you said something nice to yourself? From a tricky yoga posture which you just can’t quite get, to berating ourselves for saying something stupid at work, our minds can be a pretty negative place to live!

I personally fall foul to this when it comes to work: telling myself I should be doing more, or that I can and should do better. If you find yourself constantly putting yourself down, whether it’s about your looks, your work or even your social skills, then it could be time to think about practising a little more Ahimsa towards yourself.

Even self-deprecation can do more harm to our mental well-being than you might think. The more you think something, the more the brain provides prof to you that the thing is true, and so a cycle of ‘I’m no good – oh look here’s something to prove it’ starts. For more on the science behind this check out this post on positive affirmations.

As the quote from the Buddha above suggests; practising compassion & kindness towards ourselves, and thinking kind thoughts about others, develops our deeds, which become our habits & our character. I believe humans innately want to be kind, and just as a smile can be catching, kind words & thoughts are also easily spread, and that makes me happy just thinking about it.

 How can you add some more Ahimsa into your day today?

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