Ahimsa: why it’s cool to be kind (to yourself)

yoga Daventry

Last night, I addressed the theme of ‘ahimsa’ in my yoga class. Ahimsa is derived from Sanskrit and essentially means “not to injure” and to behave with “compassion”. Whilst most of us (me included) are very good at being compassionate to others, we often fail to accord ourselves with that same level of compassion and love (again, me included).

I had a very frank conversation with someone this week about their perception of me and how it differs from my own. I feel that I am a very independent person – self-reliant, resourceful etc. – but they said that whilst that is the case, there is also a side of me that does tend to ignore or discredit my need to be nurtured. It wasn’t the easiest conversation I’ve ever had but it was certainly one that I am finally ready to hear and to accept.

Acting in accordance to the principle of ahimsa means allowing compassion and nurturing into all areas of our lives. It could mean living in a way that is more in tune with the environment, such as recycling or becoming vegetarian or vegan. It could mean volunteering at a local animal sanctuary or old people’s home. It can also mean wrapping your mind, body and emotions up in self-love. There’s a really great meme I saw recently that describes looking after someone who is sad by wrapping them up in a blanket like a cosy sushi roll. It’s an image that resonates with me, as all too often we ignore our own needs in order to prioritise those of other people or because we are unsure how the people we love will react if we aren’t ‘there for them’ all the time. All of us want, at some point, to be wrapped up in love and nurtured, but we rarely do it for ourselves.

I see people in my job as a sports massage therapist who have ignored physical aches and pains for so long that these aches and pains have become progressively worse and now they are in considerable pain or cannot move popularly. Pain is our body’s way of telling us something is wrong. If we touch a hot stove, we pull our hand away quickly…so why aren’t we applying this basic reaction to other areas of our lives? Is it because we think that by carrying on, even when we are tired or achey, other people will see us a being a ‘trooper’? Or, is it simply that we just don’t have time to stop and allow our bodies that breathing space?

Every yoga class I talk about only moving into asanas that the body is ready for, or that are accessible to us: just because you can push your body into the splits, doesn’t mean you always should! Just like our minds and emotions, our bodies are constantly changing and in a different state. If I spend a day at the computer, I know full well that my shoulders will be as crunchy as a gravel driveway and that my eyes will be sore. Likewise, I know that if I stand too long, my lower back starts to get a bit achey. I might feel like there is no choice but to shut up and get on with it – power through by drinking caffeine and eating lunch at my desk – but is that really the case? Would taking a ten minute break from the computer to go for a walk round the block have a detrimental affect upon my day’s productivity or would it be more likely to actually give me a much needed break and therefore, allow me to work in a happier and more compassionate manner?

Can we also apply this thinking to other areas of our lives? Are there days when we feel more emotional than others? Instead of reaching for junk food and social media, should we actually be finding better ways of soothing these feelings in a way that is both nourishing and compassionate to our inner beings? I often think of the negative mantras we repeat over and over to ourselves and it is clear that we would never dream of speaking like that to someone else. It begs the question why on earth do we do that to ourselves? If we don’t value ourselves for the remarkable, miraculous individuals we are, how can we expect others to?

We often worry that being seen as focused on our selves equates to being selfish or self-serving. However, this is simply not the case. We even hear sayings like ‘the world doesn’t revolve around you’. I’d like to take issue with that. Whilst being selfish to the extent that you don’t care about others or you purposefully injure others in your path is clearly wrong, there is a point where you do have to allow your world to focus primarily upon you. Let me be clear here, I’m not condoning ignoring everyone else or only looking out for yourself, but what I am saying is that taking time out and making yourself a priority is something we should all be doing. If we are always tired, injured (emotionally or physically), or time-poor because we give so much to others, we cannot expect to be the best version of ourselves that we can be. Even just taking an hour out to do some yoga, have a bath, read a book, play some music, paint a picture, is giving back to our sense of self in a way that only we can.

I ask people to be completely present when at yoga. The hour they spend on the mat is their hour, their time to just be, not to worry about what’s for dinner, the row they had at work, or whether their children need help with their homework etc. Being fully present in the moment – in our body, mind and emotions – is one of the greatest gifts we can give ourselves. I truly believe that by being there for ourselves, we are far better prepared to be there for those we love.

Practise ahimsa whenever you can, but don’t forget to include yourself within that practice!