I’ve found myself using the title of this post in recent classes as a way to discuss the practice of ahimsa. (If you are unfamiliar with the world of texting/tweeting “BFF,” it stands for “Best Friend Forever.”) Ahimsa is one of the Yamas included in the Eight Limbs of Yoga (see last post). Below are translations/interpretations from a couple different sources:
- non-violence; avoidance of harm (literal translation)
- consideration for all living things, especially those who are innocent, in difficulty, or worse off than we are (TKV)
- embracing reverence and love for all, we experience oneness (NJD)
I call ahimsa the Queen of all Yamas because if one walks a path immersed in ahimsa, the remaining four yamas occur naturally (truthfulness, non-stealing, wise use of energy, non-hoarding). While “yama” is translated as “our attitudes toward the environment” or “guides for dealing with the external world,” it is important that we also apply them in our relationship with self.
So what does it mean to be your own Best Friend Forever? Well, it means you treat yourself with consideration, reverence, and love. You are kind to yourself, while at the same time, being completely honest with yourself. You cut yourself slack for mistakes and forgive yourself when you do something you are not proud of. It also means avoiding activities/thoughts that would bring harm or violence to yourself. This includes everything from diet to checking the internal critic that can pass judgement on every thought and deed.
It is often easier to treat others this way than the self. Maybe this is due to Western culture’s promotion of worthiness being tied to something outside of ourself. I say Western, because apparently, this is not a universal problem. In The Wise Heart, Jack Kornfield shared the following antecdote:
At an international Buddhist teacher meeting in 1989, the Western teachers brought up that in the practice of Western students, the most prevalent problem was that of self-hatred, unworthiness, shame, and self-criticism. “The Dalai Lama and other Asian teachers were shocked. They could not quite comprehend the word self hatred. It took the Dalai Lama ten minutes of conferring with Geshe Thupten Jinpa, his translator, even to understand it. Then he turned and asked how many of us experienced this problem in ourselves and our students. He saw us all nod affirmatively. He seemed genuinely surprised. “But that’s a mistake,” he said. “Every being is precious!”
While we all have an inner critic, those who have experienced domestic or sexual violence can have an especially loud and mean one. I did. The physical wounds heal long before the mental ones. This is where yoga can be especially helpful. Learning to watch the flow of thoughts, even the critical ones, without judgment, long enough to recognize they are not the truth. I still remember the first time I realized my internal voice was my own and not my mother’s. It happened while on my mat and the thought was one of loving kindness. That was the moment yoga hooked me.
Practicing ahimsa makes living with a health condition easier (I didn’t say easy). When I realize I’m pushing myself or holding back due to health, I remind myself that I wouldn’t have those expectations of my BFF. I wouldn’t expect her to push herself to beyond her limit. I wouldn’t deride her for having a “woe is me day” every now and then. I would try to understand her fears and definitely, celebrate her victories.
I’m sure you won’t be surprised to read that I think the mat is the perfect place to work on ahimsa. Here are some scenarios where you need to be your own BFF:
1) Your mind just won’t settle. Seems like every other breath your mind is wandering off and you find yourself thinking, “Focus for crying out loud. Why in the world can’t I just focus on my breath for even 10 lousy seconds!” We are human. It’s going to happen. Be gentle and as the saying goes, “if you have to bring yourself back to your breath 100 times, make sure you don’t stop at the 99th time.”
2) The person on the mat next to you is practically kissing the floor during lizard pose, while you are barely bending forward from the 90 degree knee variation.
As a teacher, I LOVE this pose for the practice of ahimsa. It is a hip opener, so it is held a bit longer. Unless you have great hip flexibility, you are going to encounter a lot of sensation. Because we often carry emotional baggage in the hips, the strong sensation/resistance can invoke an emotional response. And because we all want to be “that flexible,” it often brings out our competitive or envious side. Talk about needing a little self-kindness in a pose!
I never teach this pose without mentioning ahimsa; encouraging students to remember everyone comes to the mat from a difference place; reminding them that I don’t give prizes for being the last one in a pose, so work at the level of physical or mental sensation that is right for this moment. I don’t refer to it as Lizard Pose, but as Bowing In. As we bow in, we honor the sensation and resistance we encounter with love and attention.
3) You are low on energy. You can either skip your asana practice or pick a practice that matches your needs. Author and Kripalu yoga teacher, Stephen Cope, wrote that there was a time in his life where the asana his body needed most was Savasana (relaxation pose). I try to remember that during periods of fatigue. Other options include practicing in a chair, doing a shorter practice, and/or focusing on the other limbs such as breathing or meditation.
Early on, I made the mistake more than once, of heading out to my local studio, when a short home practice would have been more appropriate in that moment. I either spent a lot of time in child’s pose or left half way through class. All because I wanted to be a “real yogi” in a “real” class — listening to my ego instead of my body.
4) You’ve done a particular pose a hundred times without difficulty. But, today, your body is different. Do you push yourself into pain? Do you find the version that fits you today? Whichever action you choose, what do you tell yourself about your choice?
I think you get the point. Whatever your ahimsa challenges, watch out for judging the fact that you are judging. That can be a vicious cycle. I like to follow the advise of yoga teacher, Judith Hanson Lasater:
A practice I have been enjoying for some months now is to “make peace with the present moment”. That means that when thoughts arise followed by thoughts of judgment I tell myself that the whole process is part of my practice: the original thoughts and the secondary or following thoughts as well. I do this by saying to myself, “how human of me to have a thought of X”. This helps so much when I look at the behavior of others as well.
What are your ahimsa challenges? How do you work with them?