In a world where things can seem so out of our control, it is comforting to realize that we are always in control of our own thoughts, choices and consequently, our happiness. During an experiment with ahimsa (non-harming), this Axis yoga teacher training student experienced a substantial shift toward greater happiness through a consistent mantra practice. Not only was there an increase in self-awareness but also in the desire to spread happiness to others.
Tag Archive for: Ahimsa
When we were asked to think about which yama or niyama we wanted to work with for our first experiment, I was immediately drawn to the concept of ahimsa. Non-harming. This concept is one I have thought about and applied to my life before in some ways, but there is still a significant situation in my life that frequently arouses un-yogic thoughts: my job. I make my living waiting tables. I’ve been doing it for over two years and it has certainly been a learning experience. But I have to admit that it is very taxing work sometimes. Dealing with difficult customers is a regular occurrence. I also work in an environment where my coworkers and I often vent to each other, so we all carry the burden of each other’s negativity. Collectively, unintentionally, we help create a toxic working environment that saps energy from everyone involved. I frequently leave work feeling exhausted, drained, squeezed-out.
I wondered if this concept of ahimsa could help me break out of that. I wondered if, instead of getting angry at rude customers or taking up other people’s negativity, I could choose to do something else instead. I didn’t know what that something else might be at first. One day at work, it came to me. I was feeling upset and, suddenly, out of nowhere, I heard the Gayatri Mantra in my head. We had used the Gayatri Mantra a couple of times in class, and something about that mantra in particular resonated with me. I loved its message about meditating on the creator, letting our minds be inspired and filled with divine qualities. I felt that these were exactly the qualities I wanted to cultivate in order to stop doing harm through my thoughts. So I decided that every time I felt upset at work—or every time a situation arose that might possibly cause me to think toxic thoughts—I would chant the Gayatri Mantra internally. I wrote the mantra (along with its English translation) on a scrap of notebook paper and took it to work with me every day.
I think I have stumbled on something powerful here. After that first night of chanting my mantra internally, I came back home and wrote that I didn’t think it was possible to feel upset while my head space was filled with this mantra. I actually couldn’t believe how well it seemed to work, and how quickly the mantra helped me break out of negative thought patterns. It took some concentration to be able to “catch myself in the act”, and to recognize when I needed to chant my mantra, but I was able to catch a lot of little toxic thoughts and let them go before they snowballed into something much bigger. The mantra had such a quieting effect on me that, often times, when I got done chanting it, I’d forget what I was thinking before.
I got a little angry at the mantra for that. Part of me felt like this practice was stripping me of my thoughts and feelings, like it was breaking down reactions that seemed perfectly normal and human, and that on some level I felt entitled to have. I read somewhere that we humans are attached to our suffering, and it’s true. There is a twisted kind of satisfaction in being upset. There was one day when I did get really upset and I found that I didn’t even want to chant my mantra. I wanted to hang onto those feelings, and I knew they wouldn’t survive in the presence of the mantra.
The most profound moment in my experiment happened on a night when a couple of coworkers in my vicinity were being incredibly negative. They were saying nasty things about their customers and they were both getting each other more worked up. They started to get louder and louder, and I started doing my mantra in my head. I repeated it a couple of times, feeling annoyed at how hard it was to hear my thoughts over their noise. I started to get frustrated with these people for the way they were acting. But all the while I kept chanting in my head, partly now to drown out my own reaction to their negativity, and at one point, spontaneously, I realized I didn’t just want to chant for myself anymore—I wanted to chant for them, too. So I silently dedicated a couple of chants to my coworkers, wishing for them to find more happiness and peace within themselves, because happy people don’t talk like that. I wished for their minds to be inspired and filled with divine qualities. And then I felt at peace.
This was a beautiful moment because, suddenly, it wasn’t just about me anymore. I wasn’t just concerned about my own peace. I almost feel guilty admitting that, for most of the rest of the experiment, I was too busy trying to find my own inner peace to worry too much about what other people were doing. There was just this one spontaneous moment when it dawned on me that I wasn’t the one who needed the most help here.
The experiment may be over, but I want to continue with this mantra practice because already I feel a shift inside of me. Already I feel lighter, more peaceful, and less at the mercy of situations and people that I can’t control. That’s all outside of me. I do have choices about what I allow into my inner space. There’s something powerful about knowing that you have that choice. I can choose to chant my mantra internally instead of just reacting to the things that happen in life. I can choose to be upset, if I want, but ultimately it doesn’t do anybody any good. I am learning, little by little, that I don’t have to go that route—there is another, kinder and more peaceful way. And I can’t describe how comforting it is to know that.
The yama of Ahimsa can be practiced in many different ways. This Axis YTT student chose to practice “no harm” in the form of personal relationships. But as is not unusual, the journey brought insight into other areas of life as well.
