Think of the word “yoga” and what do you see? Do you see people sweating through bending, twisting postures on a yoga mat? Do you see people meditating in a garden, among flowers and other wildlife? Do you see free-living hippies wandering around with oversized smocks and mala bead bracelets? If these are the images you conjure, you are not abnormal. This is the modern picture of a yogi.
Many yogis and their peers forget that yoga classes and meditation are simply one part of the yoga tradition. The Yoga Sutras of Pantanjali, a core text to Indian philosophy and yogic tradition, define 8 limbs of yoga:
- Yama (abstinence)
- Niyama (observance)
- Asana (posture)
- Pranayama (breath control)
- Pratyahara (sense withdrawal)
- Dharana (concentration)
- Dyhana (meditation)
- Samadhi (contemplation, absorption, or super-conscious state)
The first limb of yoga is thus presented as Yama, or abstinence. There are various forms of abstinence in yoga tradition, be it abstaining from attachments, wordly goods, rich foods, etc. The Yamas break down into six categories: Non-Violence, Truthfulness, Non-Stealing, Continence, and Non-Greed. Lately, I have been especially focused on this concept of Non-Violence, or Ahimsa. We live in a world focused on internal drive to achieve more. We strive to run faster, work harder, make more, and play freer. Each of those goals encourages us to be a better person each day, as long as we reach for our goal in a healthy way. The danger to these goals is that we so often push ourselves beyond the point of “positive forward movement”. Take a fierce businessman for example. If the man works each day with the goal of achieving a promotion, he is more likely to perform better and be compensated in like kind. However, if that man works 18 hour days without time for rest or attention to loved ones, he may instead feel the negative effects of attachment to professional power: fatigue, stress, poor nutrition, and harmed familial relationships or friendships. In the businessman’s desire for success, he has instead harmed himself in body and mind. He has exerted violence on himself without intention.
The same story can be translated to one’s yoga practice. Though the asana (posture) practice is meant to relax and soothe, we tend to bring our fierce competition and goal-oriented mindset to the mat. We thus invite stress and violence to our safe place – the mat. Instead of accepting our practice for where we are today, we (myself included) are constantly afraid of performing worse or the same as yesterday. If we do not see tremendous improvement in our postures day to day, we assume we have failed in our exercise. The result of this mental violence toward ourselves is again harm of body and mind.
Results of Self-Violence on the Asana Practice:
Mind – Stress, anxiety, chittum (modifications of the mindstuff, or “chatter”), judgement, lessened self-esteem, frustration, sleeplessness, irritability, etc.
Body – Overuse injuries, tiredness, muscular strains or pulls, dehydration, lower back aches, tight shoulders, headaches, etc.
I encourage us all to consciously practice Ahimsa on a daily basis. Invite a sense of non-violence into your yoga practice, knowing both when to push yourself for a workout and then when to back off and relax into a pose. The next time you enter a forward fold think to yourself, “will bending deeper allow me to relax my mind, or am I just going deeper because the girl next to me is?”. When struggle to keep balance during Tree Pose ask yourself, “am I unbalanced because I am fatigued, or am I actually looking around the room at the other yogis?”. Only you can answer those questions. Be kind to yourself, be non-violent towards your practice. When you begin to accept yourself for where you are today, you begin to free the mind and body from self-harm. You open yourself to a higher state of being.
Recipe: Lemon Verbena Tea