For me, yoga started off as a way for me to manage anxiety as well as the physical benefits of getting fit and strong. But I soon realised that yoga is so much more and I couldn't wait to learn all there was to know! Which is why I decided to do my teacher training in India where I was told there was more of a focus on philosophy. I have always loved being in yoga classes where teachers discuss different aspects of yogic philosophy and it led me onto the long winding path of self-awareness and self-realisation.
So when I started teaching I knew that I wanted to share as much of this philosophy with my students as possible. I knew that the majority of my students only came to yoga for the physical benefits and I struggled with this initially because I wanted them to want more! But then someone reminded me that as long as students come onto the mat, why does it matter why they come? Once I had them on that mat, I could start to introduce little bits of philosophy each class and even if I helped one student to understand themselves a bit more, it is all worth it.
In my humble opinion, the Eight Limbs of Yoga or the Yogic Eightfold Path (Ashtanga Yoga), is at the core of what makes up yoga. In the West, we consider yoga to be posture (asanas) only and if I tell people I want to bring yoga into my everyday life they think I am going to do my work while doing a headstand (which let's be honest, I have been known to do). But what people don't realise is there is so much depth to yoga! To me, it is a way of life. It sets out the principles that I want to follow to be a better person, not only to treat others better but to treat myself better. The best thing about the Eight Limbs is that they are open to your own interpretation. You can read eight different articles and they will give you eight different meanings for each Yama and how to bring them into your life.
I often discuss the Eight Limbs of Yoga in my yoga classes. I started with the Yamas, the rules regarding our conduct, or as I was taught, the attributes that we should bring into our nature. The first of the Yamas is Ahimsa, which translates to non-violence or non-harming. Ahimsa to me is having compassion for all living beings.
Gandhi summed up Ahimsa when he said:
Ahimsa does not simply mean non-killing. Himsa means causing pain to or killing any life out of anger or for a selfish purpose or with the intention of injuring it. Refraining from so doing is ahimsa. Ahimsa means not to injure any creature by thought, word or deed. True ahimsa should mean a complete freedom from ill- will and anger and hate and an overflowing love for all. Ahimsa is the attribute of the soul and therefore to be practiced by everybody in all the affairs of life.
Violence comes in many forms: mental, emotional and physical. We are normally well aware that we should be compassionate and kind to other humans, but we often forget to impart this same compassion for all other beings, as well as ourselves.
Practicing Ahimsa includes not having violent thoughts toward yourself or others. Not judging others. Being aware of your anger and working towards disposing of any anger and ill feelings. Forgiving others who have wronged us. Simply put: spreading only love.
In the traditional sense, practicing Ahimsa could mean being a vegetarian. For me, ahimsa means being vegan and not consuming any animal products, not wearing animal products such as leather or wool, not using animals for entertainment (circus, elephant rides etc) and not using products that were tested on animals or containing animal products (you would be surprised how many actually are). Not so long ago, no one cared where their food came from and people just bought whatever option they could find but these days people are becoming more and more aware of their food and the process that the food had to go to get to them.
One piece of advice I would give you: don't use ignorance as your excuse and say you would rather not know where your food came from so that you don't feel bad about eating it. Know where your food comes from, buy local produce wherever possible. Your choices don't have to be perfect but make the best choice you can with what you are given. We have an abundance of choice!
Same goes for clothes, etc!
On the mat, we practice Ahimsa by respecting our body always. We don't push harder when we should be pulling back. Conversely, we surrender when we need to instead of holding back in fear. So much tension that we feel in poses is because we are putting that tension into our bodies by trying to hold ourselves up instead of letting go and surrendering. Don't judge yourself or others in the class. Remember that everybody has a different story: we all have different bodies, have led different lives, have varying levels of fitness, have old injuries - so it isn't possible for you to compare yourself to others.
Imagine a world where we all practiced Ahimsa and were kind to each other, loved each other, treated animals with dignity and compassion and loved ourselves just as much... It would be pretty great!