What are The Yamas?
The Yamas are the Yogi’s commandments or moral codes for “right living” in the world. These are usually the recommended starting point for anyone who begins to explore yogic philosophy – not only because they are so accessible, but also because they are so applicable to our daily lives.
There are 5 Yamas: Ahimsa; Satya; Asteya; Bramacharya and Aparigraha. Each of these stand alone as good practices to cultivate but also intertwine to support each other and us in living a fully rounded good life.
Starting with Ahimsa
Here we’ll explore the first Yama Ahimsa which translates as non-violence. Now you might be thinking I would never be violent towards someone, so how can this apply to me? I think that the best way to frame in our everyday life is loving-kindness. We practice loving-kindness towards ourselves and everyone we interact with.
How do we do that?
Well first of all it doesn’t mean taking any old crap. I’m laying that misunderstanding down now. Yoga isn’t all ‘Love & Light’. If you allow people to treat you poorly then you wouldn’t be practicing Ahimsa towards yourself or the world because you would enable that person to go on and treat others harmfully. But I would suggest finding a way to remove yourself from those contentious situations that don’t cause more ‘violence’ towards yourself or others. Setting up clear boundaries about what is acceptable to you and what isn’t, is enough. Be firm, but not at the cost of your own peace.
And by the way, that also means not taking any old crap from yourself. That voice in your head that tells you “I’m not good enough”, “thin enough”, “smart enough”, “successful enough” – that voice can do one!
How we talk to ourselves matters!
But seriously, how we talk to ourselves is where it all begins – we can’t be kind to others, truly kind to others, if we can’t be kind to ourselves.
I do understand that this isn’t necessarily an easy undertaking. I struggle with this, as we all do – which is why this is a practice. We don’t say “I am Ahimsa“, “I am loving-kindness“. We say “I am practicing Ahimsa“, “I am practicing loving-kindness“. In the same way we do not say “I am Yoga“, but rather “I am practicing Yoga“. It will always be practice. There is no perfection, no pinnacle to reach, and while in our modern life that can feel frustrating – we’re constantly told there is an achievement to attain – I think if we can reframe it and realise that by it will always be a work in progress, we are never failing and we are already enough. We can acknowledge where we can do better, be kinder, but with the understanding that we get a chance to do this with each new encounter with ourselves and the world.
So, how do we begin practicing Ahmisa?
Well for me, my practice always begins on my mat, in my body. Through your yoga practice you can work on patience, kindness & love and work through your anger, frustration & limitations. By giving yourself space to recognise what is and being fully present in the moment you can come to understand why you react in the ways that you do, what that voice in your head is telling you and how you truly feel about life.
Some days that is a pleasant experience and some days…not so much – but by observing these things within you and then choosing to be kind to yourself anyway, to accept yourself as you are and work with what you are feeling rather than what you think you should be feeling, you are practicing Ahimsa.
The more you can find that space for yourself, you’ll be amazed at how much you are able to give that space to others. To be less reactive, less combative and more secure in your place in the world.
On a practical level there are some things you can focus on:
Ahimsa – Asana Practice
- Give yourself space to feel. We spend so much time moving from one thing to the next that we can harm ourselves without even realising it. Take the time to notice how the posture make you feel.
- Don’t push or force your body to do things. Challenge can be good, but never at the expense of your safety – physically, mentally or emotionally. Respect your boundaries. Never push through into pain or harm
- Rest when you need to. When a yoga teacher says, “child pose is always available when you need it”, we really mean it!!!
Ahimsa – Thoughts
- Give yourself the benefit of the doubt.
- Speak to yourself like you would to someone you love and want to reassure.
- Give space for your thoughts. Observe them without judgement.
- You are not going to have ‘perfect’ thoughts, but you can stop and recognise what you’re thinking, why you’re thinking it, if it’s true and whether it is helping or hindering you to follow that thought. We all have thoughts of unkindness, jealousy, judgement and anger. Accept that they will come but know that you don’t have to live in them.
- Let yourself off the hook. Beating yourself up constantly is no fun, not for you or the people you love.
I truly believe that if we can practice Ahimsa toward ourselves, it will have not only a profound impact on our lives but also on the lives of everyone we meet.
“As one person I cannot change the world, but I can change the world of one person.” – Paul Shane Spear