In his Yoga Sutra, Patanjali imparted with us eight steps as guidelines on how to live a meaningful and purposeful life. These eight steps are collectively referred to as ashtanga (directly translating into ‘eight limbs’) yoga. Together, the eight steps are meant to help improve you as an individual but not set to trap you in a set of rules.
Ahimsa is the first of the five guidelines under Yama. Yama is the first of the eight limbs of Yoga, it deals with how an individual handles themselves internally (emotionally, mentally) due to whatever goes on around them externally. Ahimsa is compassion to yourself and to others. Ahimsa, more directly translated, is ‘non-violence’, where ‘violence’ is forcing yourself to do something when you don’t want to and vice versa.
Ahimsa on the mat
I came to yoga as a way to help myself out of my depression. I knew I needed to be kinder to myself, but I didn’t know how to – my inner voice grew too volatile and violent over the course of architecture school. I came to the mat with no expectations or knowledge of how it could make me better other than the knowledge that it would, eventually. The expectation I set of myself with yoga was to stay consistent in attending classes, twice if not once a week.
One Monday, I had an extremely stressful day at work juggling summer school and work deadlines when my depression got the best of me. It happened to be one of the two evenings that my yoga classes fell on. Had it been Muay Thai, rugby practice, leg day at the gym, sprint intervals or a long distance run, you name it, I would’ve packed my bags and headed home. I would’ve then proceed to give myself a hard time for skipping by mentally reprimanding myself then working out at double the intensity the next day. Clearly, I struggled to find the difference between “being lazy” and “giving myself a break”.
Instead, I stuck to my word and went to class anyway. I didn’t push myself to perfection in this class, I gave what I could after quite the mentally draining day. And, lo and behold, no one judged me and my teacher still encouraged me. In other words, in that class and space, it was okay to ‘listen to my body’. From then on, yoga gave me a place where I was allowed to feel however I felt on that particular day. This was important in helping myself out of depression because, at the time, I was constantly told that showing any negative emotion was a terrible thing to do, especially around people I loved. So I would keep any and all negative emotions pent up, never allowing myself to be, God forbid, a terrible person for being negative.
In essence, yoga helped me figure out when and how to be compassionate to myself (again). I learnt how to be as compassionate to myself as I was to others. It also gave me the time and space to create boundaries for myself as to when I could be compassionate and when I could push myself more.
Ahimsa off the mat
Every week, I would practice ahimsa on the mat with any asana I couldn’t get into and with any emotions I was feeling on the day. It started with ‘trial and error’ of pushing myself too much and pushing myself too little with asanas to figure out my higher and lower limits. Eventually, I felt like I had it figured it out with asanas enough to start practicing it off the mat, too. Slowly and consistently I’ve been working on this habit, making sure to keep it sustainable.
Ahimsa is the one guideline of all eight limbs that I hold quite to my heart because it was the one aspect of yoga that kept me coming back to the mat week after week despite social commitments and working overtime. But it wasn’t until the yoga teacher training course that I could finally put a name to it, so that that feeling finally became tangible to turn to rather than a concept floating up in the air. Before yoga, I was 101% compassionate to others but 10% to myself. Through yoga, the latter percentage goes up slowly but surely.
A habit takes 21 days to form. Ahimsa is one habit worth keeping around living in a world that waits for no one. I say go give it a good shot, it’ll could do you well 👌
Illustration source: http://www.mattengold.de/wp-content/uploads/2016/02/ahimsa.jpg