Ahimsa and Self-Care
Usually translated as ‘restraints’ and ‘observances’ the yamas and niyamas are the ethical guidelines of yoga. Ahimsa, the first yama is often rendered as ‘non-violence’ or ‘non-harming’ and is said to be the foundation for all the other yamas given the fundamental nature of the mandate to refrain from injuring.
It seems self-evident that engaging in harmful and violent acts is something to be avoided and ahimsa is frequently cited as the justification for vegetarianism and veganism. Pacifism and other political stances can also be understood in light of ahimsa as an organizing principle for life. And of course, we ought to strive to minimize harm in our interactions with others and to refrain from violence in all its forms.
This is tricky business; a thoughtless word, a sharp tone, a contemptuous sneer can all be harmful. Not to mention the corrosive effect of violent communication whether it be shouting, criticism, or actual physical violence. And we haven’t even alluded to the subtle ways in which our unconscious communication and habitual tendencies can violate ahimsa in our relationships and interactions. Subtle violence is more likely to show up when you’re feeling stressed and out of balance. More on this shortly.
But what about ahimsa in your relationship with yourself? How do you tame the inner critic, you know the one who tells you you’re not good enough / thin enough / smart enough, you’re not worthy? This is huge. For many of us it’s the work of our lives, undoing decades of negative self-talk and destructive thought patterns.
Because the inner critic is brutal, stealthy and relentless it takes vigilance and determination to stay on top of it. Slip ups are inevitable and compassion essential. Ahimsa is a portal to unconditional self-love and the ability to be consistently kind and loving to yourself is a prerequisite for being so to others. Self-care is an essential pre-condition for non-violence.
So how does ahimsa show up on the yoga mat? The voice in your head that tells you your practice isn’t perfect, your body is flawed, you’ll never be able to master the pose…that’s the inner tyrant and it is an application of ahimsa to ignore that voice. It may never actually go away but it can be transcended. Every time you notice those habitual harsh thoughts, replace them with a thought that is loving and kind. You can even say to the voice: ‘you no longer have power over me’ and repeat and affirmation that feels good.
Replacing thoughts that feel bad with ones that feel good is pratipaksha bhavana, one of the precepts of yoga outlined by Patanjali in his Yoga Sutras [YS II:36] so practicing this form of self-love puts you squarely in the yoga tradition as a practical application of yoga philosophy.
Violating ahimsa can take the form of over-practicing, staying in a pose even when you’re in pain, and pushing beyond your limits. All of your self-esteem issues show up on your yoga mat so if you’re hard on yourself in other areas of your life and tend to be unforgiving of your imperfections, this will happen in your yoga practice too. If you think it doesn’t, then you’re not paying close enough attention. Everything that happens on your mat is happening elsewhere in your life.
Which brings us back to self-care and the art of staying in balance. If you think about the times when you’ve been most reactive and most out of control emotionally, you were probably out of balance energetically, physically, emotionally or perhaps all three. Sometimes it’s hard to even tell you’re out of balance until you lose your cool, or overreact, and then it’s too late.
A big one for me to monitor is how I’m driving: am I being courteous, yielding for other drivers, slipping into low grade road rage? I’ve learned that if I’m being an aggressive behaviours show up it’s a sign that I’m stressed, depleted, somehow out of my centre. And they show up more than I’d like to admit because I’m probably at my least yogic when I’m driving.
It’s much easier to be less yogic than thou when you’re alone in your car, relatively anonymous. Well, it is until the person you were honking at for not making a left turn while the arrow was green turns out to have been a student on the way to your class. Busted! And the truth I always feel shitty after I’ve been an inconsiderate driver and end up castigating myself.
And so we circle back to self-care. How can you manage your energy and your physical and emotional needs in such a way as to avoid meltdowns where you create distress for you or someone else? A fully fleshed response to that question is beyond the scope of this piece but we can at least say that tending to your inner landscape in a mindful and loving way is crucial. It’s important to make sure you’re well rested and nourished as well as engaging whatever daily practices help you stay happy and balanced.
Ahimsa is a practice of tender regard for yourself and staying vigilant about those things that cause you to become volatile and more likely to lash out (at yourself or others). The bottom line is making kindness central to your relationships with yourself and from that wellspring of kindness comes kindness to others. It’s simple but it’s not easy.