4 ways to start practicing Ahimsa every day
For the next eight weeks, I'll be teaching classes centered around the Yamas and the Niyamas — Patanjali's Eight Limbs as described in the Yoga Sutras. These paths are meant to serve as a framework for living a meaningful and peaceful life. It's kind of like the yogi bible.
First up: Ahimsa.
Simply put, Ahimsa means non-violence or non-harm. It's the reason many yogis are vegan (non-harming of animals) and why you don't often see yogis in the middle of a bar fight.
Ahimsa isn't just a yoga thing. In Christianity it's "Love your neighbor as yourself" or "Thou shalt not kill." It's a pretty good guideline and you might think it sounds easy enough. I mean, I hope you don't go around hurting and killing others. But Ahimsa goes deeper than that, and it can actually be challenging to practice.
Here are four ways to practice Ahimsa in your daily life, starting now.
1. Know what you're consuming.
We are all consumers. I work at an ad agency, and my job depends on us being consumers. That in itself isn't a problem at all. But do you know what you're consuming?
Do you know where your shirt was produced? Was the factory ethical?
How about that chicken you ate for lunch? Was the chicken treated humanely?
And how about that shampoo you use? Was it tested on animals?
I'll admit that I don't always know where my clothes were made. That is something I'd like to become more knowledgeable about. I do try to learn as much as I can about where my food is coming from. In fact, I didn't eat meat at all for six years after discovering how many of those animals I was consuming were treated.
Ignorance is harmful. Become a more educated consumer and feel better knowing you're supporting products that align with your ethical standards.
2. Stop judging what she's wearing/eating/doing/posting on Instagram.
I say she because in my observations, women are the most guilty of this behavior. We tear each other down all the time.
Did you see what she was wearing?
Gosh she's so annoying.
What a slut.
That asshole just cut me in line.
Heard those comments before? Perhaps they've even come out of your mouth. And even if they haven't (but let's be honest here, for most of us they have), I'm sure you've thought them.
Restraining from physically harming someone is easy enough. Restraining from using hurtful words is more challenging but definitely doable. Restraining from having hurtful thoughts? That's where it gets super tricky.
As my yoga practice deepened outside the studio, I became more mindful about my words and thoughts ... and more aware of the words others were using around me. I realized that people around me could say some pretty hurtful things about strangers. And I realized that I tore people down in my head more often than I'd care to admit.
The first step is to notice. Notice when these thoughts arise. Then replace them with a loving thought and let that harmful BS float on by. Because even if it stays in your head, it's not serving anyone. In fact, I'd argue that it's hurting yourself more than anyone. As my sister often says, "How you feel about me is between you and your self-esteem."
3. Stop tearing yourself down.
Ahimsa doesn't just apply to others. It also applies to yourself.
This is where it gets even harder. Kind of.
It's harder because we are often our own worst critics. I used to tear myself down almost constantly. It got so bad that during my recovery I actually had to get rid of my mirror so I wouldn't constantly rip apart my reflection.
I look disgusting.
I shouldn't have eaten that.
I'll never be able to do that.
I say it only kind of gets harder because I've found that the more I practice letting go of harmful thoughts of others, the easier it is to let go of harmful thoughts of myself. Love and compassion are kind of like the mint in my garden right now. If you water it, it will grow like crazy. But if you neglect it, it will all dry up.
Again, the first step is to notice. Notice when you say something unkind to yourself and replace it with something positive or at least neutral. The more you practice, the easier it becomes. But it's a constant practice. Living your yoga means living it — practicing it each and every day. There is no end. (Check out these four steps to changing the conversations you have with yourself.)
4. Let go of that "no pain, no gain" mentality.
"No pain, no gain" is the opposite of Ahimsa. However, I see it in the studio. And I've done it in the studio, too. It's our damn egos.
Our egos tell us to go for it. To push ourselves past our limits. And it's in those moments we physically injure ourselves.
I try to tell my students that even if they can, it doesn't always mean it's the best idea. To honor and know when to push themselves and when to back off. A true yogi isn't someone who does all the fancy arm balances. A true yogi is the someone who accepts and appreciates where they are in their practice and finds that balance of effort and ease.
Ahimsa is simple. That doesn't make it easy. It's challenging. But as yogis we practice Ahimsa because we believe in peace, love and the happiness of all beings.
Because all beings have the right to be happy and free. You do. Your neighbor does. Your pets. Trees. Cows. Baby penguins. Your enemies. Yes, even Donald Trump. (I told you this wasn't easy.)
Imagine what the world would be like if we all committed to practicing Ahimsa. Where we built each other — and ourselves — up instead of tearing each other down.
And that is why we yoga.