In January I invited you to join me in an exploration of the 8 Limbs of Yoga. This 8-limbed path is found in the Yoga Sūtra written by Patañjali and is considered one of the foundational texts on yoga. Click here if you haven’t read that blog post which also includes a printable outline of the 8 Limbs of Yoga. This post is the 1st of a 5-part series that will cover each of the 5 practices within the yamas, the 1st Limb of Yoga. I will provide a more detailed explanation of each yama and recommend different ways to practice it in your day-to-day lives.
What are the Yamas?
The yamas are a set of ethical principles that serve as a guideline on how we treat others and our planet. They emphasize our connection to other beings as an integral part of yoga because everything is interconnected. Patañjali makes it clear that what we think, feel and do has a direct impact on our world. We are therefore encouraged to be mindful of our actions, because every action we take has an effect.
The yamas breakdown into 5 ethical practices for us to consider:
Ahimsā – non-harming
Satya – honesty
Asteya – not stealing
Bramacharya – the wise use of creative energy
Aparigraphā – non-possessiveness
The 1st Yama – Ahimsā
Ahimsā is Sanskrit for non-harming. Patañjali chose non-harming as the first teaching of this 8-limbed path in order to establish a strong foundation for how we conduct our lives. It is meant to guide all our thoughts and actions. We are encouraged to avoid causing harm to ourselves, others and the planet.
However, there is not an expectation that this is a black and white rule. Patañjali’s teachings acknowledge that life is always changing and evolving and our circumstances affect our actions. In fact, there will be times when kindness may not be the best solution to a certain situation. Our intent is to cause the least amount of harm as possible. But, we are human and, therefore, not perfect. The goal is to not beat ourselves up for our mistakes (that’s a form of violence) but to acknowledge what went wrong and keep striving to improve.
Why Do We Cause Harm?
So, why do we cause harm? Because we are human! We are complicated beings that are filled with our own unique set of circumstances that create how we respond to life. Through many years of counseling, reading texts, studying with yoga teachers, talking with friends, and living in this world, I feel the main contributor to why we cause harm is: fear. When fear is our guide we tend to react less skillfully and more hurtful. To clarify, I’m not taking about the kind of fear that is our protector, like when you see a coyote in the woods you run versus trying to pet it. That fear saves our lives. The challenge is to know the difference between the helpful fear and the destructive fear.
When our thoughts are based in fear and coming from a place of lack (for example: “I’m not good enough”), we tend to speak and act in the same manner. There is a direct correlation in what we think/feel and how we act. It all starts with how we think and feel about ourselves.
I grew up being very critical and judgmental of myself. In turn I treated others that way too. This is an example of how I was being harmful to myself AND to others. I’m better than I used to be---which I attribute to my yoga practice---but those feelings still resurface. Now, at least I recognize that when I have these negative feelings I need to make it a priority to feel better so I don’t take them out on anyone else. Because I can’t give loving-kindness to others when I don’t feel it. Can you recall times in your life where this may have happened to you?
How Can We Be Kinder?
So, how can we be kinder to ourselves, so that we don’t harm others? What is the remedy for fear?
With Love and Compassion
Deborah Adele, author of The Yamas & Niyamas said it beautifully: “Love lies at the core of non-violence and begins with our love of self.” Loving yourself means to respect yourself enough to take care of your body, mind and spirit. Embrace self-care and don’t feel guilty, because when you are healthy and happy, you act with loving-kindness.
Loving yourself also includes being compassionate towards yourself. When you treat yourself with compassion you are able to treat others with compassion too. I have learned that when I’m feeling down about myself, I need to lighten up, give myself a break. I remind myself that these feelings will pass and then I list a few things about my life that I’m grateful for. It really helps me flip my perspective. Some days I have to do this more than once, and that’s okay! It takes practice, practice and more practice. One thing I have learned is that trying to change how I think is a lifelong practice. We don’t learn the lesson once and then are good to go.
By Being Courageous
Sometimes we just have to face our fears! To feel fear and do the thing that scares us in spite of the fear. This takes courage. Having the courage to show vulnerability can be very hard for some people! This is one area I really need to work on---wow, I get nervous even writing about it! I recently discovered Brene Brown who has been studying and writing about courage and vulnerability for years. In her book Daring Greatly she shares that “Our willingness to own and engage with our vulnerability determines the depth of our courage and the clarity of our purpose; the level to which we protect ourselves from being vulnerable is a measure of our fear and disconnection.” To have a fulfilling and meaningful life is to be connected with others, ourselves, and with all of life. That is what yoga is all about.
Ways to Practice Ahimsā
Here are a few ways you can practice ahimsā:
First, take a look at how you cause harm. A few years back I took a course on Embodying Ethics & Vows in Modern Life by Michael Stone. It dove into the yamas in detail and one of the exercises Michael had us do was to list all of the ways we cause harm, from the subtle to the extreme. I recommend you do this exercise too. Carve out about 15 minutes to sit quietly and ask yourself: How do I cause harm? Write down all of the ways you cause harm to yourself, to others, to animals, and to the planet---no matter how big or small.
Second, select 3-5 things from your list and consider how you might be able to practice ahimsā. Is the solution to be more loving and compassionate? Or is courage the antidote? Practice that for the next 30 days.
I’ll go first and share with you one item from my list:
How I Cause Harm:
I tell myself I look bad in a bathing suit.
This thought causes me harm AND it harms others. First, it makes me feel unattractive and unworthy. When a situation arises when I’m expected to wear a bathing suit I get so stressed out that it’s a bit consuming for me. Second, it causes anger or frustration to others. For example, when this happens, I tend to handle it very unskillfully by canceling going to the beach (or whatever event) with my family at the last minute. I miss out on quality time with my family and that hurts them. They don’t understand my insecurities, they just feel that I don’t want to be with them.
How Can I Practice Ahimsā:
I can practice by being compassionate with myself. Tell myself that I look good and, more importantly, my family thinks I’m beautiful and love me the way I am. I can buy a new bathing suit that makes me feel a bit more comfortable. I can also practice by having the courage to go to the beach with my fears in tow! I’m sure once I’m diving under the waves with my husband, I will be focused on the fun I’m experiencing and not on how I look.
I hope you have enjoyed this discussion on ahimsā. It has inspired me to think of new ways to live my life with more love and compassion towards myself and others. I hope it has inspired you as well! Next month we will explore the second yama, satya---honesty.