Because it is the 4th of July, a day all about remembering our freedoms, engaging in self-indulgence, and frightening our pets with fireworks, I thought I’d go in an entirely different direction both today and over the course of this summer. I want to share with you what I’m learning about the Yamas and the Niyamas of yoga.
You’ll remember that yoga has Eight Limbs, like tree limbs, growing from its deeply rooted trunk, stretching into our lives like branches. The Yamas are the first set of limbs – think of a strong main branch with five smaller, but no less important branches – designed by the ancient teachers and writers of India to guide the lives of those who seek to follow a spiritual path.
Yamas are like commitments or vows in modern times. Sometimes they are called disciplines or restraints in our lives – I think of them as a priori decisions (you’ve heard me use that phrase before) a descriptor from the Latin (not the Sanskrit of ancient India) that means, coming before. When we make an a priori decision, it becomes a guiding principle for all that follows. That is how Yamas can function in our lives – committing to them sets the tone for all that follows; they give structure to each future decision we make.
The first of the Yamas is Ahimsa, or non-violence. You can take this in its most literal sense as Martin Luther King Jr. would use the words and advise that we be contained, constrained, and patiently persistent even in our anger and outrage at life’s injustices.
Too often, we think of violence in only its worst forms – against women, against children, against elders, etc. However, you can broaden your thinking about non-violence to consider all the ways we might notice the presence of violence or the ways we do HARM in our everyday lives. We don’t have to be in a life-threatening situation to recognize that sometimes we do harm when we:
- Speak to ourselves harshly (yes, self-talk can be down-right violent, shaming, and hurtful)
- Push ourselves beyond reasonable limits (no pain, no gain is NOT a yoga practice!)
- Foist our expectations onto others (my way or the highway is often a harmful approach)
- Fail to honor other’s boundaries (trampling on what matters to another shows disrespect)
There are so many ways we can apply the principle of Ahimsa to our everyday interactions. It is a challenging commitment to keep in today’s culture which is so full of sarcasm, cynicism, put-downs and attempts to make others small, so we can feel big. We mostly see commonplace disregard for Ahimsa in today’s world. It takes courage to adopt this Yama, but it offers a direct path to spiritual growth.
Learning about the Yamas and, in time the Niyamas (which are more like observances or practices to keep the spiritual journeyer on the path) allows one to see if such guiding principles might make one’s life better, happier, healthier, and perhaps even less complex than the world we encounter each day.
Where can you let go of violence or harm in your daily life?
Where can you begin to notice the pain that is left in your wake when you fail to attend to how your words fall on others, or how your actions may insult or injure others, or where you consideration only of yourself might disregard the needs of others – all harmful choices.
What small commitment to non-violence would help you on your own path just now? Maybe you might choose . . .
- To simply pay attention to your self-talk this week and infuse it with compassion.
- To hear your own tone of voice when speaking to others – is it kind, or is it harsh?
- To recognize when your own agenda over-runs the ideas of others.
- To consider where your favorite indulgence comes from and how fairly it is farmed/produced.
Any of these small, personal considerations can begin to turn your heart toward the Yama of Ahimsa. Any of these modest actions can allow you space in your life to imagine bigger opportunities to live a more mindful existence. Letting go of “auto-pilot” and living with intention reveals a rich opportunity for personal growth and change in our lives and our well-being.
As always, let me know if I can help!