When we think of yoga, we often think about yoga poses (asanas). Although the poses (asanas) are important, the practice of yoga is so much more than just the poses. When we study yoga we are studying beyond the physical practice. Ashtanga Yoga is a yoga system that encompasses all aspects of Hatha Yoga. This system was designed to incorporate the best Hatha Yoga techniques, which ensure that you are using the time you spend on your yoga mat in the most efficient way. The nice thing about this system is that all the techniques have been picked specifically because they’re the most effective in reaching the goal of obtaining Raja Yoga and have stood the test of time. While working to reach this state of Raja Yoga we are creating a clean, open, healthy vessel which will be capable of functioning at full capacity, mentally and physically.
In this newsletter I will take you through the 8 limbs of yoga (ashtanga). The first branch of yoga holds the 5 yamas. The first yama is ahimsa, which means non-harming. I’m going to share with you what I’ve learned through studying this concept and leave you with a few questions for contemplation.
Every limb can be practiced on and off your yoga mat. Personally, it helps to understand a concept on my mat before I take it off of the mat. The time practicing physical asana is the perfect opportunity to turn the focus inwards and see what surfaces.
When I began my study of this yama, the first harmful thing I realized I was doing was pushing through pain. I was trying to make my body fit into shapes that it wasn't ready for, feeling pain and not modifying the practice because I didn't want to get out of my comfort zone. I ended up with bursitis in both shoulders until I finally changed my practice to serve my needs. Through this experience, I learned so much and got to explore places I never would have if I didn't change my habits and mindset. By the time I was ready to try what I was previously doing that was hurting, I had everything in place and it never felt better.
Once I was met with this obstacle on the mat, I realized it showed up off of the mat as well. I was in a marriage that was unhealthy and I worked a job that I hated. I was trying to fit into a place that wasn’t suited for me. And I was severely depressed. Learning to take my time, breath at my true boundary, and listen to what my needs are really helped me take my life into a new direction that felt much more authentic.
Staying in my comfort zone was another way I was being harmful to myself. Change happens and it's completely necessary. When we refuse to change or we don’t face our fears, we are being harmful to ourselves by missing out on opportunities for growth. If I never left my toxic marriage and unfulfilling job, I would never have found someone who is a great match for me and a career that lets me do what I love most; share yoga knowledge, and help people take care of themselves physically and mentally through hatha yoga techniques.
I was afraid to follow my passions because I felt secure with a consistent paycheck, health insurance, and a 15 year long relationship. Even though it seemed like I was on a good pathway, I did not feel like I was supporting my authentic self or fulfilled with what my life had become. All of these elements in my life came to an end at the same time. I was knocked down to my foundation (thank you Shiva), and got the opportunity to start from scratch. I was devastated at the time, but looking back, change had to happen or my path would have led to a life of suffering (Dukha).
The other way I discovered I was being harmful was the negative dialogue running through my head as I pushed myself through the practice. I had an urge to rush through asanas and Primary Series as fast as I could. I was never content (Santosha) with where I was and my internal dialog told me I wasn’t where I wanted or needed to be. I also phrased many of the things I said negatively. Once my teacher Michael pointed this out to me, I noticed how often I was doing it. I really had to work hard to retrain the way I saw myself and the world around me, and had to learn that where I was and am is exactly where I need to be to prepare myself for whatever was to come next.
I also realized that not only did I have negative dialog running through my head all of the time, but I allowed others to be verbally abusive to me as well. I allowed others to cross boundaries with me and stayed quiet and took it - or I would fight back, but not in a constructive way that would resolve the situation. My response fueled the fighting and it became circular. It was a huge waste of my energy (Brahmacharya). Now I’m more likely to take a few deep breaths and analyze the situation to try and come to a peaceful resolution where no one's feelings get hurt.
I was also extremely harmful with my food choices, which negatively affected my body weight and held me back in my physical practice. I ate whatever tasted good and my body reflected that. I was 50 pounds overweight and I developed asthma, had horrible allergies, and chronic pain everywhere. My physical asana practice was suffering. I wasn’t getting as deeply into poses as I would have been able to if extra adipose tissue wasn’t stopping me from reaching my boundaries. My joints bothered me and my stamina suffered because of the extra weight I was carrying.
Once I cleaned up my diet and went plant-based, everything completely changed for the better. Any extra weight I was carrying dropped off. I had always considered myself an animal lover and couldn’t justify how I could practice being non-harming (Ahimsa) if I'm consuming products - dairy included - that are directly harmful to the animal, myself, the planet, and in turn all of the planet's inhabitants. It feels amazing to have my actions align with my morals. At one point I used to say “everything in moderation is ok” but now realize that would not be ok for any other injustice and it shouldn’t be ok for this injustice either. We do ourselves, our fellow earthlings, and our planet an injustice when we consume in a harmful way.
Navigate the world and your choices through the lens of Ahimsa.
I’d like to leave you with a few questions for contemplation - ask yourself:
How can I practice ahimsa on and off of my yoga mat?
How will it benefit me, the planet, and my fellow earthlings to do so?
What are my values?
Do my actions align with my values?
Let’s cherish our vessels, our fellow earthlings, and our planet Earth.