If you identify as a yogi, then chances are, you’re aware of the term “ahimsa.”
For those of you who aren’t aware, ahimsa is one of the five yamas, or the moral and ethical guidelines that yogis try to live by. And ahimsa specifically refers to this idea of doing no harm, or engaging in no violence.
Ahimsa can be applied to our lives in many different ways.
When it comes to practicing yoga, ahimsa allows us to listen to our bodies. You never push yourself beyond what you are capable of. You do not cause yourself injury, and if you think that you might, then you back off a bit and forgive yourself, knowing that if you just keep practicing, you will eventually be able to push further and still remain safe and injury-free.
I have heard ahimsa used as an explanation for why someone is a vegan or vegetarian—because they do not want to cause harm to any living creature on this planet.
We might also consider ahimsa when it comes to our relationships. Ahimsa means we shouldn’t hurt other people, whether from violence, or from intentionally harming another person’s psyche.
Yet, there is another way to use ahimsa in our lives—one that I think is vital for everyone, yogi or otherwise, and that needs to come well before we use the concept in our relationships.
We need to practice ahimsa toward ourselves.
This is similar to when we practice ahimsa in yoga: whenever something isn’t benefiting us, when it is only going to harm us in the long run, then we need to learn when to back off. And, I know, this sounds like common sense to most of us, but I think that there are many situations—some external, some internal—when we push ourselves too far for our own health.
Having expectations, for example, is one of the ways we harm ourselves—whether they’re the expectations that others have put on us, the expectations that we put on ourselves, or the expectations that we place on the world at large. When we are constantly striving to prove something, we often harm ourselves in an attempt to reach that goal. We sacrifice our mental health. We pick ourselves apart, creating deep insecurities and self-hatred. We hurt ourselves—without even meaning to.
And according to the practice of ahimsa, all of this is a sign that we need to back off a bit on our expectations. Ease up. Allow things to be as they are with the faith that someday, they will grow to become something better. We will not grow if we are constantly causing ourselves harm.
And there are millions of ways that we cause ourselves harm—every single day.
We cause ourselves harm by holding onto toxic relationships. We cause ourselves harm by attempting to fit into a specific image—believing that we can only be strong and silent and selfless and beautiful. We cause ourselves harm when we allow people to hurt us, or when we sacrifice too much to avoid hurting them.
And as a woman who lives in a society that tells my gender that we should be self-sacrificing at any given turn, as a person who has struggled with depression and anxiety, and as someone who has self-harmed and battled eating disorders, I am no stranger to doing harm to myself.
But by doing harm to myself, I began to learn just how important self-love is. Because if you cannot love yourself, then you cannot fight for yourself. You cannot stand up and tell people when they are treating you in a way that you do not deserve to be treated.
Not being able to love ourselves opens us up to a plethora of harmful behaviours. It might create judgement or jealousy, as we look down on others who have what we feel we lack. When we feel angry about who we are and what we don’t have, we take that anger out on other people, even if they have nothing to do with it.
When you cannot love yourself, then you cannot properly give love to the world around you. And, likewise, when you cause harm to yourself, then you cause harm to the world around you. That is because love will always start with you.
Part of ahimsa, in all of its translations, is simply accepting who you are as a person. Accepting that you are limited, but that you possess the ability to grow if you give yourself the chance to do so.
This is why we back off on yoga poses that might cause us harm. This is why we stop being so hard on ourselves about the way that we look, or where we are in our daily lives. Just because we can’t do something today, that doesn’t mean that we won’t be able to tomorrow. We have to give ourselves time and patience to get to that place, and if we hurt ourselves in the process, then we stunt that growth. It’s easy to give time and patience to other people, but it is rarely natural for us to give it to ourselves. And we need it if we are ever going to grow, and do some lasting good in the world and in our lives.
So, breathe. Forgive yourself for what you perceive to be your faults. Give yourself time and self-care and a cookie, if you need it. And remember: do no harm, not even to yourself.
Bonus: Time’s up to make women’s equality a reality. Here’s a way to help those most in need—now.
Author: Ciara Hall
Image: Natalia Drepina/Deviantart
Editor: Catherine Monkman
Copy & Social Editor: Callie Rushton