Yoga for difficult times: Ahimsa

Yoga offers ancient solutions to modern problems. But you could also say yoga offers ancient solutions to ancient problems, because when things go sideways in our lives, the themes are as old as the sun. Grief, loss, disappointment, illness, anger, pain, frustration, loneliness: none of these are unique to the modern world. Your girlfriend may have broken up with you over Snapchat, but there’s nothing newfangled about the heartbreak you feel.

In this series of blog posts, I discuss yogic practices that we can use to navigate difficult times. Today I’ll be focusing on the first yama, ahimsa (“a-HIM-za”).

Ahimsa can be understood as “non-violence, least harm, and compassion”. How can we practice ahimsa during times of difficulty? Here are some thoughts:

Practice self-compassion: Acknowledge that you’re going through something very difficult. Give yourself the time and space necessary to find your way through: Can you book time off work? Can you cancel social engagements? Can you let yourself off the hook if it’s taking longer than expected to recover? If you’re in an ongoing bad situation, such as a toxic relationship, a practice of self-compassion may mean extracting yourself from the situation or redefining the boundaries of the relationship.

Practice least harm: Don’t let your good habits slip. Over-eating, over-consuming alcohol, distracting yourself with excessive screen time (and so on) may provide short-term relief, but may be harmful in the long run.

Forgiveness as compassion: There’s a saying, “Holding a grudge is like drinking poison and hoping the other person will die.” When someone has hurt you, you may find it difficult to forgive them. However, if you think about forgiveness as an act of self-compassion, you may be more inclined to extend forgiveness to the other person. Incidentally or not, this is also showing compassion for the other person.

Practice compassion for others: When things get tough you may find you have less patience and tolerance for others, causing you to lash out. Remember that we all experience hard times. You may not know what’s going on with other people, but you can be sure that they also experience difficulty. Treat people gently, the way you would like to be treated.

Cultivate empathy: Most people view empathy as a desirable trait. However, the only route to empathy is through pain. How can you truly understand someone else’s pain unless you’ve felt it for yourself? Use the pain of difficult times to cultivate empathy and soften your heart towards others, perhaps going as far as to feel grateful to your pain for giving you the opportunity to develop empathy. Transform your broken heart into a tender heart, more open and more capable of feeling the pain of others.

Just like me: A beautiful practice for generating empathy and compassion comes from the Buddhist nun, Pema Chödrön. She calls this practice “just like me”. This is something you can do at any time, but it seems especially potent during times of low-level difficulty, for example, while stuck in a traffic jam or waiting in line. As you begin to feel impatience surface, look around at the other people stuck there with you. Quietly notice them and think to yourself, “Just like me, this person doesn’t want to be stuck here” or “Just like me, this person doesn’t want to suffer or experience pain”. By taking a moment to notice your sameness with other people, you can generate feelings of empathy and compassion for them and for yourself.

Like any practice, it’s much easier to develop a practice of ahimsa when things are going well. That way, when life becomes a struggle, you already have the habit in place.

How else can you practice ahimsa in difficult times? Let me know in the comments section below.

Image © 2016 Erin Bidlake

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  1. Sara Simon

    Thank you for this Erin! I’d been ruminating on how to share the yamas in the coming weeks, and then your lovely post on asteya this morning led me here <3