Ahimsa and Self-Care

Often brought up in discussions of veganism and vegetarianism ‘ahimsa’ is usually translated as ‘non-harming’ or ‘non-violence.’ It is the first of the yamas and niyamas, the ethical guidelines of yoga. Refrain from harm seems like a solid guiding principle for life, so not much to get wound up about here. Of course adjudicating what constitutes harm or violence might get tricky. A quick trawl through social media feeds in these times of partisan political viewpoints might be fertile ground for discussion. But let’s not go there just now.

The possibilities for violating ahimsa in relationships and interactions are manifold and don’t need to be spelled out here. Suffice to say that in addition to obvious ways there are subtle modes of unconscious communication and habitual tendencies that can be pernicious and corrosive. Subtle violence tends to show up when you’re stressed and out of balance, which brings us to ahimsa in your relationship with yourself. While acknowledging that violence towards oneself can take the form of cutting, burning, eating disorders and other heartbreaking betrayals of self-love, I’m not going to wade into those treacherous waters here. Instead let’s consider less visible types of himsa [harm] like the effect of your inner saboteur, you know the one who tells you that you’re not good/smart/thin/whatever enough. The persistent critic who pretends to be your friend but keeps reminding you that you’re not worthy.

Disempowering this demon is huge. For some of us, it’s the work of our lives, the effort to undo 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 loving and kind to yourself is a prerequisite for being so to others; self-care is essential.

What about your yoga practice as a fertile ground for practicing ahimsa? One of the great things about getting on the yoga mat to do a practice is the time to step away from distractions and connect to yourself more deeply while moving your body. Unfortunately often your inner critic is right there with you on the mat, it’s 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 etc etc. 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 and considerate of other drivers or am I slipping into low grade road rage? I know I’m at my least yogic when I’m driving and I’ve learned that if I start becoming overly impatient and exasperated,  it’s a sign that I’m stressed, depleted, somehow out of my centre. The upset takes me from responsiveness to reactivity and that’s usually not a good thing because I can be nasty.

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 is 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 relationship with yourself and from that wellspring of kindness comes kindness to others. It’s simple but it’s not easy.