After years of intensive training and teaching of yoga asana, pranayama and meditation, my practice has shifted this summer to one off the mat. It has instead turned to the relationships of my life, returning me to the first step of yoga—the yamas (restraints for proper conduct)—and its first principle, ahimsa, or kindness.
Ahimsa stems from two root words: hiṃsā (injury or harm) and a (away from or in opposition to). It applies to non-harming by deeds, words and thoughts. Let’s begin this dive with a full disclaimer: I am not a saint, but a work in progress. There are many times, even as recent as today, that I did not practice ahimsa with utmost sincerity. Even though it is one of the most basic virtues by which we can live, it seems, at times, the most difficult to uphold on a consistent basis. Ahimsa asks each of us to live in the name of love for all living creatures, ourselves included.
When striking out on this summer’s travels, I had a mission: to see where else I might want to live and begin the next chapter of life. When traveling alone, you cannot avoid the practice of self-love. Every decision is made in your best interest and by yourself, no interference but for that of the divine and the unforeseen. That part of the journey was quite easy, honestly; and furthermore, it was the most necessary after spending the last couple of years exercising compromise in relationship, making big life decisions for two, sometimes to my own detriment.
Commonplace things such as: What am I eating today? Where am I sleeping today? What am I doing today? Do I need a rest day? became necessary questions of survival and well-being. To answer these simple things on day-to-day or week-to-week basis was refreshing and fun. I understand that this isn’t the norm for a lot of people and that once there are children in the equation, much more difficult (or even near to impossible); but, if given the chance to go back to these basics, it is a great way to return homeostasis to one’s life. You learn not only what is necessary and important to you, but also what your habits and preferences are.
As the journey continued and I was attuned to the natural rhythms of life on the road, relationships slowly started to reappear. People, whether old friends and family or new acquaintances, became an integral part of day-to-day life. After all the quality alone-time on the road, I found myself much more patient and attentive to these relationships, what they brought and who these people truly were. Not having much to my name but a Prius, a dog and a tent took away labels, pretenses and expectations, which transferred over to the way in which I greeted these people anew. Their generosity and openness blew me away. Their accomplishments seemed even greater and sweeter, whether big or small. All of a sudden, the miracles and serendipity of life started to reappear threefold before me: chance encounters, job offers, unexpected invitations and destinations. It appeared as though an infinite realm of possibility had opened up, once my eyes readjusted to the new light.
As my mother says, “You don’t rest on your laurels.” What she really means is that I don’t stop to give thanks and grace to all that has already occurred in this beautiful life, pausing to appreciate accomplishments and perhaps even feel a sense of pride or awe in them. She is fairly accurate. Thus far in life, I have proven to be inexhaustible, sometimes just from fear of being defeated or unworthy. What this summer’s journey has asked me to do is assess with ahimsa—with others and with self.
Nowhere else has this been put to test more fervently than with family. Upon my return East, many an occasion has shown up to A) react with anger/hurt/impatience or B) listen and act with love/praise/acceptance. I have had to ask many of the following questions recently: When a family member is causing harm or pain, can I respond with understanding and acceptance? How have I also caused them harm and can I recognize and accept that without stubbornness or shame? What part of their acting out is their own individual pain vs. a reflection of the real-time situation? Can love exist within the pain of a strained relationship? What I know to be true is that when we inflict pain or harm on others, it affects us doubly so. Regretful words, shame, sorrow, they are all effects of our internal wrongdoing. When I have spoken poorly of someone (even if they have not heard the words aloud), those words live longer inside me than they do in the air, or even in someone else’s ears. I find myself asking later, “Were those words necessary or even true?” Most of the time, the answer is “No.”
Consider this passage from the Mahabharata:
Ahimsa is the highest virtue, Ahimsa is the highest self-control,
Ahimsa is the greatest gift, Ahimsa is the best suffering,
Ahimsa is the highest sacrifice, Ahimsa is the finest strength,
Ahimsa is the greatest friend, Ahimsa is the greatest happiness,
Ahimsa is the highest truth, and Ahimsa is the greatest teaching
It is the teacher of acceptance, non-reactivity, nonjudgemental living and unconditional love. As we know, love does not live in a bubble, it is omnipresent and inter-relational, it is the language with which we navigate a world of 7.7 billion people, as well as countless other forms of life. Ahimsa determines our quality of life, the relationships within it and the last thought we have before death.
The biggest lesson I have learned from ahimsa this summer is acceptance of others. Even as a self-serving practice, the more I can truthfully see and accept others, as well as the choices they make, the greater peace I feel inside and out, the greater freedom I have to also make choices and decisions for myself, the more love surrounds me.
This reminder came today from a post by Jessie Jones, the owner of Yoga Sanctuary, Las Vegas. (*See last paragraph below.) As I get older and navigate what commitment and long-term relationship looks like, I realize that a lot of commitment is acceptance and kindness.
Many a devoted couple has been a part of this trip and they have taught me that bickering, showing one’s true (dark and light) colors and owning imperfection are a big part of lifetime love. It takes some of us a long time to learn and understand romantic love, even to plunge into marriage and family, and it seems that with less societal and religious pressure around defining what that looks like, the time spent navigating those routes is timeless.
Surely each one of us has a way of defining love. We all come with a different set of needs, a different basket of expectations, a different way of recognizing and giving love; however, within that world of possibilities, there must be a common factor. One that sets the story of a good romantic film, one that makes us cry at a wedding, one that helps us to console a friend when they are experiencing heartache after a betrayed love, one communal language of love. Yoga asks us in the very beginning of the practice to find this language and to live by it in relationship to others, because without that foundation, we are all just gesturing in silly postures.
*Here is the post by Jessie Jones ( you may see it circulating around social media as a re-post):
For couples who are thinking of marriage. That new love feeling does get lost in the business of life and lifelong commitment can be different than what some people think it is. It’s not waking up every morning to make breakfast and eat together. It’s not always cuddling in bed until both of you fall asleep. It’s not a clean home, filled with laughter and love making every day. It’s someone who steals all the covers, and snores. It’s stubbornly disagreeing and giving each other the silent treatment until your hearts heal, and then offering forgiveness. It’s coming home to the same person every day that you know loves and cares about you in spite of, and because of, who you are. It’s laughing about the one time you accidentally did something stupid. It’s about dirty laundry and unmade beds. It’s about helping each other with the hard work of life. It’s about swallowing the nagging words instead of saying them out loud. It’s about eating the easiest meal you can make and sitting down together at a late hour because you both had a crazy day. It’s when you have an emotional breakdown and your love lays down with you and holds you, and tells you everything is going to be okay, and you believe them. It’s about still loving someone even though sometimes they make you absolutely insane. It’s a love that grows deeper over time. Loving someone isn’t always easy, sometimes it’s hard. But it is amazing and comforting and one of the best things you will ever experience.