Working the First Two Yamas – Ahimsa and Satya

At the end of June, one and a half months into my yoga journey, I bought a book called Wanderlust: A Modern Yogi’s Guide to Discovering Your Best Self by Jeff Krasno. The book provides a kind of compass for finding one’s way to a place of stillness and fulfillment from within through the practice of meditation and yoga. The foundations of yoga are an important topic covered in the book, which are compiled of the Eight Limbs of Yoga (or the moral and ethical foundations of yoga) – 1. Yama, 2. Niyama, 3. Asana, 4. Pranayama, 5. Pratyahara, 6. Dharana, 7. Dhyana, and 8. Samadhi. As the most popular aspect of yoga in the west, many people are familiar with/aware of the limb of Asana, which is the physical practice of the postures (or asanas) and perhaps pranayama, which is described as the life force and expressed in the mindful connection and control over one’s breath – an important aspect of asana practice. But the other six limbs have much to offer and I am after all that they have!

In order to incorporate and cultivate the Yamas of yoga, of which there are five (1. ahimsa, 2. satya, 3. asteya, 4. brahmacharya, and 5. aparigraha), Krasno proposes a month-by-month focus on each of them, one at a time. As a yoga new born and someone who tends towards an all or nothing approach in these kinds of things, I embraced Krasno’s suggestion. The following is my account of experiencing the focused cultivation of the first two yamas or moral, ethical, and societal guidelines of practice: Ahimsa and Satya.

Ahimsa – Compassion for all living things
The word ahimsa literally means not to injure or show cruelty to any creature or any person in any way whatsoever. Ahimsa is, however, more than just lack of violence as adapted in yoga. It means kindness, friendliness, and thoughtful consideration of other people and things. It also has to do with our duties and responsibilities too. Ahimsa implies that in every situation we should adopt a considerate attitude and do no harm. – William J.D. Doran, expressionsofspirit.com

Non-violence, compassion, and kindness or Ahimsa, was my focus for July. When I read this first yama that I would focus on I thought it would be a breeze. I’m not a violent person – I don’t intentionally hurt other people and I live a vegan lifestyle! If those things don’t constitute non-violence, then what does?! As it turns out, I still have violent tendencies to come to terms with and to harness – maybe not violence as we most readily understand it, i.e. physical aggression towards others, the killing of other beings for my own personal benefit – but something else that I now understand as a kind of violence. Mainly manifesting in the way I treat myself and those around me when I am hurt, scared, or angry, recognizing the violence in my thoughts and my words is both liberating and daunting. I realize that I am a bit like a fanged animal in that I locate all of my self preservation techniques in outward demonstrations of ferocity, rather than taking the path of a turtle or armadillo, curling up quietly behind my shell and waiting for safety. After working at this in high focus during the month of July, I’ve realized this: those tactics, in cases where I am truly in harm’s way, are handy, natural, and beneficial to me and any others I might need to protect. However, in my cultivation of Ahimsa, I better understand the necessity of gauging the situation, the degree of risk, and the source of the threat. My personal challenge is to accurately assess situations that tip these instincts off and to avoid engaging them when there is no true threat.

Another interesting aspect of my focus on ahimsa has been the lives of insects. As a vegan I have long turned away from killing or harming creatures and critters that bother me, scare me, or gross me out (or shit in my cupboards); I understand that these are beings; Earthlings that deserve as much respect for all of their brilliance and intricacies as humans. This was not, however, a sentiment that I had applied to my understanding of bugs. Ahimsa brought this to the forefront for me, specifically with attention to ants, spiders, and centipedes. I used to step on the ants that I found scurrying around my kitchen floor; I used to kills spiders and demand the death of any centipede I was aware of. When we first met, Mr. W. asked me how I can be a vegan and kills bugs, and my response was, “I do what I can.” I suppose at that time, I didn’t feel like it was something I could stop doing, something I couldn’t get my head around. Now I feel sad when I think of all the ants I killed in the midst of their mission to gather food and to survive. Today we keep a plastic cup and a piece of cardboard on top of the fridge and when I see big ants on the floor, I just scoop them up and take them outside. I haven’t brought myself to relocate any spiders or centipedes yet and I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to, but Mr. W. is totally on board. (In fact, he was on board with this long before I came around).

As for cultivating Ahimsa on the mat, the implementation of compassion, kindness, and non-violence manifest in the way I experience the practice. There have been days when I have been frustrated with my perceived lack of progress or my stiff hips and short hamstrings. Committing to practice Ahimsa has helped me to treat those days and moments – and myself – with compassion and kindness, and back off.

Satya – Commitment to Truthfulness 
Satya means “to speak the truth,” yet it is not always desirable to speak the truth on all occasions, for it could harm someone unnecessarily. We have to consider what we say, how we say it, and in what way it could affect others. If speaking the truth has negative consequences for another, then it is better to say nothing. Satya should never come into conflict with our efforts to behave with ahimsa. This precept is based on the understanding that honest communication and action form the bedrock of any healthy relationship, community, or government, and that deliberate deception, exaggerations, and mistruths harm others. – William J.D. Doran, expressionsofspirit.com

August: truth, truthfulness, honesty. The prospect of cultivating satya, the second yama, actually gave me some feelings of anxiety. My problem came in the form of being honest with myself, as opposed to other people. In order to commit myself to an honest practice of satya, I would have to break a number of habits that I’ve engaged in for a very long time, including self-directed name calling, put downs, self-doubt, and allowing truthless anxieties and fears to direct my inner dialogue . These are the things I tell myself out of fear, when I know the rational truth is something completely different. Practicing Satya has also meant pulling back in my physical practice. To be truthful includes being truthful in what I can and cannot do on the mat and that has meant taking days off for healing now and then and even abandoning the practice of some asanas altogether, until my body is stronger and more flexible, which for some postures, could be years. Both of these things have been a struggle for me to accept and practice but again, I’ve found a feeling of liberation too. What is it that they say…the truth will set you free? I believe this is accurate. I just have to keep practicing.

For the month of September, I will be focusing on Asteya (non-stealing), and while on the surface, I feel confident that I’m already incorporating this in my life, I look forward to the insights that a period of focus will reveal. In the meantime, I’d love to hears stories of other peoples’ journeys through the yamas, or even just experiences with one or two aspects. Please share your stories or insights below!

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