Ahimsa: practicing non-violence towards yourself

Ahimsa is a concept that comes from the 8 limbs of yoga – it is one of the Yamas, which are codes of conduct for living a life of fulfillment that also benefits society. Ahimsa means “non-violence” towards both yourself and others. This is not only violence in the physical sense, but with your words and thoughts as well. Often when we hear the word violence, we think only of the physical and we forget about these other two aspects, which are quite important.

Today I want to focus on the aspect of ahimsa that deals with self violence, because that is the direction in which our words, thoughts, and actions are generally the most unkind. We have a constant critic in our minds that is blaming, judging, and reprimanding our perceived failures or mistakes on a daily basis. We say things to ourselves we would never say to our good friends and we refuse to forgive our smallest mistakes, even though we would not hold them against others.

Many of us put so much energy into making our loved ones feel good, yet we forget to give that same love to ourselves! This may work out for a while, but eventually you may find that you are constantly giving and giving only to hide from the fact that deep inside, you don’t feel the love you are trying to give away. How can you give to others what you yourself do not have?

Mental ahimsa

We all live with an inner critic from whom it is impossible to escape. That voice will always be there judging our every action and telling us what we’ve done wrong. But the good news it, we don’t have to listen to it! This voice feeds off of our negative feelings and grows stronger and stronger each time we agree with it and validate it. If we can practice ignoring the voice and not accepting what it has to say, it will grow weaker over time and will fade into the background. As I’ve said before, you don’t have to believe everything you think.

This is easier said than done – it is a lifelong practice. Some days, when we are feeling great, it is easy to ignore that inner voice and tell it to go mind its own business. But when we are already feeling down and it starts whispering in our ear, it is easy to give in and let the negative thoughts spiral out of control.

Fortunately, we also have a really awesome, kind, understanding inner voice who loves us and understands when we make mistakes. We are human, after all, we all make mistakes! We are here to make mistakes over and over again and learn from them each time. It is how we handle mistakes that matters, not the fact that we made them in the first place. We can strengthen that supportive inner voice like we would strengthen any muscle – with practice and patience. It won’t turn into a bulging bicep overnight, but if we practice saying nice things every day, especially when our inner critic is at its loudest, that voice will slowly gain confidence over time and we will choose to believe it more and more.

I know daily affirmations seem cheesy, but they really do work! Have you ever tried standing in front of a mirror and saying nice things to yourself over and over? Not just once, or twice, but like, ten times in a row, until you actually believe it? I know it feels weird, but again, it works. Even just looking deep into your own eyes and saying “I love you. I support you. I accept you” or whatever phrase it is you need to hear can be a really powerful thing. Try it! If you need some inspiration, just check out this little girl – her daily affirmations are on point.

One thing that really helps me stay positive is the idea of being my own champion. As my very own champion, I picture myself as an over-the-top enthusiastic cheerleader, and I encourage and support myself throughout the day! When I am doing yoga, I think “Wow, you did so great today! You held that pose for a couple seconds longer than usual!”. When I so some sort of craft, I think “Man, that painting looks great. Your art is really improving!”. When I send postcards to friends, I think “You really are such a thoughtful person, I can’t believe how many people you sent postcards to today!”.

It may sound silly, but man, it really makes me feel good! It’s not that I think I am perfect and can do no wrong, but I already have plenty of negative voices in my head, so it’s really nice to remind myself that there are a lot of positive things to remember about myself. And besides, I’m not focusing on telling myself that I am perfect, because I’m not. I am focusing on being supportive and kind, on recognizing my own hard work and progress – those are the things I want to feel good about and they are the kinds of things I would want to recognize in others as well. We should all feel confident enough that we can be our authentic selves without worrying about judgement, either internal or external.  

Practicing ahimsa with our bodies

It is especially important to remind ourselves of ahimsa throughout our yoga practice, or any physical activity really. It is easy to criticize and judge ourselves when our practice is not at the level we would like it to be, especially when we are comparing ourselves to the other yogis/runner/climbers/acrobats we see doing advanced moves. But if we want our activities to be sustainable, we need to be honest with ourselves about where we are at physically and focus on slow and steady progress rather than holding a handstand long enough to impress others.

