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Maitri musings: ahimsa (non-violence)

  • Jan 07, 2019

A couple of years ago I started writing about the yamas and niyamas. I didn't get past the first couple! So I'm re-starting here for 2019. The background explanation is here, otherwise read on!


The first yama is ahimsa, directly translated as non-violence. Most of us recognise this as a sensible way to proceed on the grand scale (“thou shalt not kill”) but the connotations of subtler approach are wider still. Turned on its head, ahimsa becomes love, kindness and compassion. Like maitri, the name of our studio.

Now though it’s trickier to stick to our good intentions. How often do you harangue yourself mentally about your behaviour, looks, desires or even ability to form yoga asana shapes? And how automatic is this for many of us? What the wise have observed for years, scientists now understand in brain function. Repeated thoughts and behaviours leave neuronal tracks that become hard to move away from – you’re literally stuck in the groove. Thankfully we know both empirically from long-term meditators and now from scientific observation that the brain changes with training, called neuroplasticity. There’s plenty of literature about this if you’d like to read more. I recommend Sharon Begley’s Train your Mind, Change your Brain. There’s an audiobook clip here.

And here’s where our yoga practice steps in. During asana practice, we learn to focus the mind on what the body is doing in a non-judgemental way. We learn to find our limits, gently test them, remaining kind so that we don’t injure ourselves. We learn that kindness doesn’t equate to lazy practice; rather that true kindness and compassion for ourselves is to reach our potential in the moment, which often (always!) requires concentration and some mental and/or physical effort. When we notice that we’ve hardened – the eyes are hard, the jaw clenched, the breath ragged – we can once again return to sending kindness through the body and mind.

BKS Iyengar wrote in Light on Yoga of ahimsa:

"It is more than a negative command not to kill, for it has a wider positive meaning, love."

When we learn to treat ourselves this way, it is much easier to spread that kind awareness to the world around us. All you need is love.

Love, Claire

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