“Accept what is, let go of what was, and have faith in what will be.”
- Sonia ricotti
I’ve always been prone to obsession. At times, it has manifested positively. Although for most of my life, it’s dragged me through painful episodes of reviewing past and future scenarios repeatedly, sometimes for days at a time. I would wonder endlessly over the tone of an email, the passing remark of a stranger, or the odd glance I got in the elevator.
Sometimes these obsessions would stem from fear, at other times regret, at others they’d just arise, seemingly out of nowhere. The only truly common thread was that for years they stopped me from fully living my life.
In a generation characterized by anxiety, I know that this isn’t unique…or even uncommon. Which means that there’s a huge opportunity for students to use yoga philosophy to help address whatever negative obsessions or negative fixations they may be carrying with them.
Ahimsa applied to the self
In Sanskrit, Ahmisa is the practice of non-violence (“a” = not and “himsa” = “harming or injuring”). Ahimsa is often the first of the Yamas (set of five social ethics) to be cited and discussed. In its simplest, it’s understood as not taking action to hurt others. However, in another sense, Ahimsa can be applied to the self.
When the lens of ahimsa is applied to the self, we begin to see all the internal harm our minds create. We begin to better see and understand the guilt we carry, the narratives we tell about our self-worth and ability, our anxieties about the future, or the anger we harbor towards others. This insight is empowering because each of these negative emotions are correlated with feelings of helplessness.
When we feel guilty, we’re helpless to change the past; when we feel unworthy, we’re helpless to face the present; when we feel anxiety, we’re helpless to self-determine our future. Therefore, understanding them and leaving them behind can allow us to regain control of our lives. Practicing ahimsa can allow us to leave behind the things that don’t serve us. It’s what has allowed me to stop obsessing.
How to present this theme in a yoga class
This idea can be presented and referenced at multiple points in a yoga class. Begin during your opening by presenting the idea of Ahimsa and relating it to how we see and treat ourselves. Ask students to briefly meditate on what they may be holding on to, on what is not serving them in a positive way. As they bring these thoughts into their mind, explain that this practice can be seen as a ceremony of leaving behind their negative thoughts, anxiety, or obsession. Invite students to make this their intention for the class.
As the students move through their asana practice, remind them of their strength and power. Reinforce the positive emotions and thoughts that can take the place of the self-harming beliefs they’re leaving behind. Remind them that they’re strong, confident, intelligent, and able bodied.
At the end of practice, bring each student back to their original intention. Encourage them to move forward from the practice carrying only what serves them. Perhaps, ask all students to take one deep collective breath to metaphorically release their anxieties or fixations.
Yoga as self-love
Embracing Ahimsa, non-harming, can encourage us to recognize that negative emotions don’t serve us. We can reposition our minds so instead of viewing ourselves as the “victim” of our negative emotions, we move to a place of empowerment by noticing that our negative emotions aren’t contributing to improving our experience. We can show ourselves love and care, which strengthens our resolve and ability to change our lives.
Yoga can be a path towards accomplishing this state of self-love. It gives us control over our breath and control over our body, which translates into control over the mind and its experience. Practicing ahimsa towards the self allows us to slow our thinking and step back to view our lives with a perspective grounded in calm and presence.
Practicing ahimsa towards myself allowed me to realize that anxiety was an ineffective response, regardless of the stimulus. So as you practice, think about showing loving kindness to yourself. This will ultimately allow you and your students to extend that kindness to others.