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The Practice of Ahimsa

Wood blocks spelling out LOVE

I’ve written a lot about love over the years, and for good reason. Love is the foundation of everything. Without love, we have nothing.

I am fortunate to have experienced love, benefited from a healthy and loving home and enjoyed a 20+ year marriage with my loving partner. From this foundation, I hope to offer the experience of safe, loving attention for those who share space with me at home, in the studio and everywhere in between. Sharing love is my intention <3.

Love is the foundation of all that is good and holy and righteous. I learned about the promise and priority of love from my family and my religious upbringing … and then life taught me a whole lot more, not all of it in agreement with my early teachers. Suffice it to say, I also learned of the darker side of love: withholding, judging and hurting others from a place of power or superiority, rationalized and justified by fear. We learn by doing and NOT doing. We learn by way of our experiences and those of others.

As a Yogi, I understand this practice of being human in a new light. As human beings with body, mind and heart, we have the opportunity (dare I say obligation, that’s the religious training chiming in) to embody our principles and values through our words, thoughts and actions. In other words, loving is more than just holding the intention of love, we are asked to live love in our thoughts, words, and deeds. This is the practice of Yoga Living. Patanjali identified this priority in outlining yoga as the Eight-Limb path, establishing Yama (ethics) as the first limb and Ahimsa (non-harming) as the first practice. Without this foundation the yoga postures are merely calisthenics.

According to Hindu and Buddhist doctrine, Ahimsa is refraining from harming any living being. Mahatma Gandhi specified, “Ahimsa means not to injure any creature by thought, word, or deed.” I’m confident in saying that avoiding harm is not the end of the story, however. Rather, it’s just the beginning.

Ahimsa compels us to love freely and openly. Ahimsa asks us to use our resources to express and share love through kindness, generosity, compassion and justice.

Ahimsa is a Beginning

Just as a wedding is the beginning of a marriage, and protecting Civil Rights is the beginning of racial justice, avoiding harm is not the end of the ahimsa story, rather, it’s just the beginning.

Ahimsa compels us to love freely and openly. Ahimsa asks us to use our resources to express and share love through kindness, generosity, compassion and justice.

Let me give an example. When I chose to change my diet (for ethical, health and other reasons), the first step was the decision (in my mind). That decision based on the evidence (digestive difficulty, ethical teachings, etc.) influenced other choices like what food I bought at the grocery, and which recipes I perused in planning my meals.

For some, the first step of cultivating a new habit or practice is to remove the items that no longer belong (i.e. throw out the ice cream if ice cream is your weakness- blasphemy, I know!). For others, the first step is to bring in the NEW practices (foods) while slowly weeding out the old (i.e. prep, cut up carrots for quick, convenient snaking to eat before/instead of the cookies). Both strategies can work, but only if we do the work of shifting our habits of attention and action. This shifting requires energy and intention. This is the practice of Yoga Living.

Just having the NEW foods in my pantry didn’t make me an expert. I gained confidence and competence by putting my new value in to practice every day. Only when I no longer struggled with the old temptations did I feel my actions aligned with my intention of healthy eating.

Let me break it down. Yoga teaches we have a body, breath and mind. Within the mind we have (1) sensory processing, (2) intellectual faculties, (3) emotional faculties, and (4) intuitive wisdom.

To practice ahimsa in the body requires ACTION: I bought only foods that were on the approved list. I “listened” to how my body felt after eating the new foods (and the old foods).

To practice ahimsa in the mind requires

  • the intellect in WORD & THOUGHT: I explored new recipes to support the integration of new foods into my diet.
  • the heart to express FEELINGS and emotions: When I felt discouraged I returned to my intention and value and connected with others who share this commitment.
  • the intuitive gut to trust the process of learning and re-learning: I mindfully practiced acceptance that new habits can be uncomfortable but that is not the same as harmful.

AND to practice ahimsa in the breath is to apply focus and ENERGY such as speech and effort: It took more effort to plan and make meals while learning my new habits, so I gave myself wiggle room by applying the 80/20 rule to my daily diet.

How do you make room for learning new/healthy habits?

FOUR Levels of Ahimsa:

Have you ever noticed how some tasks require more effort than others? For example, to lift a 20-lb barbell requires more strength than a 2-lb barbell; similarly, repeatedly lifting either barbell 20 times is more challenging than lifting it just once. Here’s another example: Engaging in a familiar hobby is easier than performing a new skill, especially one outside your expertise or wheelhouse? And another: fine tuning an existing skill is easier than earning one from scratch.

