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  • Rosalind Southward

AHIMSA & SATYA: Applying the Yamas to our practice & life

Last month some of my class themes focused around the Yamas of Ahimsa and Satya. There never feels like there is quite enough time to unpick this during a 75-minute class so I wanted to take a little time to write about it and delve deeper!

The Yamas are the first of the eight limbs of yoga, as described by Patanjali in the Yoga Sutras. The Yamas are a social ethics of sorts and refer to the way we interact with the world around us. Patanjali refers to 5 Yamas:

- Ahimsa (Non-harm)

- Satya (Truthfulness)

- Asteya (Non-stealing)

- Brahmacharya (Moderation of the senses)

- Aparigrapha (Non-greed/attachment)

Having worked on our social interactions, these are followed by the second limb of the ‘Niyamas’ which are more self-disciplines or inner observances.

In many ways I’ve come to realise that there can be quite a degree of overlap between ahimsa and Satya and this what I will be exploring here.

Ahimsa translates as “non-harming” or “non-violence”. This is often emphasized as referring to eating a vegan or vegetarian diet. However, being that I am neither qualified as a dietician or nutritionist this is therefore not a subject I will be discussing here. Whilst non-harm might seem like it wouldn’t necessarily pertain to asana, if we think of it in terms of non-injury it becomes very relevant. Have you ever pushed yourself too far in a yoga class or asana and ended up injuring or tweaking yourself? I know I have. Years ago, I would practice (or in hindsight I think we could better call it ‘perform'!) a standing pose that involved a deep split. One day, I tried this when I wasn’t warmed up and injured my hamstring insertion. Nearly ten years later, this insertion point still bothers me from time to time. Any positive benefits of that pose were removed by the fact that I practised it outside of class and in an unsafe way, when quite honestly, I knew better. I had fixed expectations of what my body could do, and I did not listen when my hamstrings indicated otherwise. The result was a literal pain in the butt that even occasionally bother me today. Not only did I not honour or listen to my body, but I also got swayed by my ego. Practising physical asana with an awareness of ahimsa can therefore mean practising with a kindness and compassion for what our body can do on that day and accepting that rather than pushing.

This neatly ties in with Satya “truthfulness”, and reporting things as they are rather than how the ego would like them to be. We come to the mat ‘as we are’ and we practice from that starting point, rather than with a fixed agenda of what poses we need to ‘tick off’ so to speak. This is perhaps where the beauty of a home practice is found. Whether we practice unguided or with an online class live or pre-recorded, we are perhaps better able to ‘come as we are’. Outside of the studio environment we can wear what we want (pyjama practice anyone?), practice when we want, and maybe feel better placed to do the poses we want and omit the ones we don’t. Truthfulness can also show up in our meditation practice, not just in the practice of sitting itself but also in the dialogue around it. Am I making excuses not to do my practice? What am I using to distract myself from it, or to use time so there is ‘no time’ to do it? For me, I know I need to keep a keen eye on my phone screen time. I have to laugh when I catch myself telling myself I don’t have time to meditate. I only have to look at my screen time stats on my phone to see the ‘truth’ of that statement. I gave myself the motto ‘meditate rather than procrastinate’ as I realised that I was often defaulting to social media as a procrastination tool. Instead, I’ve been trying to catch this and put my phone timer on for 7 minutes and sit and focus on my breath. This pause in stillness is a much better tool for productivity than being in a scroll hole that it for sure!

Truthfulness also ties into the themes of self-reflection and the words we say to ourselves (subconsciously) and those we say to others. Self-reflection and awareness are great tools, but it’s important to note when we are working with this only in negative ways. If you are constantly running a ‘not good enough’ narrative on repeat, perhaps take a moment to see the other side of the picture. What are you doing well? What is there to celebrate? These might be small things, but it’s also so important to acknowledge when we have been successful. In a way this also ties back to ahimsa, when we speak to ourselves negatively this is also a way that we ‘injure’ ourselves by dampening down our abilities and achievements in a way we would probably never do if talking to a friend.

Non-harming then also relates not just to our actions, but our words and thoughts too. These days you see a lot of what I call ‘keyboard warriors’ – the people who will type away the nastiest of comments and post them online with seemingly little foresight as to the harm they could cause. Whether gossip or negative comments are made via the shield of a laptop or phone, or indeed spoken behind someone’s back there is still a large level of hurt that can be inflicted. On top of which, the energy we bring to the world is often what is then mirrored back to us. If I am speaking harmful words to others, what am I attracting back, and more importantly, how am I then speaking to myself? All good food for thought….

It might seem a bit frustrating that there is not a one size fits all translation to the Yamas, but arguably this is perhaps why they are still as relevant today as when they are written. Whilst the world around us is constantly changing, there are some things that do remain constant. The basic human nature perhaps being one of them.

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