October Focus: Ahimsā (non-harming)

A beautiful and timely blog post from Sonya Kuropatwa:

Practicing A H I M S A:

Nonviolence and the Art Of Understanding Ourselves

Often when we think of nonviolence, our minds are cast to warriors of social justice like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., or Rosa Parks, or Gandhi… people who fought for the rights and freedoms of entire communities and nations. What we often fail to understand, though, is that nonviolence is a personal practice that begins within each of us as individuals and is a guiding force in the tradition of Yoga.

Ahimsa (nonviolence) is the jewel at the heart of Yoga. To practice nonviolence on the mat is to be in right relationship with each breath, each pose, each movement, and each moment of stillness with the intention of doing no harm to mind, body, or spirit. To practice Ahimsa off the mat is to seek for and remain in right relationship with others in a way that neither elevates nor sacrifices our own needs as they relate to the needs and well being of others.

In order to practice Ahimsa fully, we have to first ask ourselves what forms of violence we experience at our own hands. Look at your practice on the mat, for example. Are there moments of comparing, judgement, criticism, powerlessness, performance, over-exertion, or striving for perfection? Certainly, there are! We are humans, after all, and the yoga practice (be it on the mat, the cushion, or out in the world) is a mirror we use to better see and understand ourselves and what motivates us.

The highest intention of the yoga-asana practice is that it be a training program for how to move gently, mindfully, and nonviolently through the world, so it stands to reason that when we prioritize our own well-being in our yoga practice, we are learning to put the well-being of ourselves and others at the forefront of our consciousness… and this is the heart of Ahimsa.

So, how can we take this directly into action? How can we weave the practice of Ahimsa into our lives?

-Begin with intention.

Set an intention to observe yourself through the lens of nonviolence as you practice on the mat. Without judgement or self-criticism, simply give yourself permission to notice moments in your asana practice when you push too hard, compare your practice to another’s, remain in a pose too long or too briefly, or avoid what seems new or unfamiliar, for example.

-Learn to recognize habits and motivations.

After intentionally observing your practice, make note of the ways you may be exerting hidden forms of violence against yourself. Commit to countering those habitual or unconscious behaviors by replacing them with acts of kindness and self-love: Take rest when needed. Praise your own growth and achievements beyond how they compare to another’s. Dive fearlessly into unfamiliar and challenging opportunities with full permission to fumble, flail, and fall! Take a risk. Laugh!

-Rinse & Repeat … OFF the mat.

Take what you’ve learned about yourself on the mat, and bring it into your relationships with other people, places, and projects outside the yoga studio. If you’ve observed a tendency to compare your pose to another’s, is there a similar tendency in your professional life? If you often catch yourself pushing beyond your own limits on the mat, might you occasionally expect too much from others, also? If you resist unfamiliar poses or sequences or teachers, where else in your life might you be cutting yourself off from what is strange and new?

Let your commitment to practicing nonviolence against yourself grow into a commitment to do the same for others. Be gentle with yourself and the process. Observe how there are times and circumstances that are more conducive than others to being fully in integrity with Ahimsa. Patience, forgiveness, compassion, and a healthy sense of humor are our allies in this noble practice.