Learning requires energy and focus. The extent of integration is directly correlated to the depth of attention and effort as well as the accuracy of the practice. Lucky for us, Yoga does not require perfection, just consistent practice. This practice, however, grows over time in complexity and potency. In fact, practice potency can be measured as four levels of effort and can be applied to ANY intentional practice. Although the levels are ordinal (and not strictly interval), there is an increasing degree of effort and complexity as we develop competence and confidence the intended practice. Furthermore, these levels are not necessarily sequential or linear. Since we’re talking about Ahimsa, let’s apply this structure to our practice of Ahimsa.

  1. Intentional in-action (non-doing): Not eating the things I defined as harmful.
  2. Right action (doing): Purchasing and making healthy ingredients into meals.
  3. Re-doing mistaken action (re-doing): Trying again when mistakes and bad days cause mistakes in executing my plan.
  4. Amending past wrongs (un-doing) even those ACTIONS that were not done by me: Teaching my children how to avoid the mistakes I made.

Consider HOW you are practicing Ahimsa… Are you actively not harming. Are you engaging in active love sharing? Are you fixing and apologizing for past wrong-doings whether intentional or unintentional? Or perhaps you are able to serve justice by righting wrongs of our communal history.

All practice of Ahimsa contribute to the good and increase love. Thank you for doing your part.

FOUR Ways to Practice Ahimsa

Ahimsa is the first ethical precept of yoga, the first of five “Yamas” which comprise the first limb of Patanjali’s eight-fold path of yoga. To simply ponder ahimsa without putting it into practice would be like signing up for yoga class without ever stepping onto the mat to move your body through the sequence of shapes. Intention isn’t enough. By applying energy, or attention, we put intention into action by way of body, mind and spirit.

So how can we practice ahimsa in our daily life? Here are some ideas. I’d love to hear what works for you!

1.       Self-Love: I cannot stress the importance of self-love and self-compassion enough. It is NOT selfish to care for oneself. In fact, it would be the antithesis to ahimsa to deny ourselves loving kindness. Some strategies for putting self-love into tangible actions include

  • Non-Doing: Remove the word “should” from your vocabulary is a great start.
  • Doing: Speak lovingly and kindly to yourself. Ask yourself throughout the day–how may I be more loving to myself right now?
  • Undoing: rewrite negative self-talk into positive, believable mantras of affirmation and encouragement.
  • Re-doing: Begin again when judgment or negative self-talk begin to direct your self-perception.

2.       Extend Compassion: Flex your compassion muscles. If yoga is a practice of union and a strategy out of suffering, then to sit with someone in their suffering, with an open heart and judgment-free mind—is compassion in action. If you cannot be with someone in physical form, consider connecting energetically in meditation or prayer. If you notice judgmental thoughts, let them go with a smile.

  • Non-Doing: Go on a criticism fast… no more judging or belittling yourself (see above) or others.
  • Doing: Give to a stranger.
  • Undoing: When you notice judgmental thoughts, see if you can reframe your understanding of the situation from generosity and love.
  • Re-doing: Call a friend you know needs someone to listen without advising or attempting to fix.

3.       Appreciate Nature: Enhance your experience with nature and the natural world. We can’t do everything, and indeed we don’t have to, but never underestimate the power of a small act of kindness.

  • Non-Doing: Deepen your commitment to ethical practices such as a vegan or vegetarian diet, or only eating meat from cruelty-free companies.
  • Doing: Start recycling, composting or reducing your waste.
  • Undoing: Plant a tree, flowers or a garden to off-set your carbon emissions.
  • Re-doing: Ride a bicycle or ride-share instead of driving to work (or the gym).

4.       On the Mat: Practice on the mat (or on the meditation cushion) is an ideal, safe place to practice ahimsa. Sometimes it’s obvious we’re being cruel when we chastise ourselves (or our teacher or other students) for not being able to balance on one leg. Other times it’s so subtle we don’t even notice. Perhaps we’re sending stink eye at our “love handles” as we twist or side bend. Other times we’re mad ourselves for our chattering mind in savasana. If you want to practice love to all, you can start right here by being kind to yourself. Settle into your seat in this moment and be a warrior of love.

  • Non-Doing: Enjoy an extended savasana or yin yoga practice.
  • Doing: Adapt the practice to your current energy and alignment needs, welcome props and permission to do it your own way?
  • Undoing: Let go of striving, pursuit of perfection of the postures and let prana flow through you without control or direction.
  • Re-doing: Do the same sequence a second time to see what else can be witnessed in the practice. Go deeper without going farther.

 

How you do yoga is an expression of how you do love. So how will you practice today?