In my past few classes I have been pondering this first abstention of the first tenet of the eight limbed path (Ashtanga). Ahimsa. Non harming. Non violence. One of the interesting things to know about this eight limbed path is that the first two limbs are the Yamas and the Niyamas, 5 Yamas and 5 Niyamas to be exact. The third limb is Asana.
So, you have 10 abstentions and observances before you even get to one posture. Funny how in our culture the primary way people are introduced to yoga is through the postures and then we often hear our teachers say “now take this off the mat”.
If we were actually following the path as outlined in the Yoga Sutras, we would have spent a lot of time figuring out our relationships to ourselves and the world around us, cultivated compassion and love, surrendered to a higher power and THEN we would get down to the physical practices of the postures themselves. Not to mention that the 8 limbed path isn’t even brought up until the middle of the second Pada of the Sutras so there was a whole Pada and a half dedicated to yoga that didn’t even include these limbs!! Furthermore, the Sutras, while known to many Indians, wasn’t the most revered text on Yoga studied in India when the British arrived, the text was more canonized in the West. But, I digress. The main point is that we would have spent a lot of time getting our bodies and minds ready before we ever got to our first down dog.
Getting back to Ahimsa, I could write all of that and then spend time disregarding what my path has been, what the path has been for many Westerners. If the asanas are the only things practiced, it isn’t “real” yoga. I could even start to inflict my harmful thoughts onto those around me in regard to their path and develop a hierarchy of “yogi-ness” based on MY studies and studentship versus theirs. Then, I could spend some time directing the arrow back to myself anytime I am not doing the things I think I “should” be doing. I am not spending enough time on my studies/family/relationships/self/studio. I am not spending enough time inside/outside/exercising/practicing asana/meditating/gardening/chanting/journaling/cooking…..
This is all harming. Literally self-inflicted violence. In little subtle ways everyday I can harm myself and others if I choose to. That is the thing about yoga, it is shining the light right back on you. Right back on me. What do I see? Who do I see? Who am I in this? And what are the ways that I keep this harm alive, through thoughts/words/actions?
If we only learn one thing about yoga let it be this first Yama. Don’t harm. Choose kindness and compassion. Apply that to everything else. There is a reason it is the first Yama of the first limb. You could spend a lifetime here and never even get yourself into a handstand. Imagine.