This was my first day of Ekhart Yoga’s ten class programme on the yamas and niyamas for beginners with Sandra Carson. Each class focuses on one yama/niyama, and my intention is to work on one per week, so in all the programme will take ten weeks.
The five yamas form the first of the eight limbs of yoga, and the five niyamas the second. “Yama” is defined by Bryant as “abstention” and “niyama” as “observance. The first yama is ahimsa, which translates as non-violence or non-harming. The commentators that Bryant cites identify this as the most important yama, which is at the root of all the others. Those commentators, or the parts of their commentaries that Bryant cites, and indeed Bryant himself, focus very much on non-violence in the context of our relationship with the wider world and its inhabitants. A yogi should not cause physical harm, nor should harm be caused through harsh treatment or words or the incitement of fear.
There is, however, no mention of something which was a more central focus of today’s practice, which was non-violence towards ourselves. I don’t mean so much in terms of physical harm (although that would obviously come within ahimsa), rather in terms of harmful and negative self-talk. It was repeatedly mentioned during YWA’s Revolution that we can’t be our optimal selves in the world at large unless we’re treating ourselves with kindness and respect. If we’re constantly beating ourselves up, then we’re not in the best frame of mind to serve either ourselves or others. On that basis, practising ahimsa that focuses only on our relationship with others and not on our relationship with ourselves is surely somewhat one-sided.
A theme throughout the practice was “moving with respect”. On the yoga mat, respecting our body and the limits of our flexibility on any given day are key elements of practising that non-violence in the context of our relationship with ourselves. If we do not have that respect, then we criticise and judge and focus on perceived imperfections, either in how we hold a particular pose or in our body itself. I say “we” here, but obviously I can’t speak for every yoga practitioner. Personally, I find that cultivating that mindset of respect and acceptance starts to shift the direction of my thoughts from their standard negative, critical track.
Physically, this practice wasn’t hugely challenging, but I don’t think every practice has to be. I did miss a common feature of Adriene’s practices, in that she will often incorporate one or more pauses in Child’s Pose to allow the effects of the practice so far to sink in, so I paused this video halfway through for a few moments. I also very much appreciated the relatively long and meditative Savasana at the end.
The aim for the rest of the week is to take this concept of ahimsa and try to apply it both on the mat, in terms of cultivating respect while I practice, and off the mat, in terms of how I talk to and treat myself and how I interact with others. There are also various aspects of ahimsa which I think require a little more thought. Does practising ahimsa absolutely require at the least a vegetarian lifestyle (as Bryant and the commentators he cites insist)? Just how much do I instinctively disagree with the apparent karmic aspects of the concept? How do we reconcile practising ahimsa with taking the required strong stand against the ever-more prevalent hatred and intolerance in the world? I hope to have some vaguely articulate thoughts on these questions over the course of the next seven days.