Yoga philosophy has much to teach us about the human condition, and how we can improve our lives.
We all want to be happy don’t we, yet our lives are filled with things that make us unhappy. We are stressed at work, at home, in our relationships. We are told that buying things is the route to happiness, all the while knowing that consumption of these things is harming the very environment we depend on. We deal with our problems by numbing the feelings and hoping they will go away. We forget who we really are, and in the battle to get through life, we forget to live.
Why do we do this to ourselves? Can’t we find a better way to live? One that brings joy, contentment, peace and happiness? Isn’t that really ALL we want?
The ancient Yogic scriptures, the Yoga Sutras of Maharishi Patanjali, offers us an almost step by step guide to achieve contentment and happiness. It is NOT a quick fix, take this pill and all your problems will be over approach. The Eight Limbs of Yoga offer a routemap to ‘Samadhi’, or Enlightenment. It is a way to live that brings meaning, peace and happiness into life. As with all journeys in life, it is as much about the journey as the destination. Along the journey, the Eight Limbs gives us a path to create happy lives for ourselves, starting NOW.
Yoga is not just exercise and meditation, although these are aspects of the Eight Limbs (what chance do we have of happiness if we don’t take care of our body and mind?). The foundations of a happy, healthy life according to these ancient writings are to be found in our behaviour and our approach to life.
The five Yamas are the ‘moral restraints’. They tell us what we should not do if we want to live a good, happy life. They are:-
Ahimsa – non violence
Satya – truth
Asteya – non stealing
Brahmacharya – control of creative energy, restraint
Aparigraha – non posessiveness
Ahimsa – no harm
Ahimsa, at it’s most basic, means not hurting or harming. This does not just refer to others, but also to the harm we might do to ourselves as well. Ahimsa is not just about not harming other humans either; Yogic philosophy believes that the soul travels through many life forms on the way to becoming human, so we must not harm any life forms as the soul that resides in them is as important as the soul that lives in us.
Ahimsa reminds us that we are all connected, and that harm to one ultimately leads to harm to many. The great Mahatma Ghandi was a famous proponent of Ahimsa, his non violent revolution brought about huge change in India in the early 20th Century and was probably far more effective than if he had led a violent revolution
Non-violence is the greatest force at the disposal of mankind. It is mightier than the mightiest weapon of destruction devised by the ingenuity of man.
Ahimsa and our thoughts
Ahimsa teaches us to take care of our thoughts about ourselves and others, to try to cease the negative and sometimes cruel self talk we subject ourselves to, and to refrain from passing judgement on others. Brene Brown, in ‘The Power of Vulnerability‘ points out that when we judge others we are reflecting our own insecurities, so when we feel a need to judge others, this might be an invitation to look inwards and see how we can boost ourselves instead of putting others down.
Our thoughts create physical responses in our body. Negative thoughts have a negative effect on the body. We see that clearly in the face of someone who frowns a lot, as they age the frown lines on their face become more and more pronounced. Negativity reduces our immune system and creates a stress response, causing the body to produce stress hormones. If this feeling is maintained, the stress it creates can lead to a range of physical and mental health problems.
The opposite is true. A person who smiles a lot will have deep smile lines as they age, rather than frown lines. When we think happy thoughts our bodies respond accordingly, and the pleasure centre of the brain is activated, leading us to feel happier and boosting our physical health. Increasing scientific evidence shows that optimistic people recover better from illness than negative people.
Ahimsa and our words
The words we use, as well as our thoughts, have a powerful effect on us and the people around us. The old schoolyard rhyme ‘Sticks and stone will break my bones but words will never hurt me’ is, to be quite frank, utterly nonsense. While physical hurt can be devastating, words can be equally destructive. I know I still carry scars of things said to me, or things I said which I regret, going back to my earliest memories. Words can hurt us deeply and can change the course of someone’s life forever. Try to bring awareness into how you speak to yourself and others, and notice when you say things which make yourself or others uncomfortable.
Ahimsa and our diet
Ahimsa encourages us to live in such a way which doesn’t cause harm, either directly or indirectly to others. This very strongly suggests a vegetarian diet to many people. However, an insight into the dairy and egg industries suggests, or is did to me at least, that these vegetarian staples are far from non violent, and veganism seemed to be the only way to ensure Ahimsa in my diet. In his series of audio lectures, ‘The Lost Teachings of Yoga‘ Georg Feuerstein refers to a ‘strict vegetarian diet’ as being one that does not involve eggs or dairy products’, so maybe we have vegetarianism all wrong anyway. Veganism does not work for everyone, I know, so I am passing no judgement, simply sharing my experience.
There are, of course, other factors to take into account when trying to bring Ahimsa into the diet, and considerations such as farming methods and food transportation which harm the environment, trading methods which subject human workers to harsh conditions and insufficient pay, and packaging of processed food are all in some way harming others.
In the modern world it is impossible to eat in a fully ethical way unless you are able to live entirely on food you produce yourself, there is a great deal of harm inherent in our food system. So we all have to just make decisions based on what is right for us and our values system.
It is important that in we ensure that our body has all it needs to be healthy. We do this through eating good, nutritious food in moderation, ensuring we are adequately hydrated and trying to avoid excessive processed food. So many physical diseases that afflict us in the 21st century could be avoided, or minimised, if we all ate better. Chemicals in processed food, insufficient vitamins, too much fat, too much processed sugar…it all takes its toll on our health and well being.
Ahimsa in Yoga practice
When you are on your Yoga mat, it is important that Ahimsa is your guiding light throughout. This means listening to your body, and, where possible, doing the practices that your body needs, and not doing the things that aren’t right for you. If a certain posture causes pain, don’t do it, or ask your teacher to suggest modifications at least. There should never be pain in yoga – yes, you should feel stretched, and yes, you should become aware of your muscles, but there should never be pain, pain means STOP. There is no ‘pushing through the pain’ in Yoga
Ahimsa in Yoga also means accepting your limits and not trying to push yourself beyond them for the sake of ‘keeping up with others’ So what if the person next to you can get their nose closer to their knees, or looks like a ballerina she is so graceful and elegant. That is her business, not yours, and it should not be the standard to which you hold yourself. Maybe she is a ballerina, maybe she has hypermobility syndrome and her flexibility causes her pain, you just don’t know. Your yoga practice is just that, yours. It about your relationship with yourself, not how you compare to others. Once you can let go of the need to compare yourself to others in the class, you will find you enjoy your yoga practice so much more (this is true whether you are seeing yourself as ‘better’ or ‘worse’ than others in the class). Remember that it is the Ego that creates all these thoughts, and through regular Yoga practice you will learn to move away from the ego and be guided by your deeper Self, so don’t give in to the demands of the Ego, allow the deeper Self to emerge through a gentle loving approach to your practice.
Any step we take towards living a life of Ahimsa will bring its own rewards. Please don’t feel you are somehow failing if you can’t change over night – no one can. It is a lifetime’s work, and, as I said before, it is the journey, and what you learn about life and yourself along the way, that makes it all worthwhile, don’t worry about the destination!