One reason I love Iyengar yoga and the process of studying to become a certified Iyengar teacher is because I am constantly reminded to have the mindset of a beginner. When I was studying with Lois Steinberg at the California Yoga Center in Mountain View a few weeks ago, she relayed a story to the class about a difficult case that was presented to her: A man with a rare medical condition who was in a lot of pain came to her as his last resort, and she had no idea how to help him. So, she wrote a letter to Gurujii. He responded with an asana sequence he thought would help, as well as thoughts for Lois to reflect upon — including something to the effect of, “To really help this student, you will have to wash your brain.”
Mr. Iyengar was telling Lois to free her mind of everything she knows so that she might actually see the problem in front of her and be able to create a solution. In my own study of yoga, I find myself back at the basics again and again. Still I struggle with what seems like the most elementary of yoga postures, Adho Mukha Svanasana, also known as Downward Facing Dog. As Heather wrote in her last blog post, Geeta Iyengar reminded her that we are all beginners at yoga, because we come to our practice each day not knowing what is to come. We should wake up each morning with our brains washed, and approach our practice without expectations about what we will need or what our practice will look like. So even when we return to a pose we’ve done countless times, such as Adho Mukha Svanasana, it should be a fresh new challenge.
I’ve decided to start my first blog post here with my brain “washed” and with a beginner’s mind. Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras lay out the eight limbs of yoga, the ashtanga yoga which we are to follow as yoga practitioners, as sadhakas, on our quest to still the mind. It all begins with the yamas, which can be thought of as the ethical disciplines, or guidelines we should abide by as we interact with other humans, animals, and the environment. Later on come asana, pranayama, meditation, and eventually, among other things, samadhi — the absorption of the individual self with the universal Self. The yamas come first because before we start going inward toward our Self, we must make peace with our surroundings.
Starting at square one, the first yama is ahimsa: non-harming or nonviolence. Ahimsa means not harming others or yourself — an obvious example being, “Don’t hit others.” But there are many more subtle ways to practice ahimsa. Ahimsa can be tricky to follow: For example, when one wants to be vegetarian so as not to harm animals, but because of their specific body or blood type is harming themselves or depleting their body of essential nutrients by not eating certain kinds of meat in a conscientious manner. Practicing ahimsa can come into conflict with the next yama, satya, or truthfulness.
It sounds ridiculously simple, yet I find practicing ahimsa to be a challenge, just as Adho Mukha Svanasana challenges me, despite my being a supposedly “seasoned” yoga practitioner. For example, there are times when I find myself struggling to practice ahimsa in my relationship with my partner. When we have a disagreement, I go into auto-pilot and become reactive. In my defensive state, anger wells up inside me and a violent feeling emerges, which is then expressed in my words or actions. Usually after this happens I feel guilty, sad, and/or exhausted, so by being hurtful toward my beloved partner I only end up hurting myself.
Even with people I don’t know as well I can become defensive or territorial, and thus am harmful in a way that might not seem obvious to others, but I know comes from an angry or “violent” place. Something as simple as the AT&T customer service being (very) frustrating can make me angry inside. When I use a certain tone of voice or employ the use of sarcasm, I know I’m being harmful. It’s interesting how this violence spreads like wildfire, because the other person involved becomes defensive and angry and then both parties become upset and feel violated. It shows how connected we are with others and with our environment.
Ahimsa comes first because hurting others only hurts ourselves. Without practicing non- harming, how can we possibly begin to still the fluctuations of the mind (which, according to Patanjali, is the definition and goal of yoga)?
When I step back and think about it, it becomes so obvious. What do we say to each other every single time we end class? “Namaste.” Namaste means that all beings are one and that we are all connected. We must treat ourselves and each other without harm. And yet I need to remind myself constantly to wash my brain and approach each moment, each situation, and each challenge as though I were a beginner. Now that we’ve started from the beginning with the principle of ahimsa in mind, I hope this most basic yet difficult principle will stay with us. As we continue on our paths, may we approach each new moment and each new situation with a fresh mind, so that when the next conflict arises (as it surely will sooner than later), we can remember to ask ourselves, how can I practice ahimsa now?