Ahimsa is an essential part of yoga, this is the practice of nonviolence and compassion for all living things. It's a pretty basic moral precept that most of us learn early on.
We are all taught from a young age that violence against others is not right. When we are toddlers and experiment with hitting or biting we learn that isn’t okay. Hurting other beings is not acceptable.
The thing about our lessons in nonviolence is most often they don’t include ourselves.
Our world is full of beliefs that we must ‘push harder,’ ‘go farther,’ and ‘it’s not worth it if you aren’t suffering.’ Being a perfectionist my self talk was always more negative than positive, and I struggle with the belief that I should be able to do more.
This constant pushing can easily become violence against ourselves and it can sneak into even the things we believe we are doing to care for ourselves. Our yoga practice, workouts and the food we eat all of a sudden become some form of punishment or violence.
I started yoga to quiet my mind and also to physically challenge my body. The violence came when my body was saying no and I kept saying yes.
It’s yoga, it’s good and it’s healthy...so it can’t be violent. Right?
No matter how healthful an activity is, if we do it with force, negativity or perfectionism, it can become violent. Pushing ourselves is necessary sometimes, hurting ourselves is not.
Woah! How do we know which we are doing?!
It takes intentional reflection.
If you are thinking “ain’t nobody got time for that!” Let me counter by saying if you have time to eat you have time for it. If you make time for yoga you have time for it. If you make time to exercise you have time for it. (If you don’t have time to eat….well then some reflection is even more important and reviewing priorities is in order.)
What is your self talk when you do these activities? You know that little (or maybe really loud) voice that is chattering away inside your brain? What is it saying?
When my body began to become unfamiliar and to change significantly I would get on the mat and be immediately in a battle. My mind was yelling:
“You used to be able to do this, what’s wrong with you?”
“You’re a yoga instructor get your ass in gear, why can’t you get this posture?”
“You are so weak and disgusting. Look at yourself in the mirror for god’s sake!”
“Keep pushing because then you will be acceptable. Push through and your body will come back.”
“Push through the pain and the fatigue. There is no reason you should feel this way.”
“Stop whining. You take care of your body you should have the energy.”
“You should be able to do this pose.”
And on and on.
That is violence. If anyone else said those things to me or forced me into something that was hurting my body or spirit I wouldn’t have it. For some reason since I was doing it to myself it was okay.
I experienced similar thoughts when it came to exercise and to food. All the should's and the beliefs about what would make me good or acceptable.
One of the most healing things for me has been being able to recognize this violence and to shift it. Again, I’m still working with it. These thoughts creep in and then I tell them to go f*ck off.
Beginning to practice nonviolence with myself is what brought me to try out more gentle forms of yoga and do it with an open mind. What I see in our world is a belief that young people need to perform certain styles or types of activity. If we are young we do intense things and gentle is for those that are weak or those that are wise in years.
Being gentle with ourselves doesn’t make us weak it makes us so much more strong, it is the harder choice. Some may think being gentle is being lazy, or that we won’t improve from there. Gentleness is not laziness. It’s knowing where your edge is but not forcing yourself beyond. It’s having patience and persistence. Nonviolence does not mean non-challenging, so don’t get it twisted.
Laziness is when you know you can do more or go a bit farther, and then choose not to over and over again.
Next time you sit with your meal, you step onto your mat or pick up that barbell take a moment...a split second to notice what thoughts have sprung into your mind.
Take a moment of intentional reflection adjust your actions from that place.
Let’s not exercise or eat to punish ourselves any longer. Instead ask yourself, “What would I say to someone I love?” On and off of our yoga mat let's practice ahimsa, nonviolence, with ourselves.
PS. At times practicing nonviolence means adjusting what our activities may be. For me that was diving into other styles of yoga and reframing what exercise what. If it's time for you to do something similar, to take on the challenge of a more gentle practice, Yoga for Healing is the perfect place to start. I know it can be difficult, it's hard to put away our ego, but self care and self love are important to health and happiness. We can do it together. Head on over and check it out :)