I have struggled with anxiety for most of my life. However, I did not realize it was such a problem until the last couple of years when insomnia started to take over my well being. After a while, I made the connection that my insomnia was a product of my anxiety. One of the reasons for this anxiety was ridiculous and impossible expectations I had for myself. I felt like I needed to be the best, look the best, feel the best all the time and with everything that I did. I was terrified of failing and so I worked very hard but worrying about not being the best and failing would keep me up at night. Over the last few years, I have tried to change how I look and talk to myself. I have a much better handle on my anxiety and my insomnia. Recently I have begun to notice that while I am working on having my own attainable and realistic expectations, I do not do the same for others, especially those closest to me. When I decided to do Ahimsa I first thought I would practice not harming myself with high expectations and negative thinking. However, this is something I am already aware of and working on (or so I thought at the time). Instead, I chose to challenge myself a little more and stop harming my relationships with others because of the ridiculous expectations that I have for them.
For three weeks, I planned on not harming my relationships with family, friends, and co-workers because of how I believe they should act, work, talk, or behave. The goal was to not internally or externally judge or criticize them for not being the person or doing the things that I believed they should be doing. I chose to journal every night before I went to bed about how the day went and what I needed to work on for the next day. When I had a moment of judgment or impatience, I practiced my yogic breath and sometimes chanted to myself. I also tried to wake up before going to work and practice either ten minutes of asana or sadhana to try and calm and center my mind.
The first day was challenging, yet eye opening. Even waking up and doing only ten minutes of asana made me feel calm but excited and ready for the day. I knew that I had a problem with my expectations for others, but as a high school teacher, I was not sure if these same judgments spilled over into my classroom with my students. Amazingly, I realized that this is one group where I do not tend to overly criticize, become impatient, and have impossible expectations. This is the one group that I am very patient with and tend not to criticize. To be honest, I was not sure what to expect with how I judge my students and how I may be harming my relationships with them. Even though I have expectations for my students, I do not expect them to be perfect and have all the answers, because I believe that it is my job to help them. For me, this was quite the surprise and I even started to wonder if maybe I had made the wrong choice for my experiment. Then I went to a staff meeting after school and realized I made exactly the right choice.
At the staff meeting I encountered someone who I have no choice but to work very closely with in our department and as coaches. The last few weeks in particular had been especially difficult to work with him for various reasons. I do not tend to be a very sensitive person in certain ways. I am pretty thick skinned, love to joke around, can take a joke, and can also take constructive criticism fairly well. I have realized that I surround myself with the same kinds of people as many of my co-workers, family members, and close friends are like this also. However, this particular teacher is an extremely emotional, sensitive, passive aggressive young man. At the meeting, he became incredibly upset and emotional about a comment that was made to him by our principal. I became immediately annoyed, frustrated, and even angry at him for being so sensitive about a comment that I considered to be completely innocent. As I was telling him not to take things so personally and intensely I realized I was causing himsa to our relationship and to myself. I was upset because I did not think someone else should be upset. It had nothing to do with what I thought; yet I was allowing this man’s reactions to affect me in a negative and completely unnecessary way. The more I thought about it, the more I realized how much I allow him to affect me on a regular basis. I needed to be less affected, more patient, and simply allow others to be who they are. I was trying to make him more like me but that is not who he is, regardless of how I feel about his reactions. I cannot control others and that is not my job. What I can control is how I allow myself to react to others.
I began to notice how I view even my closest of friends. I judge them for not having a job that makes them happier, not having better communication with their husbands, not setting higher goals for them to strive for. It is exhausting how much I worry about others and how they are not doing the right things. My worrying and judging them to my standards does not help them, does not help me, and certainly does not help our relationship. I do not have all of the answers, or the perfect life, so why do I believe that others should live the way I do? If I love my husband, family, and friends, why on earth would I want them to be more like me? If I love them for who they are I needed to love them for all that they are. This realization was like a weight being lifted off of my shoulders. Loving those I already love, for who they are… genius!
I was amazed by the realizations that I was having. I was relieving anxieties I did not know I had, patching relationships I did not know were strained. When I began to have a negative or judgmental thought of someone else, I practiced my yogic breath and sometimes even chanted the Gayatri Mantra to help center myself. I was in control of myself and everything was going according to plan. It was the night going into the third week of the experiment and I felt great and reflected on how thankful I was for choosing ahimsa. I woke up that night with intense pain in my abdomen and to make a long story short, ended up in the hospital with appendicitis. This was not part of my plan. I missed the entire next week and a half of school and the experiment seemed over. I was cut off form the world, assigned to bed rest, and prescribed painkillers. Work stopped, axis yoga stopped, asana stopped, my world was put on pause without a notice or a choice. I tried to stay optimistic about my recovery and quickly rejoining the rest of the world. I was strong, determined, and in every other way, a healthy individual; I would be back on my feet in no time! I did not see the trap I was setting for myself, the impossible expectations that I was creating. Towards the end of the first week of my recovery I could feel myself becoming depressed from boredom and immobility. I went to yoga training and sat in class, I became more depressed knowing I could not fully participate. I went to work six days after the surgery and went home in pain and overcome with complete exhaustion and had to take two more days off of work. Instead of accepting life and healing, I was still setting impossible expectations and despairing when I could not meet them. I was harming myself; I was no longer practicing ahimsa.
In the last few days, I have tried to slow down and be more patient and accepting of my recovery. I have tried to actually listen to the doctors instead of my own expectations. This is not easy for me. In my perfect world, I could have finished the experiment and felt good about how well I did and how much I changed. Life happened, I wasn’t ready for it but I am still trying.
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