By Gayatri, yoga, meditation teacher and gong practitioner
Yoga as a practice is thousands of years old, whose teachings were originally passed from teacher to student by word of mouth. The word ‘yoga’ itself means to yoke, unite or harness. As such, yoga is a state of being, which manifests itself as a uniting of physical, mental, emotional and spiritual energies with the energies of nature and the cosmos.
In Western culture, yoga is largely seen – although this situation is starting to change – as a series of postures performed to help create and maintain physical health. In fact, the practice of Hatha yoga (yoga of the body) was originally developed to focus on strengthening and balancing the body’s energies to prepare for meditation, which could lead to transcendental realisation (enlightenment).
But in reality, yoga is a vast subject and physical practice is simply one important aspect. For instance, the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali were written as a practical guide for raising levels of consciousness and understanding by helping people to move through the different levels of the mind and even beyond it.
The word ‘sutra’ means thread. So each sutra can be seen as a thread running through a tapestry. When all the threads are woven together, it is possible to see the whole picture.
In the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, ‘yama’ and ‘niyama’ are introduced in the second book, Sadhana Pada – 2:29, as the first two limbs or steps on the path of Ashtanga yoga (eight-limbed yoga or the eightfold path).
Yama and niyama also form the foundation and framework of Raja yoga (the yoga of meditation) and act as guidelines for harmonious living. They are intended to bring mental clarity, stillness and strength to people, so that they can reach the higher states of meditation and consciousness. Even if you choose not to follow a yoga path to its ultimate conclusion (enlightenment) though, cultivating the yamas and niyamas can still bring more peace and harmony into your life.
The first yama, which isahimsa, translates loosely as ‘non-violence’. But in the words of Swami Ahimsadhara, it could more accurately be described as “the complete absence of violence from our nature”. Indeed, the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali 2:35 (translated by Swami Satchidananda) state: “In the presence of one firmly established in non-violence, all hostilities cease.”
Ahimsa is placed first on the list of yamas because, by cultivating non-violence, the rest of the yama and niyama that follow should unfold more easily. As Swami Ahimsadhara Saraswati says: “When we integrate ahimsa into all that we do, the other yamas and niyamas tend to spontaneously and effortlessly become part of who we are and how we live.”
Therefore, through cultivating non-violence, we make friends with our minds and lay the groundwork for everything else to follow. So how can we begin to develop ahimsa or ‘compassion’ in our daily lives?
The first step starts with awareness: Awareness of our thoughts, feelings and the internal dialogue we have with ourselves. All too often we treat ourselves harshly and are unaware of the hurt we perpetuate within our own being. But by creating some space, either within a group practising tai chi, yoga or meditation or by ourselves in a nurturing environment, we can begin to explore our internal landscape.
Here is a simple breath awareness exercise that can easily be brought into regular practice in your daily life. Focusing on the breath encourages the parasympathetic nervous system (system that promotes relaxation) to switch itself on.
Setting a convenient time to undertake this exercise in a quiet space dedicated to doing so encourages regular practice. Once you are comfortable with the technique, you will find it can be used in all kinds of locations, for example, in a waiting room, on public transport or in your car when you are stuck in traffic.
Breath awareness exercise
- Sit comfortably and, if appropriate, close your eyes or lower your gaze.
- Become aware of each breath as it arrives and leaves. Allow yourself to take several breaths and focus on each arrival and departure.
- Notice the texture of the breath on your skin as it flows in and out.
- Notice any other sensations or qualities to the breath as the practice unfolds.
- If your mind is distracted and your awareness wanders away from the breath, gently draw your attention back to it and its journey as it arrives and leaves.
- When you feel comfortable with the practice, add a count: ‘Breathing in one… Breathing out one…Breathing in two…Breathing out two…’. Notice any pauses at the top of the inhalation and/or the bottom of the exhalation.
- If comfortable, you can add physical movement to synchronise with the breath by placing both hands on the centre of the chest (the spiritual heart space). On the in-breath, move the hands away, opening the arms out with soft shoulders, elbows, wrists and hands. On the out breath, draw them back to the heart space.
- Practice this exercise for a few complete breaths and, when it feels comfortable, visualise yourself sending compassion out to all beings as your hands move away from the heart space. Visualise offering yourself compassion as your hands return to the heart.
- At the end of the practice, return to stillness with your hands gently resting in your lap and observe your body, breath and any thoughts and feelings that may be present.
The purpose of this exercise is to note each complete breath. Although there is no set length or prescribed number of times it should be undertaken each day, as a guide, start with 10-15 complete breaths (a complete breath consists of one inhalation and one exhalation) twice a day.
As time goes on, simply increase or drop the number of breaths in line with what feels comfortable. There is no rush, so take the time to develop a practice at your own pace.
The real key to success here is regularity, which involves setting an intention to practice daily. By setting this time aside, we are showing compassion to ourselves in that we are demonstrating ourselves worthy of the time and effort involved.
If a day or two slips by and you forget to practice, just return to it the next day, putting aside any judgement or criticism. None of us are perfect and no one is keeping score – it is called a practice because we are practising.
We would expect a toddler, who is learning to walk, to fall down again and again, and so, as we cultivate ahimsa(compassion) in our daily lives, we discover that we too are finding our way. Showing compassion to ourselves is vital for our own wellbeing and, as we become more compassionate to ourselves, we also find it easier to be kinder to the world around us.
As Plato said: “Be kind, because everyone we meet is fighting a hard battle”. But that also includes ourselves.
Gayatri (Gail Gibbs) teaches yoga and meditation and is a gong practitioner. She is passionate about creating space for those of any age to explore their transformational potential in a safe and nurturing way. Cultivating compassion for oneself is at the heart of Gayatri’s teaching and sound work, thus allowing the process of personal growth and change to unfold.
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