You may have heard me talk about yoga philosophy before and been a little bewildered. After all, other types of exercise don’t come with alife guidance. Tennis philosophy, football philosophy or lifting weights philosophy seem silly, BUT that is what sets yoga apart. Yoga is first and foremost a philosophical system, it concentrates on how we can have more presence. How to sit still and see what comes up in the mind without running wildly after it or running away. In fact Pantanjali, an ancient yogi, summarised yoga sweetly into having 8 branches. The ‘8 limbs of yoga’ ‘ashtanga’ are comprised of yama (our attitudes to our environment), niyama (our attitude to ourselves), asana (physical movement), pranayama (breath) and four more. (The last four are a little more abstract and focused on the mind – I’ll come to them another time.)
Today I want to talk about one of the yamas ‘ahimsa’. Ahimsa is literally translated as non-harming but it is more than that. Ahimsa is treating yourself and others with kindness and thoughtful consideration. Not just your family and friends but all living beings and non-living objects. You probably already believe that you follow Ahimsa and I don’t doubt that you do to an extent but we can always do more. Whether that is extending our love to strangers, animals or the earth.
Being kind to ourselves is vitally important. If you think about all the times you have been unkind to others you will probably find that you weren’t being kind enough to yourself. Yoga helps us become more aware of how we feel and then when we notice negative thought patterns or feelings ahimsa is the process of self-love to heal. We can be very harmful to ourselves and somehow we think that is ok! Start with being compassionate to yourself and then that compassion can spread and do wonderful things.
Many people interpret ahimsa as not eating meat and therefore adopting a vegetarian or vegan diet. For someone new to yoga this may seem quite daunting. Don’t worry, going vegetarian is not a prerequisite for yoga. It may just happen that after practising ahimsa in everyday life for a while our sense of compassion starts to deepen and we may naturally want to stop eating meat. The same goes for being environmentally friendly. As our compassion extends we start to consider the effects of our lifestyle on our environment and what that means for future generations and different species around the world.
The son of Krishnamacharya (the father of modern yoga), T.K.V Desikachar says
“In every situation we should adopt a considered attitude. That is the meaning of ahimsa.”
Imagine how different life would be if everyone stopped to consider the effects of each moment in their lives. I reckon life would be a whole lot sweeter. Stop and talk to someone who is homeless, switch to a more plant-based diet, recycle, bring your loved one tea in bed, stop littering, open the door for someone, help people with heavy bags, tip the waiter/waitress who made you smile, say thank you.
Ahimsa is a powerful concept that we all know we should try and live by – it’s one of those ethical principles we are taught from birth. However, big change happens when we really try and push ourselves. Remind yourself every day to be more considerate than yesterday and full of unashamed, unprejudiced kindness.