For most Americans, when we think of yoga we think of a room full of sticky mats, students, and a teacher guiding the class through a series of poses. Asana is a great way to work on yourself from the outside in. However, there are eight limbs of yoga, and physical practice is third on the list after the Yamas (behavioral restraints) and Niyamas (internal restraints and observations). Even if you're not interested in more spiritual aspects of yoga, the Yamas and Niyamas address essential choices we face every day as we try to live peaceful, happy lives.
The First Yama: Ahimsa
Ahimsa is often translated as non-harming or non-violence. Easy, right? If you're not a violent murderer, this one should be a no-brainer. It isn't. If we really slow down and look, there are lots of little ways we can do harm or hurt. Some yogis do it all the time.
How Are You Treating Yourself?
Do you ever eat junk food, drink too much alcohol, or try to get by on too little sleep? Most of us don't have to look too far to find that we aren't practicing ahimsa. It can even happen in your own asana practice. Imagine you're injured. You reaaallly want to get up and move your body, so you go to yoga class. When the teacher asks about injuries, you keep quiet and dive into to a rigorous asana practice. Or, you speak up and insist that you're fine, then ignore the modifications or gentle poses that your teacher offers. This isn't being tough. It's being a source of harm or further injury to your own body.
How Are You Treating Others?
Do you ever lose your temper, say a harsh word, or neglect someone you love? You're hurting them.
Do You Smash Bugs?
You're harming them.
Do You Drive A Car?
You're contributing to climate change, which harms the whole planet.
Do You Buy Factory Farmed Meat And Dairy Products?
You're complicit in harming animals.
Do You Buy Produce That Is Farmed And Harvested By Underpaid Migrant Workers?
You're contributing to a system that harms some of the most vulnerable human beings.
How Can You Live Without Doing Harm?
Our society is set up to encourage the behaviors listed above. Changing overnight into someone who bikes everywhere, grows their own food, and never speaks a harsh word to anyone is a lot to ask of anyone. It's hard, maybe even impossible, to live without doing harm, and it's discouraging to think about how much more we could do to live less harmful lives.
The good news is this: there is no deadline for completing your ahimsa practice. Just like your asana practice, it is an evolving, never-ending journey. It's not hard to take a look at our daily lives and identify small changes that will move us closer to more compassionate lives. The more little changes you make, the easier they will become. Then you can stop, look again, and do it all over again.