The first leaf on the first limb of the 8 limbed tree of Yoga is ahimsa.
Ahimsa roughly translated means to “do no harm”.
When Patanjali set out the eight limbed path of yoga sometime between 100 BCE and 100 AD, it appears that his intent was to tersely codify the previous 4000 years of yoga wisdom. He did a very fine job of it. Laying out in short simple verses (sutras), the wisdom of yoga as it had been taught until that point. He stated that there are 8 limbs on the tree of yoga; yamas (personal practices), niyamas (community practices), asanas (postures), pranayama (breathwork), pratyahara (withdrawal of senses), dharana (concentration), dhyana (meditation) & Samadhi (ultimate enlightenment).
So, ahimsa – do no harm – is the very first thing we must strive to do as yogis. It makes sense. Every spiritual/philosophical path I know embraces this philosophy. But in yoga, the goal is not only to save random spiders from their doom and avoid taking swords up against our neighbors, but we are also encouraged not to commit harm against ourselves.
This is difficult. We live in a world where we are constantly bombarded with messages about how thin we should be, what cars we should drive, what knowledge we should have, what clothes we should wear, etc. All this in order to be happy. So it is no surprise that many of us beat ourselves up trying to fit ourselves to this commercial image of what we are supposed to be, all with varying degrees of success.
This dissatisfaction with how we look or feel, may be what got us to yoga in the first place. “If I just take that class, I will loose weight, get better muscles and maybe that nagging ache in my back/neck will go away.”
In mind my, there is nothing wrong with this. Whatever gets you in the door and on the mat is good. But I do worry about negative self speak, and not listening to the cues our bodies are sending us. Practice Ahimsa – do no harm – to others or yourself, through your actions or through your speech.
I read somewhere that we process over 60,000 thoughts a day. Unfortunately, the majority of these thoughts are less than complementary. It turns out that we are experts at self criticism. I know from experience that while I am pretty good at being kind to others, I am pretty rotten at being kind to myself. I frequently hear all those would’ves should’ves.
Thus the trick really is to practice ahimsa with our selves. When you go to yoga, listen to what your body needs. Don’t push yourself too hard just to get that firm butt and those strong biceps. Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against those, but not at the sake of physical or spiritual injury. Don’t try to do some else’s practice. Don’t try to do more than you are ready for in the moment. Yes, push your boundaries, but don’t hurt yourself. Be kind and compassionate and loving with yourself. And then from that foundation, you will find yourself expanding and reaching farther than you ever could from a place of self-criticism.
Shalom & Namaste,
Pingback: Discovering the Lesson in a Plumb Line. « ahimsamaven
Nice article, a great summary of the 8 limbs and the role of ahimsa. I kind of think of ahimsa as the trunk of the tree, out of which all the practices emerge. If you practice any them in a violent or harmful way it is counter-productive.
When I am being unkind to myself, I try to remember to ask, “would I treat my best friend that way?” And since you are my best friend you’ve taught me how to shift the negative thoughts to a higher place.
Great article, Diana. I’ve forwarded this on to a few friends who really appreciated it. Also timely because we’re now studying this with Kathryn. Thanks!
Pingback: AHIMSA AND NONVIOLENCE « DUCKPOND