The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali outline the eight limbs of yoga, of which asana (physical posture) is just one limb or path. The first limb is the yamas or moral ‘restraints’, which are more like ethical precepts which we can follow. The first of the yamas is ahimsa, which means non-harming.
As well as the literal interpretation of this as not harming ourselves mentally or physically through our practice of yoga, not pushing ourselves too far in a particular posture, we could flip it around to the more positive interpretation of compassion.
1. Acknowledge where we are right now
Before I do anything else in my yoga practice, I always do a mental check-in – seeing how my physical body feels, and also my mental landscape. Am I excited and full of energy, or am I feeling exhausted and run down? Whatever is there is ok, there is no right or wrong answer to what we find here. To be kinder to ourselves, we need to acknowledge how we are right now, what we are bringing to this practice, without pushing anything away. Holding this in our awareness as we move through the practice can help us practice in a kinder way, both mentally and physically.
2. Listening to the heart
Yoga teachers often invite students to connect with the heart centre, the inner teacher. By spending a few minutes at the beginning of our yoga practice simply tuning into the heart centre, perhaps finding warmth and spaciousness, we can connect with our inner teacher. Perhaps we might find a glimmer of intuition about a particular situation we are facing, or by connecting with our sankalpa or intention. Perhaps we might find out what we really need in that particular moment.
3. Nourishing ourselves with the practice
If we are feeling tired and run-down, really tuning into ourselves can help us to see the sort of practice that is needed – it might be that you need a slower practice, with few vinyasas, holding the poses for longer, perhaps fewer standing poses, and a really long savasana. Or it might mean that actually your body needs a more vigorous practice to energise and shift that stagnant energy and release those feel-good endorphins. Only you will know, and you will know by the mental check-in and listening to the heart. The point of yoga is not to push ourselves to extremes, but to nourish ourselves both emotionally and physically, whatever that might look like.
4. Closing the practice with a compassion meditation
We might choose to do a Buddhist compassion meditation at the end of our yoga practice, the metta bhavana. This is a 5-stage meditation where we try to cultivate a sense of compassion and well-wishing to various people in our lives, starting with ourselves, a good friend, a neutral person, someone we are having difficulty with, and then widening it out to all beings. If you’re new to this practice, there are some good guided meditations you can use. Doing this regularly really can transform your relationship with yourself and with other people.