“Well, If I Were In Your Situation…”
When you find yourself in the midst of a crisis or turning point, as all living things must, there is usually no lack of friends, loved ones, and strangers to tell you what to do.
Leave that unhealthy relationship. Stay at the job where you’re underappreciated and you know your vitality is being sapped. It’s the only job you have. Your car blew up? Let me give you my brother in law’s card. He’ll sell you a used car with low miles.
If you look into what passes for self-help books, too, it’s more of the same. Go on a low carb diet. Keep a cognitive journal. Do a 30-day cleanse. Get a makeover. You’ll feel better!
I don’t want to denigrate the importance of a support network or drag the self-help industry through the mud. But I do want to point out that not taking an action can be just as powerful as taking a prescribed action.
Not A Negative
That’s what the yamas are all about. They make up the first of yoga’s eight limbs. The yamas are ethical and moral standards, and they instruct us not to take certain actions. At the same time, they leave some freedom for us to decide what those specific actions are for us, and what not taking them might look like in our lives and practices.
As yoginis or yogis, if we accept the authority of the Vedas, we should make an effort to live by the yamas as well as the niyamas. The niyamas, which make up the second of Patanjali’s 8 yogic limbs, are standards of individual conduct, or internal observances. They tell us what actions we should take–so they are prescribed rules. The yamas, while they are also rules, take a different tack by telling us what we shouldn’t, rather than should, do from day to day.
Want to know more about the Vedas, to decide if living by them will work for you or not? Or maybe you are just curious and this is your first time reading about the Vedas or any sacred Hindu texts. They are worth at least knowing about because they can broaden and deepen your yoga practice.
Here’s what the Harvard Divinity School has to say about the Vedas. You don’t have to read or follow the Vedas to do yoga, of course, but I do my best to live by them and it has been transformative. And I still get to be an atheist!
In this 10-part series, we’re going to explore the 5 yamas and 5 niyamas in detail.
Related: What Are the 8 Limbs of Yoga?
Respect For All Living Things
We will start with the first yama, which Patanjali called ahimsa. In Sanskrit, ahimsa means the principle of not causing harm to other living things or to ourselves. The root words are a, or ‘non’, and himsa, or ‘violence’ in modern English. So we are going to talk about nonviolence.
When we hear “nonviolence,” many of us think about leaders and revolutionaries like Dr. Martin Luther King, Mahatma Gandhi, and Henry David Thoreau. These figures and others practiced civil disobedience without armed resistance, and much of their work was successful.
We can practice nonviolent civil disobedience, too, but ahimsa has a much broader definition and application to our daily lives. It doesn’t always have to take place on a national or global scale.
Keeping Ourselves On Track
For me, ahimsa helps guide how I practice self-care. If I don’t care for my own needs and make sure I am looking after my body and mind, I won’t have anything left for others. I can become isolated, withdrawn, and irritable.
Getting enough sleep is a big part of this. So I don’t drink coffee after a certain time of day. If I break my own rule, I will lie awake, replaying all the mistakes I made or think I made, projecting how those mistakes will have a ripple effect over the course of the next day. If I were able to sleep, which starts with refraining from certain behaviors, I wouldn’t even be thinking about my mistakes. I’d be asleep, recharging for the next workday.
That’s how ahimsa, or deciding what we won’t do, leads into showing us what we can and should do. I don’t have to say “I don’t lie awake feeling anxious.” Because I stayed away from the coffee, didn’t eat too close to bedtime, got enough exercise, and made sure all my tasks were done, I avoid harming myself by doing what I don’t want to do.
Winning By Almost Losing
Have you ever met someone who had a job that, when people find out what they do, their faces light up and they are suddenly full of questions and ideas? That’s me. I am a freelance writer. My work all takes place at home, in my bedroom office. I meet with editors, clients, and colleagues using Slack and other virtual office software. I have a set schedule, but my editor’s main concern is that I meet my deadlines. If I need a half-day off, for an errand or mental health day, I can take one as long as I make arrangements to work extra later and meet my deadlines.
It’s pretty nice and very freeing. But it’s also still a job. Because I am not in an office, I have more opportunities to slack off. Nobody will see me visiting Facebook or watching old comedy sketches on YouTube, so nobody will try to stop me. But my supervisors will see the results, in my finished product and in the amount of time it takes. I struggled with this quite a lot at first. More than once, I was sure my employer was about to let me go.
I’d like to say I yogini-ed or sun salutated my way out of trouble, transforming myself into an efficient and blissful creature overnight. But no. I still struggle.
So I made a rule.
I don’t go on Facebook until work is done. It has made a world of difference. I didn’t think about how my Facebook usage would hurt others, until my editor opened up about how she works seven days a week to keep up with writers handing in work inconsistently, or all at the last minute. I only made my Facebook rule when my livelihood was threatened and I was afraid I would lose my living space or have to go back to working in customer service.
But by single-mindedly pursuing whatever it took–not that much really–to keep my job, I reduced the amount of harm my actions did to my editor and team members.
“You Can’t Do That!”
Before we go, I want to talk a little about the difference between what we can’t do and what we won’t do.
I can’t be an astronaut. At my age, I don’t have enough time left and I am past my physical peak. There are people who train for over a decade, starting in their teens, and still don’t get to be astronauts.
I can’t join the U.S. Olympic powerlifting team for the same reason. No matter how hard I train, I will never be as strong as the weakest competitor.
Those are things I am physically incapable of doing. I am not physically incapable of going on Facebook before I finish work.
So instead of saying to myself “you can’t do that,” I say “we aren’t going to do that, Shannon.”
Putting it that way naturally leads me to ask: what can I do? In my case, I can very simply not open the app or site until work is over. I can limit my time even then; I really don’t need more than an hour a day to socialize with friends and read some AP news stories.
The rule of not causing harm through distracted behaviors leads me to be a better employee, a more successful freelancer, and a more grounded yogini because I can apply the calm and peace of mind I feel to my time on the mat. Keeping Facebook open all the time, like drinking coffee too late, sapped my peace of mind and led me to be more anxious.
What can you tell yourself not to do this week? If you can pick one thing, you can then start to ask yourself “what can I do” and it may guide your next big set of choices. Even though it asks us to make sacrifices, the yama of ahimsa isn’t negative or punitive. It leads us to a richer life if we allow it to.
I hope you have enjoyed learning about the principle of non-harming. Next time, we will take a look at the second yama, satya or truthfulness. Like ahimsa, satya involves being honest with ourselves just as much as with others. Until then, namaste and remember that sitting on your mat and breathing is still a yoga practice.
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