Adapt to your circumstance
I’ve had to embrace this concept in my own life. I had been an ovo-lacto vegetarian for more than a decade when I became pregnant with my third child. Suddenly, I found myself craving red meat. For several weeks, I resisted eating it because it went against my convictions.
I had initially become a vegetarian after learning of the environmental impact of overfishing and factory trawling, the depletion of land and water resources due to animal agriculture, and the greenhouse-gas effects of raising cattle. But I researched where to find organic, hormone-free, grass-fed beef (that was raised as humanely and environmentally responsibly as possible) and ate half a hamburger. At my next prenatal appointment a month later, my doctor informed me that I was extremely anemic, in spite of the iron supplements I had been taking, and she encouraged me to eat red meat more regularly—confirming that my cravings were telling me what my body needed, and that by not eating meat I was doing myself (and possibly my baby) harm.
When it comes to your diet and practicing ahimsa, there are many ways to incorporate meat while staying true to the Yoga Sutra. Perhaps for you, the right approach is to eat meat only on certain days of the week or year. Or maybe the way the meat is fished or harvested is important to you. Or perhaps you will say a prayer of thanks to the animal that has given its life for your sustenance, nourishment, and enjoyment.
Ultimately, this consciousness and attention are what we hope for in our practice—to care for ourselves and for others around us, to be present with our actions, and to make conscious and thoughtful choices (rather than reacting without thought, which often leads to suffering).
If we are not practicing the principles outlined in the yamas with ourselves, how can we expect to authentically live them and direct them toward others? When we apply the yamas to ourselves as well as to others, we are taking the best possible care of ourselves and doing our own important work in this process of personal growth and transformation.
Kate Holcombe is a yoga therapist and founder and director of the Healing Yoga Foundation in San Francisco.
4 steps to cultivate ahimsa
Take a few moments each day to check in with yourself and cultivate ahimsa, both for yourself and for others in your life.
Sit quietly in your home, in your parked car, or even on the bus or in the waiting room of the doctor’s office and bring your awareness to your breath.
Observe the quality and comfort of the breath without judgment. Does it feel rapid and short? Strained and heavy? Shallow and quiet? Smooth and steady? Observing yourself (your breath, your sensations, your thoughts, your energy level, and so on) without judgment is the first step toward being gentle with yourself and directing the attitude of ahimsa inward.
After a few moments of simply observing the breath, relax your abdomen and shift your breathing to gentle abdominal breaths, allowing the belly to expand on the inhale, and softly contract on its own on the exhale, with nothing forced or strained. With each breath, remind yourself that you are alright just as you are. You may be struggling or going through challenges, but right now, you are just right. Remind yourself that yoga is an ongoing practice and that the practice of personal growth is not always easy.
Now reflect on ways you might support or be kinder or gentler to yourself: They could include taking a quiet walk, spending time with your dog or a friend, or taking a hot bath. And remember, even these few moments of breathing and reflection are a practice of kindness and gentleness. From this place of cultivating ahimsa toward yourself, and checking in with yourself without judgment, you will better be able to manage any challenges that come your way. You may find you respond to others in the world and in your life from a place of understanding, one that comes from being connected to that quiet inner resource of your own, true, authentic Self.