I had the great experience of teaching absolute beginners this week. Since this class was outside the studio at a local non-profit, there were no experienced students to lead the way in manner of working. This means I had the chance to introduce the unexpected approach we take to exercise when we practice yoga. When asked by a student if we should stretch until we feel pain, my answer involved an explanation of the concept of ahimsa, non-harming. I explained that in yoga, you seek to find your edge and then back away from it, so that you never practice with pain. Ahimsa is the principle I was describing, but there was another principle coming into play - that of autonomy. When the principles of autonomy and ahimsa are used together, they invite the body and spirit to make collective decisions along with the mind. This is what provides the connection of body, mind and spirit that makes yoga so wonderful.
When you practice, you bring attention to muscle tension or weakness. Without trying to undo that tension or build that strength, you observe. Without judgement, you watch. This is practicing with ahimsa: no negative self-talk, no pushing or straining, no pain. As you observe, you listen. Your brain listens to your body and to your spirit, taking in what they need and/or want. Collectively, the mind, body and spirit decide how to react. Ahimsa is what keeps yoga from becoming an exercise where your mind drags your body through a workout, ignoring what it needs and forcing a preconceived notion onto it. Ahimsa keeps your spirit from being ignored or even abandoned, left in the dust as the judgmental mind squashes its needs and desires.
Another beneficial and unique aspect of yoga is that you’re encouraged to coach yourself. Though you follow along when in a class led by a teacher, you’re encouraged to modify as you need, to acknowledge any pain and adjust so there is none, to know your body and serve it. The teacher is there to serve you - to lead you through sequences, give you tips on alignment and provide a space in which you can practice with no judgement. But your attention is kept on you. You observe your body for sensations and adjust as you go along. You listen to your spirit and set intentions, then work toward them. It’s as though the mind is in a meeting with the body and spirit. Issues are brought to the table, discussions occur and decisions are made. In these ways, you practice autonomy - you are the governor of the sovereign nation of your Self.
Yoga is unique in its attention on the self. Other sports or activities could use the concepts of ahimsa and autonomy, but yoga is centered around these ideas. It has always been a practice, so there’s no inherited notion of ignoring the body or spirit in the name of performance. Ahimsa and autonomy, rather than a fast time or high score, are the goal. In yoga, your mind, body and spirit are equal players. All three work together so that all three thrive.