One of the moral restraints or yamas in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras is ahimsa. Literally it translates as "non violence”. And while most of us can identify the ways in which harm is visited upon us by the outer world, we are far less ready to examine and own the manner in which we do violence to ourselves. Most of us think of violence as pathological behaviour which calls for a 12 step program. Perhaps one works too hard, eats too much, stays in a bad relationship or sleeps too little.
The Trappist monk and spiritual writer, Thomas Merton once wrote: "To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything is itself to succumb to the violence of our times."
He was not pointing to self destructive behaviour. Instead, he was drawing us to look at the shadow side of normative, even seemingly positive and culturally approved behaviour. If we deny that we engage in hurting the body by driving it too hard, we are practicing denial, the great coping mechanism of the 21st century.
The long-term disregard for the self is a product of what the Buddhists call wanting mind or fearful mind. The mind has created wants which fly in the face of inner values of peace and happiness.
From a spiritual perspective it is never right to cause harm. If one is causing oneself harm it is no less right. Understanding that is the first step to practicing ahimsa.
To verify the suspicion that you might be harming yourself, try this simple practice. Make a list, usually short, of your inner values. And then prioritize them. Next, keep track for a few days of how you spend your time. You may be shocked at the disparity.
Since yoga is a practical means for self awareness, we can use our practice to explore the question of how we treat ourselves.
In the yoga studio, I see people who have spent years over working and under resting. Their bodies are exhausted and hurting. Problems with the digestive system and heart, with sleep and joint pain have become too painful to ignore. Few want to be told that they are engaged in harmful behaviour. For example, straining in a pose to "get it right” leads to tension rather than freeing tissue for more movement. So one can observe hardening the body fibres in pose work and let the face be relaxed and the breath soft. More than that, the mind needs to be soft .Cool mind is one way of absorbing the quiet that yoga can offer.
When you practice yoga in that way, you can extend the approach to life off the mat. If you do not use your time on the mat to observe all your moods and emotions, you are missing half the practice. Do you get angry with your body? Do you load it with the frustrations of the day and then expect it to perform for you?
Feelings of scarcity and fear about it are basic to humans. We have all felt at some point in our lives that there is not enough money or love or adventure or confidence. Who has not felt inadequate or lonely or vulnerable?
But they are only feelings like every other. In yoga, we learn to stand back and observe ourselves running our own interior movies. We see the whole picture without letting it control how we live our lives.
The next time you find yourself getting caught up in overwhelming thought patterns, pause. Step back and observe the feelings and their bodily sensations. Soften and release the bodily strains. Remind yourself that all you can do is take one step at a time.
Once you can identify the sensations in the body of anger, fear, longing, frustration and every other strong emotion, yoga can help you release and open to a more positive and spacious attitude.
This is the true intention of yoga: Liberation.
Kelly Murphy is owner of Bend Over Backwards Yoga Studio in Nanaimo.