What does yoga have to say about our treatment of ourselves and others? How can we allow this information to inform our actions? What steps can we take to expand our own compassion?
Thousands of years ago, after some years of practice and exploration, the ancient system of yoga was eventually outlined in a book entitled The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. Patanjali was not the creator of the system of yoga that he wrote about, but was instead the first to put it into writing. Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras outline an eight-limbed system of yoga, referred to as "ashtanga yoga" (the Sanskrit word "ashta" means eight). These eight limbs are designed to take us down a path of yoga that results in enlightenment, or discovery of the true Self.
The first limb of ashtanga yoga is a group of moral restraints called the Yamas. These five instructions give us guidance on how we interact not only with ourselves, but with others as well. The first Yama is called Ahimsa. Ahimsa is the start of our entire yoga practice. It is the first instruction on the very first limb on the thousands-year old path to enlightenment as discovered by yogis. The translation of the word ahimsa is “non-harming” (in Sanskrit “a” indicates opposite of and “himsa” means harming). Non-harming is the root from which all other yogic practices come. If we are causing harm, we are not truly practicing yoga in its fullest expression.
This is no easy task! Regardless of intent, we cause harm daily with careless steps, words, and thoughts. Removing this harming from our lives takes some dedication and awareness. A good way to think about the process of refining our intent to cause no harm is to start with the gross and work towards the subtle. For example, when we are angry with someone we can start by not doing them any physical harm as a result of our anger. This practice may be easy for us, and once it is, we move on to the practice of not saying anything nasty about the person who we’re angry with, which may prove more of a challenge. We can eventually move to the practice of not thinking anything nasty about this person, which could be the most challenging of all. As the practices get subtler and more-refined, they require more dedicated effort on our part. Our goal is to avoid all harming that comes from our deeds, words, and thoughts. After all, we are all connected and as a result, we influence each other. When we speak negatively behind another's back, those who hear it are affected. When our thoughts turn negative, we may keep it concealed from others, but we still suffer.
We should start this practice close to home, with ourselves. Once we have some success with showing ourselves kindness, we can expand our efforts to those that we love (this may be harder or easier depending on our tendencies), then those that we don’t know, and finally, the most challenging, those that we find difficult or do not like. Think of every person as worthy of our effort, no matter how challenging. When you are faced with this challenging person, think of how fortunate you are to have the opportunity to practice expanding your compassion to them and make your best effort to do so.
According to yoga, the Self (with a capital “S”) is a spark of the divine with exists in all beings (sometimes referred to as the soul or in other ways in other traditions). This teaches us that, in essence, all animals, including humans, are exactly the same. We all want to be safe, happy, comfortable, and with the ones that we love. It is the lack of recognizing the divinity in ourselves and in others that leads to some of the pain and suffering that we experience in everyday life. We think that we are separate, that we are alone, or that we are somehow different than everyone around us, when in reality, we all share so much.
If we are to truly recognize the Selves of others, then we cannot treat them differently than we would treat ourselves. Recognition of this true connection is what we aim for in our yoga practice. We develop the tools to see our Selves on our yoga mats (or our meditation cushions, or in our volunteer work, or elsewhere) and then we take that knowledge into the rest of our lives and see divinity and connection everywhere. Harming another becomes an impossibility when we look at them and see our reflection looking back. This is the practice of Ahimsa.
Nicole Sopko is a Chicago-based yoga teacher who has been living a vegan lifestyle for the past 15 years and views that transition as her first yoga practice. She is also a dedicated student of Sri Dharma Mittra, who encourages students to recognize the light in all beings. A believer in the power of yoga as a lifestyle, Nicole feels that a playful yoga practice enables a person to approach the more mundane aspects of life with a lighter heart and a more accepting attitude. Her yogic journey has played a big role in her life and she feels lucky to have the opportunity to share that journey with others.
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