Sunday, 22 December 2019

The first Yama - Ahimsa

Yoga is much more than what it has been reduced to here in the West. Usually when we hear the word 'yoga', most people think of the physical postures or asanas. Yoga is thought of as a form of exercise,
ways to bend the body, and the more bendy the body is, the "better" at yoga one is.  In reality, the asanas are a very small part of yoga as yoga traditionally is a spiritual path of self-transformation, a process to connect to divine Truth.  So, if you've connected with yoga through the asana or pose practice and have found that it's created more changes for you than just physical benefits like feeling more calm, connected and aware...then read on to learn about how to start the lifestyle practice of yoga.  Making it more than just an hour class a few times a week to a way living life.

One way of connecting to the greater benefits of yoga is through the ethical practices of yoga or Yamas and Niyamas.  These practices are listed in Patanjali Yoga Sutras, which is a "how to" guide that was compiled prior to 400 CE and is typically the yogic text that is referred to most often in modern yoga teacher training. These practices are a guide to a way of interacting with the world in a more loving, responsible and compassionate manner.  They guide one to questioning the fear-based mindset that our minds tend to default to and recondition our reactions to be more love-based.

The first Yama, or restraint, is Ahimsa. Himsa, literally means "to kill" and the 'a' makes it opposite,  non-killing.  So, Ahimsa can mean non-killing or less literally, non-violence or non-injure.  Most times when we think if non-violence, we think of the physical world, for example to not hit or strike someone. This is only part of Ahimsa.

Since yoga is a spiritual path, non-violence goes much deeper into the emotional and spiritual realms.  It means "entire abstinence from causing any pain or harm whatsoever to any living creature, either by thought, word, or deed. Non-injury requires a harmless mind, mouth, and hand."  

The practice of Ahimsa is about refraining from not only words and thoughts of harm towards other beings but also ourselves.  Of course, this can be a hard thing to do, which is why it is a practice.  So, how to practice Ahimsa?

I come back to the saying that 'one can only love others as much as one loves themselves.' I believe the heart of this practice begins within, with working on catching the negative thoughts and beliefs that we say to ourselves all throughout each day. We are our own worst enemy.  This is mentioned in the Bhagavad Gita, a yoga scripture and one that is well known in the Hindu tradition.  "A man must elevate himself by his own mind, not degrade himself. The mind is the friend of the conditioned soul, and his enemy as well. (Bhagavad-gita 6.5)"  It is not another person that is our true enemy but the way we think of ourselves and limit ourselves.  "I'm not ___ enough," "I don't deserve___," comparing ourselves to others, thinking we are failures, and lots of self-doubt and self-judgement. 

So how do we change this and lift ourselves out of this falseness and violence that we do to ourselves everyday?  Here are a few practices to start with:

1. Self-compassion.  We are human, we will make mistakes and it is actually a place to learn, not a place to beat ourselves up.  We come from a long line of conditioning to these negative beliefs. Most likely our parents felt they weren't good enough or something was wrong with them, even though they were not conscious of it.  And their parents thought this about themselves, and their parents...on and on.  Again, the Yoga Sutras were written down before 400CE! Our human minds have a long history of this pattern.  So, when you are aware of negative self-talk, celebrate it because you caught it and can now consciously decide what thought you want to go with.  Beating yourself up only perpetuates the negativity.

2. Awareness.  We can't change anything we aren't aware of, so start noticing your thoughts.  When an emotion comes up ask yourself, "what thought is fueling this?"  When you have a reaction to a situation or a person, ask yourself, "why, where is this coming from?"  Own the reaction so you can become aware of the thoughts and beliefs that fuel it. 

Let's take an example of this with driving. We've all experienced someone cutting us off, which is annoying in the least and frightening at worst.  Let's look at our reaction. Most likely there's anger and with that comes cussing, yelling, and maybe the urge to speed up to confront the person who cut us off.  Before we let this take over, let's pause and breathe.  First, have you ever cut someone else off? I know I have. I feel horrible and if I could I'd apologize but in a car you can't.  Second, what does continuing with anger do?  Does it solve anything, change the situation?  No, it may cause us to escalate the situation and it ends up sticking with us for minutes and maybe much longer afterwards. It ends up harming us far more than the event.  Third, what is underneath anger?  Most likely either an expectation that it should never happen, even though it just did. Or with fear, thinking about the worst case scenarios of a crash getting hurt or even killed.  So, we can keep going with these reactions or we can choose something else that helps to start calm the body and mind, and allows us to move from the event rather than getting stuck in it.

Maybe after owning 'I've done this in the past and not on purpose,' we can start to think that most likely that person did not purposely do that to us. They just realized they were in the wrong lane to exit the freeway or there is an emergency they are trying to get to or they were on their cell phone and not fully even aware of driving.  Most likely, the best thing to do is to slow down a bit ourselves, breathe, hope they and everyone else gets to where they are going safely, and it is a reminder to us that driving can be dangerous if we aren't fully present and aware.  For me, these thoughts help me to let go of anger, calm fear and my body reaction, and be present where I'm at and with what I'm doing.

Again, awareness is the first step of creating change, going from Himsa to Ahimsa.

3. Gratitude. Gratitude is one of the easiest ways to connect with a more loving and abundant mind state.  I use this all the time with my reactions to my husband. When he does a behavior that gets under my skin or I'm already creating a story of how he will react or not do something I asked, I now pause and remind myself of all the wonderful things he does, what makes him a loving human being, and why I'm grateful he's in my life.  It has really helped me meet my resentments and enjoy our time together.

Towards myself, when my mind starts to get stuck in worrying...and it loves to do that...reminding myself what I'm grateful for, what is going well, and what the facts of a situation are, my mind expands from the limits that worrying creates, and I feel empowered and okay where I'm at. It also reminds me of what I can and can't control, as worrying, for me, is about trying to control the future, which I can not control.

These are just a few of the many practices out there to be non-violent or non-injurious to ourselves and, in turn, to others.  Can you IMAGINE what our world would be like if all of us practiced this?! So, start with yourself as that's all you can change and have control over.