… is called ahimsa.
Ahimsa is one of yoga’s yamas.
It might sound like it involves stretching a hamstring, but to practice ahimsa we’re chasing a totally different kind of high. We’re going after those nice warm moments you find yourself getting when you practice yoga and find yourself inexplicably acting a little better towards other people and yourself… even if it’s just for a few minutes after rolling out of Savasana.
And yep, it can be practiced just like any other stretch.
Some explanatory background… The yamas are the first of the 8 limbs or ‘practice areas’ of yoga. ‘Ashtanga’ literally translates to ‘8 limbed yoga’, although the system is recognised universally across the different yoga schools. Other limbs include asana – our physical practice – and pranayama – our breathing practice. The yamas are a set of guiding principles for ethical living, concerning our outwards behaviours and attitude towards to the world. The fact that this is the very first limb of yoga – before physical practice – give us a clue as to their importance.
So what does Ahimsa actually mean and why should we take it to heart as we deepen our physical practice?
Ahimsa is often translated as ‘non-violence’. Which sounds like a logical place to start an ethical code. Except not many of us would describe ourselves as violent people or be able to pinpoint too many acts of true violence in our lives.
(Yep, incase you were wondering this is where the great and sticky yoga/meat-eating debate comes in, but we’re definitely saving that one for another day… Except to super-quickly say that whilst I personally choose a vegan diet, I definitely don’t think that eating meat and being a ‘good’ person/yogi are mutually exclusive. There are no lines in the sand in yoga or our individual ethical choices.)
Instead of ‘non-violence’, I like the more modern translation of ‘non-harming’. Little acts of negligence, damage or harm to things, people and ourselves are a whole lot easier to identify and work with. Not that ahimsa asks us only to avoid harmful deeds; it also reminds us not to speak carelessly or maliciously, or think harmful thoughts. Because – being honest – we can get on our mats and stretch ’til the proverbial cows come home, but if we walk out of class and start whinging, bitching and flipping the bird at inconsiderate road users, we might as well have gone to ‘legs, bums and tums’. (No disrespect, LBT).
It’s a big playing field once you get to thinking about it. And perhaps it’s the point of practicing ahimsa that we start to consider our actions and their consequences rather than instantly morphing into perfect human beings.
Think about how much brain space and energy we’d save if we could learn to live without random acts of road rage, looking in the mirror and berating our thighs, snarking at our loved ones when we’re under-carbed or binge watching Vikings/X-files re-runs/[insert personal Netflix choice here] instead of getting some much-needed sleep. Lots. That’s a lot of spare power for handstands, baking cake, making love, singing in the shower, selfless giving and dreaming up amazing plans for holidays or a generally-blissful Utopian future. Or whatever makes your own little corner of the world a better place.
It sounds kinda nice, right?
One of the best exercises to start consciously practicing ahimsa in our lives is really simple. (As simple as doing ‘legs up the wall’ in bed, which I’m also forever recommending for its life-enhancing benefits.) For one whole week, try to make yourself aware every single time you say something unkind or casual about another person. It might be your partner and they might deserve it. It might be a certain colleague, a faceless immigrant on the news, or an overly face-y celebrity in Heat magazine. Just bring the comments to mind, either in the moment or running a few mini-reviews throughout the day, and quietly consider the consequences of sowing these little seeds of negativity. Is this really acting like the person you’d like to become? Probably not. So we try to do it less. Then, we try to stop gossiping completely.
Just another say to let that post-practice goodness start to seep a little deeper.
However you do it, practice ahimsa like a hip opener. An open heart is way cooler than a good baddha konasana.