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Ahimsa philosophy imparts: ‘Be kind to yourself’

Yoga tenet tells us to have patience and kindness, especially when we are still learning
Part of a healthy yoga practice is being kind to yourself.

Yoga tenet tells us to have patience and kindness, especially when we are still learning

I still remember my first day in yoga as I fidgeted in the back of the classroom, the ends of my mat curling from its packed roll. Young women donned the standard lululemon shape-enhancers, men curled into complex abdominal backbends to warm up, and older ladies with muscles that could crush me looked like they had already found nirvana.

As the teacher instructed us through our first steps, I could only think about three things — one: how much my neck hurt from cranking to watch how others did a pose; two: who came up with some of these names? And three: clearly, I sucked at yoga.

It took me almost 10 years to give yoga its second chance. But had I known a little more about the philosophy behind the practice, specifically a little kindness clause called ahimsa, I may have been back sooner.

“One of the hardest things to deal with when we are starting a new practice, of any kind really, is that we want to master it instantly,” says yoga instructor Paula Hamilton. “But the real practice is to recognize that we are just beginners, just babies at this right now, and to bring in a kindness, patience and understanding of that gift.”

Hamilton and others who study the tenets of yoga emphasize the importance of the practice of The Five Yamas (restraints), specifically ahimsa — a term that literally translates to “do no harm.” This tenet is listed as the first of the Eight Limbs of Yoga, and is enacted as an obligation in many yogic and religious practices.

While it’s easy enough to flex into the idea of not purposely hurting anyone, one of the hardest principals to accept is not coming down on ourselves. Ahimsa takes its practice far and wide to emphasize kindness and non-violence towards all living things, including plants and animals (with the exception of necessary self-defence), and avoiding all physical and verbal violence — goodbye swearing. Right or wrong, however, ahimsa equates all kinds of violence with negative karmic consequences.

“Ahimsa is really the philosophy that started my own yoga practice — knowing where my own edge is, and choosing self love and self care to show myself compassion,” says Hamilton, who is an extreme sports enthusiast and was so moved by the word she named her own studio after the tenet.

That studio, Ahimsa Yoga in Sooke, offers all-levels and all-ages classes to those just starting their practice and to those looking for a closer community where one lacked before.

“Something I hear a lot of is people with stories about how they tried yoga once, but the poses were too extreme, or the teacher barked at them, or they felt that they couldn’t keep up and weren’t as good as the rest of the class, but it breaks my heart to hear that, because that’s not what yoga is about at all,” she says. “Often, it’s the people who are judging themselves the hardest that need yoga the most. I tell people I’m sorry you’ve had that experience, but I hope you will try it again, and this time be gentler … if someone can love where they are at right now, that really reflects outward.”

Lucky for me, I took that second chance on yoga, this time entering community classes in an attempt to calm my mind more than improve fitness. Perhaps because of that new aim, poses that seemed unrealistic before now felt more akin to the tumble play of kindergarten recess. As the instructor reiterated the phrase “remember, this is your practice,” I began to take heart in those words. Then, one class, I realized I was surrounded by people years ahead and months behind me, but I could finally see we were all too concerned about ourselves to worry about what others were doing.

Hamilton says, as an advanced-level surfer, rock climber and athlete, she knows too well the pressure we put on ourselves to fit in and push our limits. After an injury that left her unable to be as active as she was used to, she used yoga as a way to gain patience with her body as it is now and to resist the urge to keep comparing herself to what she knew she could be, or what she hoped to become.

Hamilton says the injuries have also forced her to take ahimsa practice to deeper levels, dealing with emotional things she would normally avoid through activity. That doesn’t mean she’s lets herself become stagnant, or that it’s always easy to do just that — she recently injured herself again in another high-endurance activity. But the practice is more important than the “success” she says, adding that she views the yoga mat as a training ground for life.

“I always say, yoga should not be painful at any time. You have to let your breath be your teacher, and know that you are welcome no matter where you are at,” she says. “Some days a pose won’t be right for your body, but that doesn’t mean you are any less ‘good’ at practice: that means you care enough about your body that you’re doing what it asks of you. The reality is, that pose won’t change your life anyway — how you deal with it will.” M