The first of the Yama's 'Ahimsa' often translated as 'non violence' is perhaps one of the most pertinent. While non-violence can sound simple at the superficial level (i.e. don't kill or hurt anyone) it can be far more challenging when we turn this quest towards ourselves, particularly in those instances where we feel powerless, unhappy or out of balance.
The form of violence I speak about here is not just gross physical harm but also emotional harm. How many times a day do we direct criticism, unkind or unhelpful thoughts towards ourselves that we would never dare put on another (often out of concern for how it may impact their emotional/mental wellbeing)??
This is so easy to do and sometimes takes the simple form of looking in the mirror and making a mental observation of how undesirable we look today, criticising ourselves for taking a day off from exercise/training, calling ourselves stupid for not getting out of a less than ideal situation sooner or even just eating that slice of chocolate cake. It's so important to remember that we are all human - we make mistakes, need to rest/recharge and sometimes enjoy that slice of cake!
The art of living with Ahmisa not only applies to ourselves and other human beings, it also extends to all living creatures. This yama is very much in line with the buddhist precept of abstaining from causing harm and taking life (both human and non-human). At this point one of the first questions that comes to mind is 'Do I need to be a vegan/vegetarian to practice Ahimsa'?
During my time in India studying at KYM it was interesting to get our highly regarded philosophy teachers take on this. Her opinion based upon extensive study of the scriptures was that being vegan or vegetarian was not essential for the practice of ahimsa, it all comes down appropriateness. As an example a fisherman killing fish to make a living and feed the family is considered to be in line with ahimsa however a commercial fisherman taking fish with the intent of turning over a profit would be considered to be acting against ahimsa.
The way that I understand it is that most yogi's are generally vegetarians because plant based foods are generally considered to be more 'sattvic' or pure which helps to keep us in balance (i.e not feeling lethargic as can happen after a big serving of spag bowl or overly energised which happens when we eat too much sugar). For me personally I maintain a vegetarian diet around 95% of the time as I feel much better without meat, especially red meat which I now find really difficult to digest. If however I'm craving some fish or chicken and this feeling sticks around for more than a day I'll generally eat it - after all if my body is asking for it there must be a reason.
One of the most personally relatable passages of text that I've come across in regards to Ahimsa comes from Deborah Adele's book 'The Yamas & Niyamas'. It talks about balance in our lives being a cornerstone for non-violence, it also speaks about the consequences of losing balance, she states:
'We are bombarded and we bombard ourselves. And if we have any doubts, our calendars will reveal the truth of our craziness. The repercussions are inescapable, immeasurable violence to ourselves and those around us".
I read this around a year after doing exactly that - loading up my calendar so heavily that there was no space for a 15 minute delay because everything that followed would fall down. At the time I didn't have the awareness (or the scheduled time to stop and reflect) to see how this was impacting myself and all those around me. I was constantly stressed/tired and my friends and family were left feeling like they were just another appointment in my calendar. I was proud of how much I was squeezing into my days and how productive I'd become. I only began to question my crazy scheduling when a good friend kindly expressed concern and opened my eyes to the flip side of my behaviour.
It's so easy to get caught up in all that's happening in our lives and not realise that we are inflicting this harm upon ourselves. I believe that the first step towards correcting/improving anything is the identification of the pattern/behaviour, after all how can we seek to change something that we cannot see? It's so important to give ourselves space and quiet time to reflect and study our own behaviours/patterns. I just spent a year doing it quite intensively and still feel like I'm in the first chapter on the book of Mandy!
The kindness and compassion that we cultivate towards ourselves will be directly reflected to those around us. Conversely if we remain extremely critical of ourselves, those around us are likely to feel our high standards being pushed upon them (even if this is not our intention).
So with all that said how has the practice of ahimsa impacted/changed my life, and what does it look like for me on a day to day basis:
Like all things my practice of ahimsa is still very much a work in progress although as the commentary on the Yoga Sutra's say 'even a bit of ahimsa is enough to elevate us to a higher state'.
Surely that's enough of a reason to give it go :)
Returning home after an extended period of time away (particularly when travelling) always stirs up a number of emotions. Often when we return it's with a sense that we've evolved and changed so much, yet it can seem like everything has remained the same at home.
Finding our place again and not falling into old patterns can be one of the greatest challenges.
I came home after my recent trip really excited about what lies ahead knowing very well that I'm not the same person I was when I left. Amongst many things my outlook on life, approach to living, perspectives, and attitudes towards myself and others have significantly changed. I'm not so concerned about falling into old patterns this time around, my renewed sense of self feels like it's deeply woven into my being.
One thing that I couldn't shake this time around though was the frequent thoughts of all the 'stuff' that I have sitting in a friends garage. Just knowing it's there has been weighing me down. I'd managed to live out of a backpack for a year and was perfectly fine with the few things that I had.
I was struggling to see the point in keeping all this stuff.
This brings me to yoga philosophy and the Yamas and Niyamas. These can be considered as guidelines, ethical disciplines or perhaps restraints and observances. One of the Niyamas is 'Aparigraha', this guides us towards living with non-possessiveness, not hoarding things that we do not need.
Deborah Adele brilliantly explains 'Aparigraha' in the context of possessions in her book 'The Yamas and Niyamas'. She states:
"Anything we cling to creates a maintenance problem for us. The material items that we hoard, collect, buy because they are on sale or take because they are free, all take up space and demand our attention....clutter in our physical space blocks our ability to physically move, while clutter in our minds blocks our freedom to expand and have space for the next thing that life wants to bring us".
It's interesting to look back and reflect.....before I moved my things into storage I went through a process of significantly minimising my possessions. I got rid of 3 bikes, 2 kayaks, and 10+ pairs of shoes along with a whole bunch of other stuff that I felt I no longer needed - I was rather proud of myself for doing that, at the time it seemed like a big deal. Yet here I am again with exactly the same stuff seeing that so many more things need to go.
I'm now ready to let go of the couch, television, DVD's, lots of clothing, kitchen goods etc as I can clearly see that they don't add any value or enhance the quality of my life - they are simply cluttering my physical space and my mind.
Clearing the clutter is a really challenging process, so many items that we posses have memories attached to them. Sometimes it can be hard to disassociate the item and the memory, we fear losing the memories when the item moves on. I had this feeling as I went through my last yoga practice on the mat that I'd carried around for my entire trip and used almost daily for 11 months. While it was just a yoga mat, it had been the place of so much transformation and growth, I had so many memories attached to that mat. I decided not to bring it home with me so I honoured the tears that flowed as I said goodbye, took a photo of it, and left it in Bali for somebody else to enjoy. The memories remain and if I need reminding in the future I can take a glance at the photo I took which clearly shows the hours of work put in on that mat. Perhaps one tool here is to take a photo before getting rid of something as an insurance policy for your memories.
It's also difficult to let go of thoughts like 'what if I need to buy all of these things again in the future, what a waste of money it would be starting again, how would I even be able to afford to do it all again'. But this is where we need to be truly honest with ourselves, we have no idea what the future holds, everything changes - only that fact is guaranteed. There is no point holding onto things just in case we might need them again one day - especially if we can't see that one day appearing in the next 2 years.
The challenge that I'm putting to myself as I move into a new home is to be brutally honest about what things I need and what adds real value to my life. I'm tired of feeling weighed down by all this stuff, it's time to get the clutter monkey off my back and clear some space for all the wonderful things that are coming.
Mandy Habener (Dumas)