This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t push ourselves to get better and go a little beyond our abilities each time we work out, but we do need to be careful that we aren’t trying so hard to improve that we end up injured. And we need to think kind thoughts towards ourselves even when we aren’t at the level we hoped we would be at by now. Everyone’s bodies are different and even our own body is different on different days, or in the morning versus the evening.

In addition to following ahimsa while working out, we also need to follow it by being thoughtful about how we treat our bodies in general. We only get one body in this life and it is our temple. Having a healthy body that we love and care for allows us to do so many other things. No matter what your body looks like, it is important to be kind to it, both in your words and in your actions, whether that means looking in the mirror and saying nice things to yourself, eating a little more food to make sure you are satisfied, drinking less alcohol so that you feel well, or getting regular medical exams to make sure everything is working properly.

Our bodies are totally amazing and they are really good at keeping us going, even when we are treating them horribly, stuffing them with junk food or starving ourselves, getting very little sleep, or pumping drugs and alcohol constantly through them. It is truly astounding how good our bodies are at staying alive even in the most dire of circumstances. Perhaps this is why so many of us mistreat them – our actions often seem to have either few consequences or consequences that we just get used to living with. We’re still alive, so we must be doing things right, right?

But these actions will catch up with us in the long run. When we make our bodies work harder than they should to sustain us, we are actively shortening our lifespan and putting unnecessary strain on our system. And if our bodies are able to keep us alive even when we treat them poorly, imagine how amazingly we would function if we were worshipping them like the temples that they are! We are capable of so much and many of us have no idea the potential we have to live strong, healthy, energizing lives because we are so busy just trying to function like normal.

There is so much information out there today it is hard to know sometimes what is really best for us, and that can be overwhelming. But we can learn a lot just by going within and paying attention to the messages our bodies are sending us. I think most of us could identify at least one or two actions in our lives that are making it harder for our bodies to function, we just don’t want to admit it. Even making one or two small changes – getting regular sleep, drinking less alcohol, eating less sugar, exercising a little more – can have a huge benefit on our overall health. We need to stop doing so much harm to ourselves and expecting our bodies to pick up the slack!

No pain no gain

“No pain, no gain” is one of the worst phrases you hear in relation to physical activity, especially when it is taken literally. On the one hand, I get the sentiment behind it: if you’re not willing to work hard and push yourself past your limits, you will never improve or get to the level you want. Fair enough. But all too often, people take this to literally mean that working out should be painful, that if you have pushed yourself hard enough to feel pain then that is a good thing because it means you’re working hard. That, my friend, is just plain machismo nonsense!

If you are pushing yourself so hard in any sport that it is causing you real physical pain, that means you have done something wrong. Either you didn’t warm up enough, you need to do more strength training first, your alignment in a pose is completely out of whack, or any number of other reasons, none of which is that you are doing things properly.

While it may temporarily feel good to push through the pain and complete a challenging task, it is very likely that it’s going to come back to bite you later on. Pain is a sign that we need to take a step back and re-evaluate what we are doing to make sure that we don’t get injured. Training properly for something – whether it’s a marathon, a rock-climbing competition, or a yoga teacher training – should certainly be challenging, but it shouldn’t be painful. Part of learning an advanced skill is knowing how to do it in a sustainable way that will allow you to continue doing it long-term. Causing ourselves unnecessary physical pain does the opposite of making us better – it is instead likely to slow us down when we end up really hurting ourselves and can lead to long-term damage.

Pain, of course, is different from discomfort or difficulty. If we want to improve at something it it important not to give up just because it’s hard. Often, our limits are actually a little bit further than we realize and we need to push ourselves a little harder than we think we can go in order to actually improve. This is true for both mental and physical activities – the real growth happens just outside our comfort zone!

To sum it all up…

I could write forever on this topic and will probably be writing a whole second “ahimsa” post in the future. But for now, just remember that there is nothing to be gained by harming yourself mentally or physically. Punishing yourself for perceived wrongdoings is a good way to make yourself feel ashamed, but it isn’t likely to lead to personal growth, confidence, or self-love. Forgive yourself for your mistakes and learn how not to make them in the future. Push yourself to be better, both mentally and physically, while remembering that causing yourself pain is not a good way to make progress. Take care of your body and be grateful for all the hard work it does to keep you alive!

And in case you didn’t click on the link earlier in the post, make sure you watch this video of a little girl who is clearly kicking ass at life – it will be the best minute of your day, I promise!


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