Yamas: Ahimsa

I've decided to include you all in my own little self-study of the 8-limbed Raja path of yoga. The idea of the Ashtanga (eight-limbs) method is that through devoted practice to the eight steps, the yogi will progress toward the final limb, samadhi, understood as "self-revelation." But of course, there is much work to be done along the way.

The limbs, in order, are:
1. Yamas: Social Conduct
2. Niyamas: Individual Conduct
3. Asana: Posture
4. Pranayama: Breathing
5. Pratyahara: Withdrawal of the Senses (beginning stages of meditation)
6. Dharana: Concentration (also in relation to meditation)
7. Dhyana: True Meditation
8. Samadhi: Self-Revelation

There are five Yamas which begin the 8-limbs. They are basically five ways to act in the presence of others. To me, they represent a way to sort of set ones' intentions in a clear and pure direction. They are the "if you can accept these, then you can move on to the next stage" step.

The yamas, in order, are:
1. Ahimsa: non-violence/non-harming
2. Satya: truthfulness
3. Asteya: non-stealing
4. Brachmacharya: moderation
5. Aparigraha: non-attachment

Today, I want to do a little exploration around Ahimsa or non-harming. Whenever I think of the first Yama I think of the lesson told to me by my teacher, Theresa Murphy. She is brilliant when it comes to putting knowledge of the 8-limbed path into practice on the mat. Although the Yamas are in reference to social conduct, certainly, you must be able to apply them to yourself first. In Theresa's lesson, one needs to consider acting with non-violence not only toward others, but toward oneself, especially when it comes to yoga asana.  In the class setting, we often try to push ourselves further than our bodies want to go or are prepared to go. Maybe we are trying to impress our teacher or others or maybe we feel a sense of peer-pressure to look as good as our neighbor does in their pose. In practicing ahimsa on the mat, you respect your limits and abilities by avoiding harmful behaviors which could lead to injury.

In the social context of ahimsa how do we act non-violently, or non-harmfully toward others? Seems like a no-brainer, right? Treat others with kindness, compassion, and love.
Easy to say. Not always so easy to fulfill. It is common to become annoyed or angry with others due to the wide-range of personalities out there and the regularity with which we interact with people. Even those who we choose to spend our time with can anger or annoy us, leading us to act in a harmful way.
What steps can we take to prepare ourselves to act regularly in a non-harmful way?

I like Donna Farhi's perspective on the first yama. In Bringing Yoga to Life on page 30, she says,

"When we feel connected to others, we find that we are naturally compassionate, ahimsa, and that the first yama, "not-harming" is not something we strive to be but something that we are. We see the essence of ourselves in the other and realize that the tenderness and forgiveness we so wish to have extended toward us is something that all humans long for."

Okay. So maybe the first step of the first yama is (again) beginning with our own selves, actually recognizing our own humanity. Recognizing our own desire to be treated non-harmfully and without violence. Calls to mind the old adage to treat others the way you'd like to be treated. Understanding that we ourselves should prefer love, compassion, and kindness over hate, misunderstanding and meanness is a great way to prepare ourselves to act accordingly when we go out into the world.

Now the hard part. Acting with ahimsa toward those whom we love. They are (almost) always the recipients of our anger because we spend more time with them and we know that they will love us even when we are cruel to them. How do we avoid funneling our harmful thoughts and actions toward them? I can think of a few ways, but surely they are boundless:

1. Thinking before you speak. My mother used to suggest this to me all the time. And I finally just decided that she's right. Before something unproductive and harmful comes out of your mouth, taking a moment to reflect on its possible damaging effects. And then stopping yourself if it's bound to do more harm than good.
2. Consider how you would feel if the roles were reversed. Putting yourself in the others situation and trying to understand their perspective and reason for action before acting hurtfully yourself.
3. Breathe. Sometimes when we are going to say something negative or hurtful, the best way to avoid it is to breathe deeply and count to ten. Perhaps by the time you get to ten, you will have thought about what you were going to say before you say it and you may also have considered the reversal of roles.

So, maybe as you move through your week, thinking about ahimsa and how to put the philosophy into action. Perhaps each time before you are about to act in a harmful way (be it towards yourself or another) you can stop yourself and consider the possibility of acting more kindly. And with each time you do so, making it more habitual and more likely that you will live with love in your heart.