This is part 1 of a 10 part series that I'll be posting. Each post will be discussing one of the yamas or niyamas, which form the foundation of a yoga practice. To provide a little background: the path of yoga was described about 2000 years ago by Patanjali, in the Yoga Sutras- one of the most important texts on yoga. Here, Patanjali laid out the 8 limbed path of yoga. This means that there are 8 stages of yoga, starting with the simplest and moving to the most advanced. The 8th limb is Samadhi, which is enlightenment, aka when you become One with the universe. We can't just skip to limb number 8, however. We've gotta start with the basics. These days, we tend to jump right in at the third limb of yoga: asana (aka. the physical postures). Maybe we'll also dabble in the 4th limb, pranayama (conscious breathing, and control/ manipulation of breath). Unfortunately, we tend to skip right over the first two limbs: the Yamas, and the Niyamas. The Yamas are the 5 restraints; the things we should avoid, in order to be good yogis, and decent human beings. The Niyamas are the 5 observances; the qualities we should cultivate, in terms of how we treat ourselves. Each of the Yamas and Niyamas has important lessons to teach us, both on and off the mat. Here are my thoughts on each one.
As simple as it sounds, we're not always so good at this. If you think really hard it probably won't take long to remember a time when you put yourself down- criticizing yourself or talking yourself out of going for what you really want in life or allowing yourself to settle for less than you deserve. We've all done this. Probably a lot.
Sometimes we're mean to each other. Sometimes we don't appreciate or sufficiently respect our familes, friends, or loved ones. Sometimes we judge people we don't even know, based on our own fears and uncertainties. Sometimes, we're not very good at ahimsa.
Beautiful Mother Earth has also suffered when we struggle with this most basic bit of yoga. The planet is currently in the midst of it's sixth mass extinction, and the first one due to the actions of humans. We've managed to change the climate of the earth to an extent that may not be reparable. Ever wonder why so many yogis and yoga teachers are vegetarians? It's not just for the health benefits - it's also because it's kind of hard to practice Ahimsa if you're chomping on some of our fellow sentient beings...
Now. I'm not trying to focus on the negative. I'm just giving some examples of the work to be done. We are not bad people, or bad yogis. But we need to acknowledge that you and I and everyone else can do better. In order to begin to heal ourselves, and the planet, and to uphold this basic tenet of yoga, we must first be aware of what we are doing. Then, little by little, we can let go of our habits and start to change things for the better.
For me, the best place to figure things out is on my yoga mat. Since I can only offer what I've experienced, here's my idea. Next time you get on the mat for your practice, notice how you treat yourself. If you fall out of a pose, do you get back up with a smile on your face, or do you put yourself down? Do you criticize yourself, or your abilities, or those of others? If your body says "excuse me, I need a rest! Child's pose please!" do you listen, or do you push it to take more vinyasas and force your body into poses it does not want? Don't force it. Work hard, but be kind. Remember that your practice is your time to be good to yourself and your body, and to cultivate awareness. So if you become aware of a little violation of ahimsa, that's great! Because now that you've noticed it, you can let it go.
We start this practice of awareness on the mat, so we can apply it to our regular lives. This way, when we say harmful words, and think harmful thoughts, we can realize what we're doing, and make it right. We're not going to be perfect 100% of the time. But we can be better. Small changes, baby steps, and individual actions will make a difference little by little. We can work together towards a more compassionate world, for ourselves, each other, and all fellow beings.
Please feel free to share your thoughts, and stay tuned for the rest of the series!