International Yoga Day as a Time for Ahimsa

yoga
Image credits: Jared Rice via Unsplash

Monday, June 21st was International Day of Yoga. When you say yoga, what image do you conjure up? I ask this because it goes to the heart of our perception about this ancient science.

In all likelihood, yoga means poses to you. It does to a large majority. Thankfully, very early on, I understood the way yoga is experienced in the West … is nothing like what it is meant to be. Yes, asanas are great, they make you flexible, help you lose weight, make your skin glow etc. etc. But yoga is so much more than asana or a workout. Yoga is literally a way of living, and it’s a work-in. It’s designed to bring awareness to both your body and thoughts. How are you thinking about yourself? Is it with love and compassion? How are you with others?

Befriend the Yoga Sutras, Learn to Love Yourself

The “Yoga Sutra,” compiled by Sage Patanjali, is widely regarded as the authoritative text on yoga. It’s a collection of aphorisms, outlining the eight limbs of yoga. These sutras (“threads” in English) show us how to be our true selves, live mindfully, and appreciate every moment — even when life feels out of control. Hello, pandemic and post-lockdown anxiety.

The first limb is made up of the ‘Yamas’; kind of moral values or abstinences – the guide to how we can best act towards ourselves, and the world around us. The first Yama is ahimsa (non-violence). Ahimsa isn’t just limited to not hurting another human being or animals physically. It also means embracing non-violent thoughts about yourself and others. How we treat ourselves is how we treat others, eventually. If we are critical and harsh with ourselves, we will be demanding of others.

Last year was not normal. There was stress-eating, mindless snacking, and baking brought upon by procrastination and lockdowns. But 2020 does not represent who you are and how you live. Learn to forgive yourself and stop feeling guilty about that extra cookie you ate. Stop judging, criticizing, and saying unkind things to and about your body. We are literally just getting out of a pandemic. You might have gained a few pounds. There might be an inherent struggle to get back to your workouts. But human beings are resilient, and we will turn things around.

There’s nothing wrong with being proactive and taking action to improve your health. I am all for staying active, being healthy, eating for your doshas, and leading a mindful lifestyle. Yes, by all means, add more fruits and vegetables to your diet! Embrace movement, even if it means getting outside for a long walk in the beginning. Go for it. But you don’t need to bask in self-loathing and send negativity to every cell in your body every time that you fail to fit into last year’s clothes. Do not express shame when you look at your reflection in the mirror. Ahimsa!

People are very willing to talk about the violence that the world does to them, but aren’t they much less willing to own the violence that they do to themselves? Practicing ahimsa means you do not need to go on a dangerous diet because you fear that a guy or a girl who shows interest in you will not like you unless you are 20 pounds lighter! Do you really want such a relationship in your life?

Stephanie Velo
Stephanie Velo (Image credits: Stephanie Velo)

I interviewed Stephanie Velo, MS, RDN, registered dietitian, nutritionist and Ayurvedic health consultant, who assists clients with diet and lifestyle changes that make them feel better and ready to meet personal goals. She lives in Kalamazoo, Michigan, but works with clients everywhere through a secure telehealth portal.

“Most people are very aware of how their lives have been changed over the past 15 months, fully understanding how an increase in food intake and a decrease in physical activity have led to weight gain,” Velo says. “These changes have occurred for the majority therefore I encourage people to be aware that they are not alone, others are having similar experiences and feelings.”

I know people who are looking at fad diets to lose the pandemic weight. Research tells us that plastic surgery among women in the United States is at an all-time high. Inability to accept oneself is violence towards the mind-body. This can be dangerous and contribute to life-threatening eating disorders. By the way, studies show that 41 percent of dieters gain back more weight over the next five years than they lost, and that dieters are more likely than non-dieters to become obese over the next one to 15 years.

I asked Velo for suggestions about how people should navigate the post-lockdown life.

“I recommend not to focus on weight but rather behaviors, as weight is not something that can be controlled or easily changed,” she says. “Behaviors are choices and it is possible to have health and happiness in all body sizes. Avoid ‘diet culture,’ surround yourself with positive people, read affirmations, and positive body image works. Develop a plan for making one change at a time. Don’t take on too many changes at once, so that success happens, and fuels more change. Be patient with yourself and others, since guilt and shame are not effective motivators for long-term lifestyle change. Please do not participate in any extreme or fad diets as they usually lead to more weight gain, following a short period of ‘success.’”

The practice of ahimsa is a work in progress. Let us not expect drastic changes overnight. But it starts today. I hope you honored yourself this International Day of Yoga!

Deborah Adele, author of “The Yamas & Niyamas,” reminds us, “Our inability to love and accept all the pieces of ourselves creates ripples — tiny acts of violence — that have huge and lasting impact on others.”

For more of SEEMA’s Yoga Day coverage, check out these 5 South Asians Who Are Reclaiming Yoga