A couple of weeks back, I went a little deeper into the first of Patanjali’s Eight Limbs of Yoga. The ‘yamas’ are the first of the eight limbs and you can read a short note on each of the five yama’s here.
I do, however, realise I may have left you hanging and wondering what on earth does this have to do with the yoga I practice on the mat?
The first step to understanding the philosophy behind yoga is that yoga is practiced everywhere. On and off the mat. When you are being mindful, when you are being aware of yourself and others, when you are living in the present, you are practicing yoga. So let’s take the first of the yamas, Ahimsa.
Roughly translated into ‘non-harming’ or ‘non-violence’, ahimsa teaches us to cultivate a sense of peacefulness within ourselves and the world in which we are living.
Think of it in terms of reactions. A judgemental reaction to yourself if you say the ‘wrong thing’ or do something ‘silly’. Or a reaction to someone else if they say or do something that ‘offends’ you in some way or provokes the feeling of anger, sadness, disappointment and so on.
Working within the realms of ahimsa, we aim to let go of these ‘knee-jerk’ reactions and cultivate a more peaceful, positive and productive outcome. It is not within your power to change external factors but it is within your power to change how you react to them.
Ahimsa on the Mat
So how do we incorporate ahimsa into our physical practice? What has ahimsa got to do with yoga on the mat? Physically, yoga can be difficult. We may not be as flexible as the dancer or as strong as the gym bunny in our class. We may be the person that always topples over in standing poses (*cough* … me).
Typically Western, our hips may be stiffer than those of our more easterly cousins. We tend to place unrealistic demands on ourselves to look like the picture we saw on Instagram or the person that can effortlessly go into headstand. This is where ahimsa comes into play and this is where change begins.
Forcing and pushing the body into shapes and poses it is not ready for can cause injury. Practicing ahimsa in yoga, we learn to pull back and ease into whatever position works on any given day, allowing the body to release into the pose rather than cranking into it. Without casting judgement on ourselves for being too stiff or too shaky, we allow our bodies room to grow, to get used to the posture and to build on that.
By shifting your focus to where you are in your physical practice now rather than where you strive to be, you may find that all that tension and effort is actually holding you back from an easier way. Cultivating this awareness may be completely new. A key reminder is your breath. If your breathing is restricted in a pose, the flow of energy is restricted and therefore, self-harming. Pull back a little and let the energy flow.
Ahimsa off the Mat
Unfortunately, we live in a society where we are taught to strive. We have been conditioned into believing that we are not ‘enough’ and must strive. Strive for wealth, prestige, physical perfection, the list goes on.
As we begin to place unrealistic demands on ourselves, we start to compare ourselves to others, to believe we need to conform to a certain standard that may be completely unattainable for us as individuals.
How can we ever be happy if we’re so damn hard on ourselves? And we take these beliefs, all too readily, with us into our yoga practice. What if we took what we are beginning to learn in yoga and applied it to our daily lives? To shift our focus from forcing and controlling the situation to letting go and seeing what unfolds.
Rather than giving one hundred and ten percent, dial it back to ninety and see if you get the same, different or better outcome. If you’re forcing something that’s not working for you, change it, release it, let it go.
The Eight Limbs of Yoga are a framework upon which you can build your practice both on and off the mat. Through our relationships with ourselves and others, the choices we make and our reactions, discernment and decisions in our physical practice.
Set aside the need to ‘improve’ in all areas and just…. see what happens. Practice without judgement and live without judgement. You may find things just get a little bit easier…