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Cultivating Kindness Through our Yoga Practice: The First Yama Ahimsa

If we take but one thing from our yoga practice let it be the cultivation of kindness and compassion. There is a reason that the very first principle of yoga is our first Yama of Ahimsa- Non-violence and loving kindness. For all the tools, techniques, elaborate vinyasa flow sequences, meditation and pranayama practices… it all really comes down to embodying kindness and compassion. Is it not these qualities that we look to with reverence in those we consider to be our spiritual leaders, sages and’ enlightened’ beings? This means we can practice yoga each and every second of every day by simply seeking to practice kindness to each and every being we encounter and by cultivating a genuine relationship of compassion with ourselves.

We merely need to look to some truly remarkable beings who personify kindness and compassion and shed a light on what it takes to truly live ‘Ahimsa”:

“My religion is very simple. My religion is kindness … Be kind whenever possible. It is always possible” - Dalai Lama

“Teach this triple truth to all: A generous heart, kind speech, and a life of service and compassion are the things that renew humanity.”- Buddha

Do your little bit of good where you are; it’s those little bits of good put together that overwhelm the world”- Desmond Tutu

"Spread love everywhere you go. Let no one ever come to you without leaving happier." - Mother Teresa

“Kindness in words creates confidence. Kindness in thinking creates profoundness. Kindness in giving creates love”- Lao Tzu

“The simplest acts of kindness are by far more powerful than a thousand heads bowing in prayer” - Mahatma Gandhi

“Forget injuries; never forget kindness”- Confucius

"Beginning today, treat everyone you meet as if they were going to be dead by midnight. Extend to them all the care, kindness and understanding you can muster, and do it with no thought of any reward. Your life will never be the same again.”- Og Mandino

This same spiritual wisdom and appreciation of the power of kindness is embodied in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. The Yamas are our ethical principles or self-restraints, that form the first of an eightfold path of yoga (astanga yoga) that Patanjali laid out for the yoga practitioner in ‘The Yoga Sutras’. The Yamas outline how the yoga practitioner should engage with the world around them to be in harmony with themselves, all living beings and to embody the principles of yoga.

As Yoga Sutra II.31 notes: ‘Yamas are the great, might universal vows unconditioned by place, time and class’.

The five Yamas are:

  • Ahimsa (non-violence),

  • Satya (truthfulness),

  • Asteya (non-stealing),

  • Brahmacarya (moderation/ continence/ connection to the divine),

  • Aparigraha (non-attachment/ non-possessiveness).

Our first Yama of yoga, is Ahimsa and it is the first because in many ways it underpins every other principle that proceeds it. Ahimsa asks us to restrain against violence towards other beings and ourselves. But it is more than the absence of violence... it asks us to live our lives in the grace of loving kindness- in all of our words, thoughts and actions.

Yoga sutra II.35 on Ahimsa notes:

“When non-violence in speech , thought and action is established, one’s aggressive nature is relinquished and other’s abandon hostility in one’s presence”.

(B.K.S Iyengar’s translation- Light on the Yoga Sutra’s of Patanjali)

So how do we cultivate and live Ahimsa in our yoga practice?

I often talk about practicing Ahimsa on the mat in my asana classes. In doing so I do not wish to reduce the practice to an exclusively inward Ahimsa or to promote a form of self-centered, self-care that is unfortunately quite widespread in the West, since yogas importation outside of India. Rather I think our personal yoga practice, can be a chance to nurture the fertile grounds within ourselves for a deeply authentic loving kindness to grow. A kindness that has its home so deeply planted and explored within our own psyche, through how we treat ourselves. Our Sadhana (spiritual practice) becomes a place where we can become so well practiced with the art of loving kindness and from those deep roots it can naturally and with ease seep out to include all living beings.

Practically this may entail taking stock of our motivation to practice yoga and asana in particular. Shedding a loving light that tries to root out any aggression, perfectionism, self-critical, self-harming and competitive motivations for practicing and replacing these with a motivation to nurture and take care of ourselves and others. Practicing Ahimsa may entail watching our thoughts, our inner dialogue and beautifying this with affirming statements, letting yourself off the hook for being less than perfect and loving yourself anyway… as you would your most cherished loved ones.

In our interactions with the outside world we can make kindness a priority and a daily practice. Taking stock of our thoughts, words and actions towards human-kind, animal-kind and Mother Nature. Living with awareness and seeking meaning in our lives through serving others and doing what we can, big or small, to create a world that is kinder, more compassionate and free of violence.

We can evaluate our diets- Ahimsa is the primary motivation for dedicated followers of yoga to choose a vegetarian or vegan diet. We can become more aware of the labour, livelihood and sustainability impacts involved in producing our food and the other commodities we buy and make informed and kind choices. Kindness begins at home and in our communities- each and every day are opportunities to be patient, forgiving, supportive and kind to everyone we encounter.

We will stumble from time to time and that’s ok- I certainly do- but let us try our best to use these moments as an opportunity to be kind to ourselves and forgiving of our human fallibility. What’s most important is to keep learning and trying. In doing so, a by-product tends to be a deeper spiritual connection with who we truly are, an unravelling of the egoic-self and encountering our true loving nature. It’s a practice and at the very heart of why we are here on this life journey and its at the very core of our awakening on our yoga journey.

Check out the lovingly crafted practice to help you create the fertile grounds for Ahimsa in yourself, on and off the mat:

Yama: Ahimsa Practice

With love, Namaste x

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