Poster with quote from Buddha that says, See yourself in others and do no harm.

Awareness and Ahimsa

One of my first teachers wanted his yoga school to be called ‘Awareness Yoga’. His idea of yoga was all about training people to observe what they are up to on the mat. His style of teaching, like his teacher, B.K.S. Iyengar, conveyed minutiae of information regarding postures. The point was to get students to pay acute attention to physical alignment and to foster a rigorous approach to their practice.

He was a good teacher, but had periods of moodiness. Oftentimes his teaching was delivered with an undertone of frustration with his students. He wasn’t aware of how much his moods impacted people. Publicly he was inspiring and wise, but privately he could be petty.

I’m shocked myself at how often I go on automatic and say things that are thoughtless or demonstrate behaviour that is self-serving. In class, my teaching emphasises attention to fine anatomical points and details of poses. But all too frequently, ‘off the mat’, I’m not paying aware of my negative thoughts, words and actions. I admire my friends whose mission in life is to be kind and loving and who seem to succeed at it. These are people with whom you can feel safe because they are committed to not harming.

Sadly, I am not always kind. The best I can do at times is cleaning up the messes I create through my own pettiness. However, I have learned an important life lesson. More often than not, I remember to forgive myself for the times my words or actions may wound or sting. I recognise that they come from the ‘small self’ part of me that is still in the process of healing my own wounds.

Three Practices for Reducing Harm

If you’re like me (painfully human at times), there’s a great yoga practice that has been passed on to us by the old sage, Patanjali. It’s from his Sutras and is the very first precept of the yogic moral code, called Ahimsa. This Sanskrit word, Ahimsa, is often translated as non-violence. Another interpretation is ‘do no harm’. My own favourite translation at the moment is ‘be kind’.

Here are three simple practices that I try to bring into everyday life to help me cultivate the quality of Ahimsa.

  • On the mat. As my yoga teacher taught me, I practice doing poses with as much awareness as I can. One way of cultivating sensitivity in my practice is by inquiring into how I approach it. Is my practice full of ‘shoulds’, that is, rigid prescriptions about doing it correctly? Am I ambitious? If I don’t realise certain goals, do I scold myself? Do I accept the limitations that I experience or do I try override them by force of will? Does my practice give me freedom and joy, and, if not, why not?
  • Daily bread. Awareness of diet can be a way of cultivating awareness. Like most people, I know what a good diet is. Over the years I’ve discovered the difference between what is wholesome and what is harmful. Because eating is a daily activity, it’s a perfect opportunity to pay attention to what I put on my plate and into my mouth. Shopping and cooking are additional ways to cultivate sensitivity, for instance, by choosing environmentally-friendly foods. Has my food been produced by fair trade? Are they from local producers and/or grown organically? Am I cooking with love or out of a sense of duty? And, am I greedy; do I really need to have that second helping?
  • Thinking, thinking, thinking. My mind is fertile ground for practising awareness. At any given time, thoughts are being generated, some neutral, some fruitful and some like weeds in the garden of my mind. Rather than trying to root out the negative, my practice is to bring up to conscious awareness the content of this thought-stuff. Sometime negative thinking can be dispelled simply by exposing it to the light of day. This helps reduce the impact of thoughts relating to jealousy, judgments, resentment, and anger, for instance. With any luck, there’s space in my mind then for gratitude thoughts or goodwill thoughts.

Fortunately, I’ve learned over the years that I’m very human and that embracing my humanity is another way to be kind to myself.

Yoga is an endless practice. I’m not likely to reach perfection but to bring more kindness into the world would be a beautiful accomplishment.