Talking Point – Why ahimsa has to start with yourself

“Self-love, my liege, is not so vile a sin as self-neglecting.” William Shakespeare (Henry V)

In Patanjali’s eight-limbed explanation of yoga, which he sets out in his key yoga text, The Yoga Sutras, the first limb is the ‘yamas’, which are five ethical principles that we should try and follow in our daily life. Ahimsa is the first of the yamas that he mentions, and translates from Sanskrit to mean ‘non-harming’.

Most people would agree that we should try not to harm others, yet it’s surprising how many people find it difficult to shine the light of ahimsa on themselves. In fact, the only way we can be truly kind to others is by first being kind to ourselves. Plus, as it is often said – how can we truly love others if we don’t love ourselves first? But this kind of self-loving behaviour seems incredibly difficult for many of us, and is even frowned upon by our culture. Self-indulgence, self-love, self-value, putting oneself first… These are all often thrown into a negative light in our western world – it’s all considered to be a bit, well… selfish. But in reality there is nothing more selfless than putting yourself first – only then can you have the capacity to be kind and compassionate to others, especially when it’s challenging to do so.

Example: You’ve not been looking after yourself and you feel tired and frazzled. A child/partner/friend is annoying you and you find it hard to remain calm and end up snapping, saying something you regret. Now, not only have you harmed the person you love with your words, but you’ve also harmed yourself, firstly by neglecting to look after yourself and secondly because the outfall of this negative exchange will make you feel even worse in the long-run.

So, you can see that the effects of ahimsa need to spread through everything we say and do, and we need to start with not harming ourselves. A great place to look at this is in your yoga practice. Have you ever found yourself pushing too hard in a posture until it hurts or, worse, until you hear a horrible pop or snap and suddenly you’re injured? This is himsa (harming), the opposite of ahimsa.

Another form of himsa that’s less immediately obvious but very common is the ceaseless train of negative thoughts we have about ourselves. Have you ever been in a yoga class and given yourself a hard time about how rubbish you are, how everyone else is better than you, how you’re weak and pathetic, etc…? We would never speak to others as unkindly as we speak to ourselves! So to flip this to ahimsa, we need to try and turn these negative stories into positive ones, and the body will react accordingly.

For example, we could instead congratulate ourselves for being on the mat and having a go, even though we find it hard. We could tell ourselves kindly that it doesn’t matter if we don’t look like the gorgeous text-book yogis but we’re perfect and beautiful just as we are. We could remind ourselves of our strengths and feel glad that we’re all unique, with a different skill-set. Basically, we could give ourselves the kind of pep-talk we would give a friend who was feeling down about themselves. Because, really, we need to be our own best friend!

So I challenge you to contemplate ahimsa in your next yoga practice, and to do all you can to make it a non-harming practice, both physically but also in your head… 🙂

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