Ahimsa – The very heart of the practice

Kindness. The very heart of the practice. Also, the very first branch of the very first limb of yoga – the yamas.

The yamas remind us of our morals and ethics in regard to our relationship with ourselves and the world around us. Yoga invites us to practice the yamas and bring our attention to these observances, not just on the mat but from the moment we open our eyes at the beginning of each day.

With the state of modern day yoga, it’s not uncommon to understand practice as a bunch of postures that help us become physically stronger, fitter and more flexible. It’s also common to not realise that yoga was actually designed to prepare the body to be able to sit in meditation. Therefore, yoga was ultimately designed to deal with the human mind.

Yoga means union. It means connectedness and has the ability, if we take it off the mat and into our day to day lives, to completely shift the entire spectrum of our existence in the most healing and beneficial way.

When we commit to a more regular practice, yoga starts to take hold of us on a much deeper level and offers us a way of life that can be completely transformational. If we have a great teacher, questions will start to surface and you will want to dive deeper into this ancient method, not just on the mat, but off the mat too.  

Ahimsa translates into ‘non-violence’. It’s all about being gentle and kind. It’s obvious that we don’t go lashing out at people violently, but it also means verbally. And if we do slip up from time to time because we are human, we cultivate the guts to say sorry and look at the way we react to the discomfort arising in any given situation that caused the lashing out to begin with. After all, that lashing out actually has nothing to do with the person on the receiving end. Right? After all, we are the ones lashing out. We are the ones experiencing a rise in uncomfortable feelings: feelings that belong to us.

Ahimsa starts with the way we talk to ourselves – it’s a practice that embodies being gentle and kind in thoughts, words and actions.

We all have experiences where our mind chatter can sweep us into a chaotic frenzy, far from any truth and reality. From here it makes its way into our language. This trickles into our actions, and our actions create our existence.

When we lift our gaze to take a look around, we see a reality that is rooted in the history of our thoughts. Every thought has gotten us to where we are. Every action we take will take us to where we are going. Which is why Ahimsa is vital to our wellbeing. It is the absolute heart of this very practice.

On the mat

When we practice Ahimsa on the mat, we recognise when we are moving and pushing into a place of tension, of trying too hard. We start to practice the art of pulling back so we can witness and observe tension dissolve as we invite ourselves into the practice of balancing effort with surrender, strength with softness.

We witness the fluctuations of the mind and understand they will always be there. We kindly observe them and let them go, step back, and disengage from the thoughts so we can connect with the body and the breath.

We shift our mind patterns slowly and gently, generating new currents and formations of thought. “I can’t,” becomes “With practice, I can”. “I wish my body was this, that and the other,” becomes “I’m grateful for this body.”

Trying desperately to get into what you feel the posture should look and feel like, shifts to the art of allowing the body to unfold in a way that is supportive, kind, sustainable and patient.

If that next half Vinyasa or that steady pause between Chaturanga and Upward Dog is compromising the breath, we let it go. Because if we are pushing ourselves too much on the mat in a way that reflects how we live the rest of our lives, we are losing that fine balance between effort and ease.

When we become supportive, kind and patient with ourselves on the mat, a byproduct of that part of the practice is that we become all of that, and more, out in the real world where it counts.

When we practice that fine balance between effort and ease on the mat, it teaches us a very important life lesson – how to get a desired result off the mat without getting in the way of our health and wellbeing. These two ingredients are vital in all aspects of life.

Balancing strength and softness on the mat teaches us how to be kind but assertive. It teaches us how to be empathetic and receptive whilst sticking up for ourselves. It teaches us how to go for our dreams and goals in a way that is graceful and clear. It teaches us how to lay firm boundaries in a way that is loving and harmonious.

When we practice the art of pulling back it allows digestion to flow – digestion of thoughts, actions, events, circumstances and emotions. It teaches us how to become less reactive and how to respond in a way that relieves tension and enhances clarity and growth.

Off the mat

Our thoughts play a huge role in our overall health and wellbeing. It doesn’t matter how healthy you eat, how much exercise you do and how much water you drink – if you have a negative mindset it’s going to affect your health and you won’t feel nearly as good as you could.

Negative thoughts activate our fight or flight response, releasing cortisol (the stress hormone) into our systems. This decreases our immune system, aggravates our nervous system, messes with our hormones, makes it hard to make decisions based on how we feel, and generally makes us feel low.

When we are having positive thoughts, dopamine, the love hormone, is released into our systems, strengthening our immune system, nourishing our nervous system, enhancing clarity of mind and our ability to be able to connect, and our decision making process becomes more clear and assertive.

As we build our awareness on the mat and consciously step back from the fluctuations of the mind, this has the most incredible ripple effect in our day to day lives and our relationships.

It’s inevitable that difficulty, challenge and suffering will arise in our lives, it’s all part of the human experience. The only thing we have control over, however, is the way we respond to it. Practicing Ahimsa invites us to witness and observe our current patterns of response to situations outside of our control. Specifically, situations that trigger us.

When we practice Ahimsa, it teaches us to step back, witnessing and observing what arises within us. Then, we can choose how to respond in a way that is assertive but gentle.

Being human, we are going to screw up. We need to dig deep, apologise, and start again. We are going to need to lean into the discomfort that can arise from feeling all of the big feelings, from saying sorry and from carving out new patterns and cultivating a way that is more loving and kind.

None of it is easy, but with practice it is possible.

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