We each begin our journey with yoga for different reasons—flexibility, strength, weight loss, injury, and stress management, to name a few. And yet, at the heart of it all, we are mostly starting our journey with yoga to help us make a change. In some way, we are here because we don’t want to be here. At least not here in this body, with this face, or of this mind. We want something to be different.
How many times have you been on your mat listening to the tirelessly perky instructor say something about ahimsa (non-harm) while internally you’re berating yourself for skipping that last vinyasa or the way your thighs look in today’s trendiest spandex?
The truth is, when you are in your head having this love-hate—er, hate-hate—relationship with yourself, in that moment you are not doing yoga. It doesn’t matter how impeccable your handstand is if its foundation is self-loathing. In fact, according to the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, your asana practice hasn’t even begun until you’ve adopted the Yamas and Niyamas, or the ethical precepts of yoga.
It doesn’t matter how impeccable your handstand is if its foundation is self-loathing.
The Yamas and Niyamas are like an ancient guide to yogic behavior. And they have nothing to do with what size pants you can squeeze into or how many advanced asana you’ve posted on Instagram. Yamas and Niyamas are the first two limbs on the eight-limbed path of Raja Yoga (the foundation for most modern yoga). Only once you’ve thoroughly pondered and adopted these ethical principles (which include non-stealing, truthfulness, cleanliness, and contentment) can you tackle limb number three: asana.
The very first lesson in Yamas, that first limb of yoga, is ahimsa. Ahimsa can be translated as non-killing, non-violence, or non-harm. Ahimsa is responsible for the idea that a yogi or yogini should be vegetarian (which is a whole other blog post entirely!). As much as ahimsa is about the way we treat other living beings, it is equally about the way we treat ourselves.
Essentially this all comes down to one thing: If what you are doing is harming yourself or someone else, it ain’t yoga!
Don’t be fooled, though. It is about as easy to start practicing compassion to yourself as it is to practice compassion for your worst enemy (who is a worse enemy than the ego, after all?). Start where you are. You are making hundreds of decisions during your practice, and your attention is probably bouncing around to hundreds of places. If you can start by making a few of those decisions with more self-acceptance, you are well on your way to mastering ahimsa.
What’s beautiful about practicing anything over and over again is that in time, it becomes a natural part of us. The more often you can shift your thoughts and actions toward self-care and compassion, the more you will cultivate these traits. Eventually, you won’t need to remind yourself to practice ahimsa, you will be breathing it into every posture on your mat.
In the meantime, celebrate every moment of tenderness between you, yourself and you. Rest your achy shoulders in a child’s pose, take deep breaths in dolphin while your fellow yogis practice headstand. Enjoy the process of growing your practice, inside and out.
Elizabeth Crisci is a yoga teacher and artist in Fairfield County, Connecticut. She is the creator of Love by E, handmade gemstone mala and jewelry. She teaches in workshops, special events, and trainings in the Northeast in addition to a range of regular, weekly classes. She teaches smart and accessible yoga designed to make you feel good. She loves every minute of her work. You can find her writing and her teaching schedule on her website.