One of the fun bonuses of class planning is that by theming my classes, I have the opportunity to expand my own knowledge and awareness. I’m really excited about my latest cycle of themes- the Yamas, or “Restraints” of Yoga.
The Yamas, or Moral Restraints, comprise the first of the eight-limbed path of yoga (see more about the path here). This week, we’re starting with ahimsa, the first of the restraints. Ahimsa is “non-violence.”
Of course this is open to interpretation. Ahimsa might mean not murdering people, so most of us are okay on that count. But does it mean non-violence to all sentient beings? In that case, perhaps you’ve decided to avoid meat, or products that cause harm to animals. For you, the non-violence may take the form of avoiding gossip, or purchasing fair-trade coffee. You may let ahimsa decide where you spend your money, cast your vote, or invest your 401k.
How big can your ahimsa be? Where do you draw the line? I think it can almost never be big enough. It’s not just non-violence: it is the opposite of violence. It is kindness, generosity, compassion, open-hearted love. Here, read this definition:
“Ahimsa is a dynamic peacefulness that is prepared to meet all situations with a loving openness. It is the state of living free from fear.” -Alistair Shearer
Yes! Ahimsa goes beyond the neutrality of “non-violence” to suggest that we actively live in a way that embodies peace, love, and kindness. It reaches out and embraces others. It is living love.
Sounds pretty good, right? So why aren’t we doing it?
If you’re like me, maybe that’s a little scary. You’ve cultivated a careful shell to protect yourself from the outside world. You can remember 1,000 times that you were hurt by others, or by extending a kindness, and you may even feel that “no good deed goes unpunished.”
This is where the first limb of yoga (yamas) works so beautifully with the third limb of yoga- the asana practice, or the work that we do on the mat. There is a powerful, invisible connection between your physical body and the soul. Every time you learned a negative lesson, the body stored it away, an emotional pain stored in the physical body.
Through the postures, whether a slow and dreamy yin practice, or a hot and sweaty vinyasa flow, the body begins to open. It unlearns life’s sad lessons. The inner, vulnerable, bright and beautiful self is revealed. Now you can build again- learning a new openness in the shoulders, so your heart can shine brightly. You can lift the corners of your lips, and laugh a little more easily. You can move more lightly and easily in the hips and the back as you lose some of the stored tension there.
And as the body opens, the heart opens too.
You’ll find yourself more willing to talk to and share with others- more understanding of their pains- more tolerant of their needs. You’ll find that ahimsa becomes the way you want to live. The way you have to live.
Am I living love? Do I exhibit a dynamic peacefulness?* Not so much! In fact, I often find myself in the judge’s seat, criticizing my own behavior or a perceived lack of ahimsa. This is where it’s time to turn ahimsa inward and lay off the judgement. Kindness and compassion aren’t just for others, but must be practiced internally as well.
What does ahimsa mean to you? How do you practice ahimsa?
*Typing this thought made me LOL actually 🙂