Centuries ago when Patanjali wrote the Yoga Sutras, he gave us an outline of how to develop as human beings. Similar to the Ten Commandments of the Bible, the Sutras map out behavior that teaches us to move less from our Ego Selves and more from a deeper self-awareness. This Self-Awareness is based in compassion and love for ourselves as well as for all other beings outside of ourselves. In Patanjali’s Ashtanga Yoga or Eightfold Path, he gives us a blueprint to help us seek and reveal our inner radiance. The Eightfold Path encompasses or embraces the Yamas, Niyamas, Asana, Pranayama, Pratyahara: the withdrawl of the senses, Dharana: the gathering and focusing of the consciousness within, Dhyana: the ability of the consciousness to enjoy and stay in the within, and Samadhi: union with the Divine.
For Patanjali, the two main avenues for growth in the human body are: 1. Yamas or lovingly restraining from certain behaviors which prevent us from seeing the reflection of our true nature and, 2. Niyamas or Observances which, if compromised greatly restrict or limit the quality of a joyful, expansive life. Coupled with Asana practice and Pranayama, these comprise the first 4 Limbs of Patanjali’s Eightfold Path to Enlightenment and the beginning stages of our journey into Yoga. Nischala Joy Devi, in her book The Secret Poser of Yoga, says that ”It is up to each of us in our hearts to decide which level of consciousness we want to abide in, in our spiritual life as well as in the world. As you read and practice the Yamas and Niyamas, feel that they are sparking your Golden Age (Sat Yuga) consciousness where virtue is supreme. These two giant pyramids of virtue are given to us so that we may remember to live our lives in a noble and sacred way.”
The term “Yama”, originally meant to “Bridle” or “Rein”. Patanjali used it to describe a restraint that we willingly and joyfully place on ourselves to focus our efforts. It is similar to how a rider guides his horse in the direction he would like it to go. If the rider is sensitive with soft hands but a firm and steadfast seat, the horse responds in kind with a willingness to comply to the riders wishes. If, on the other hand, the rider tries to overpower the horse with force and violence, the horse will, by his own nature, react in a way that can endanger both the rider and the animal itself. If used in the former sense, self-restraint can be a positive force in our lives – the kind of discipline that leads us toward the fulfillment of our Dharma, or life purpose.
The 1st Yama is Ahimsa. Translated as Non Violence, it traditionally meant “ not kill or hurt anyone or anything.” However, if we broaden this idea, it can also mean non violence in thought, word, or deed. This makes the practice of Ahisma as having reverence, love and compassion for all living beings including our own selves. It is the experience of seeing our own oneness in everyone and everything. The Reverend Jaganath Carrera says of Ahisma, “Nonviolence is supreme among all the yamas, never to be violated. It is to be applied to human beings, animals, and so-called inanimate objects.” And further, “To do what is right and good, to act in a way that fosters well-being and harmony, should be motivation enough. Yogis’ actions should bring no harm to anybody, including themselves, and benefit to somebody.” (Inside The Yoga Sutras, Reverend Jaganath Carrera) In fact, Ahisma really begins with our own self not only in our actions but in the words we use and in the thoughts we think. It asks us to maintain compassion towards ourselves and others; being kind and treating all things with care.
How do we learn to practice Ahisma in our daily lives? A simple way is catching ourselves when we go to squish that spider or ant that crawls across our kitchen counter. Graciously and kindly pick it up and place it outside on a plant where it can live its life and fulfill it own dharma. When you’re sitting in traffic and want to scream at the person ahead of you, take a deep breath with a long exhale. Then see how you feel. Just a split second “time out” can do wonders. Watch your thoughts. At the end of your day, take a mental inventory of what you thought and said. Awareness of our patterns is the first step to changing them.
And, in our yoga classes, whenever we are forcing an asana, we lose the ability to really feel what is going on in our body. At that point, we aren’t practicing Ahisma. Violence and awareness really can’t coexist. We need to pull back at times rather than push and to surrender rather than fight. One of the main purposes of yoga is to cultivate feeling and awareness in the body, and force only achieves the opposite result. Even our thoughts can create fear and anger. How many times have you watched someone pop up easily in a pose that you find difficult if not totally impossible. And instead of thinking what a wonderful experience it must be for that student, your mind instead goes to criticism of your self and all the negative reasons why you aren’t that good. This is the opposite of Ahisma.
There are so many possibilities in our daily lives to practice Ahisma. Once you become even a little aware, you’ll begin to change. Softness will start to permeate your life in so many wonderful ways!
“Service is not possible unless it is rooted in love and compassion. The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.”
To incorporate Ahisma into your yoga practice first sit in Pranayama. Place your thumbs below the occipital ridge at the back of your skull. That is called a Marma point and is a place of energy. Give that area a gentle massage with your thumbs. Breathe all the way up your spine. As you exhale, let your head come forward as your chin moves toward your sternum. Feel the stretch and release of tension. Lovingly breathe into the sensations. After a few breaths, inhale and raise your head and let your thumbs gently massage the base of your skull one more time. Then sit quietly.
For your asana practice, try creating muscular energy in one part of your body while balancing that with a soft and gentle lengthening in another part. For example, come into Vrksasana or Tree Pose. Ground your feet deeply into the earth and let the muscular energy rise up through your legs and into your core. Then as if a warm sun were shining in your heart, lengthen your torso and raise your arms overhead looking up at your fingertips. Feel the balance between the grounding down of your lower body and the rising up and lengthening of your upper body. Breathe into the idea of Ahisma as you experience the pose.
For your Savasana, release fully into the earth. On an inhale, breathe in compassion for yourself and as you exhale breathe out compassion of all other living things. Then let go and release fully into your final pose.