Ayurvedic Ahimsa: Making Good Choices, Balancing Through Opposites

March 30, 2015    BY Caroline Schmidt

When it comes to the practice of ahimsa (non-harming), it's often recommended that we start with ourselves. Figuring out how to be non-harming to ourselves is key to finding relief from mental and physical suffering. Yet so often we approach our suffering with frustration, and sometimes aggression, and the illusion that the problem is outside of us. And that begets even more frustration and aggression ("like attracts like"). Yoga and ayurveda encourage us to look at ourselves courageously and honestly so that we can work directly with what we see. Once problematic qualities are identified, we can start to apply the opposite conditions to bring about balance and resolution.

When it comes to the practice of ahimsa (non-harming), it's often recommended that we start with ourselves.

How We Injure Ourselves

For the past three years, I've been working to release persistent bindings in my physical body. My main affected areas are my outer shins, ankles, forearms, and back. These areas feel chronically matted, stuck, and dull, and sometimes inflamed (perhaps revealing my pitta/kapha (fire/earth) nature). In the past, I would get very frustrated, feeling imprisoned by the chronically bound nature of these tissues, and then I'd aggressively work into them to the point that I was quite sore or bruised the next day. I desperately wanted relief (and what I was doing obviously wasn't working), so I joined forces with two gifted bodyworkers, one with a background in Shiatsu and the other a myofascial release (MFR) specialist.

In my bodywork sessions, as we'd move into the affected areas, frustration would rise inside me. And they would ask, “What does this feel like to you?” I'd answer “relentless,” “obstinate," or "completely bound to the point of numbness.” I was so mad at these tissues that I threw tantrums—which ultimately only resulted in more anger being directed into them—but I wanted to force them to release! But my brilliant Shiatsu practitioner encouraged me to instead extend the sweetest, gentlest care to these areas. She told me to consciously send a watery flow of energy to help flush through the accumulated earth element. She helped me to understand that because the energy was condensed, I needed to apply lightness. And my MFR practitioner encouraged me to listen to the story that the bound tissue was telling me. She helped me to patiently hold space for the tissue to release in its own way, rather than acting out my frustration. Changing the way I approached these bindings—from an aggravated attack on my sore, inflamed tissue ("like attracts like") to a more gentle, patient stance of compassionate curiosity (applying the opposite conditions)—is what opened the pathway of healing. In the end, holding a soft space for the energy to release the "stuckness" is what helped me to find the freedom of relief.

Wisdom Is Inherent in Emotions

“In Vajrayana Buddhism, it is said that wisdom is inherent in emotions," writes Pema Chödrön in her classic, The Places That Scare You: A Guide to Fearlessness in Difficult Times. "When we struggle against our energy we reject the source of wisdom. Anger without the fixation is none other than clear-seeing wisdom. Pride without fixation is experienced as equanimity. The energy of passion when it’s free of grasping is wisdom that sees all the angles."

“In Vajrayana Buddhism, it is said that wisdom is inherent in emotions," writes Pema Chödrön.

So often our struggles with blockages are really about our fixations with the underlying emotions fueling them. This is why "like attracts like,"  because we aren't ready to let go of the psychological reasoning behind the impasse and therefore continue (or even increase) the behavior causing the problem, and our dilemma remains or compounds. Here are a few examples:

  • The National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey  reported that from 2007 to 2012 about 41% of smokers with mild lung obstruction and 55% with moderate or worse lung obstruction continued to smoke.
  • During a consultation, a woman with pittic imbalances receives advice to decrease pungent, aggressive, hot foods and activities and to take in more cooling, calming, sattvic foods and activities for greater clarity of mind and physical health. A few months after the consultation, she recounts a story about making a super-spicy chili (one of her favorites!) only to wake up the next morning with a classic symptom of hervikruti (imbalance)—an irritated, bloody rash on her upper back.
  • A man with a vata-predominant constitution confesses that to disrupt his own space-time continuum—just to feel the “wild, vattic high”—he'll occasionally take two kundalini classes back to back.
  • Another person, in response to her unresolved relationship samskaras (unconscious patterns; issues), emotionally chastises and degrades herself for not making better choices—feeding more hurt to her hurt.

These tendencies toward sameness, or repeating what we know as normal, are nothing to be ashamed of. We all endeavor in this type of behavior until we become conscious of our own less-than-healthy habits and empowered enough to change them—which is why "like attracts like" plays a huge part in modern-day pathologies. A very large portion of the population is unable to refrain from habituated patterns, and this results in many of us making poor choices and suffering longer than we really need to.

Practicing Ahimsa: Non-Violence with Ourselves

The practice of ahimsa begins with identifying and understanding our own proclivities, as well as the very human tendency to attempt to resolve a problem by pouring on more of the same. In my case, I was using forceful aggression to resolve something that was born of forceful aggression. This unfortunate example of "like attracts like" only led to more bruised and beat up tissues. Pema Chödrön encourages us to align ourselves with the wisdom that sees, the wisdom of our pure, primordial nature, that which we truly are. Surely when we begin to see our kleshas (obstacles, afflictions) for what they are, these momentary flashes of prajna (clarity of mind) are a reminder of our inherent goodness and true nature. Ayurveda counsels us to look at the qualities of our tendencies and behaviors with fearlessness and frankness so that we can rightly assess what we see. Once the qualities of pathology are identified, it is our duty and privilege to apply opposite healing therapies through right thinking, right living, and spiritual development—healthy actions that lead to the healthiest state of all, freedom.

Choosing balance helps us get comfortable with our true nature.

If we see that a pattern is hard and binding, we are obligated to send soft, clear, flowing prana (vital energy) to deliver freedom to the stuck place. If we witness a hurt, wounded heart, we must apply tender self-love and care to nourish and heal our emotional aches and bruises. If we observe a tendency to continually derange our health (unconsciously or “for fun”), like  someone with a pitta-predominant constitution choosing competitively hot food, or the vata-predominant person signing up for double-dose kundalini practice, we can develop a working relationship with harmony by choosing the more balanced choice time and time again. In a sense. choosing balance helps us get comfortable with our true nature.Part of the reason that our samskaras run so deep is that we create grooves in our mind-bodies with repetitive behavior, and this repetition causes craving—leading to more of the same type of behavior. As with most practices, we need consistency to become comfortable and accept our new position of equilibrium, but by taking time to listen to and nurture ourselves, we are cultivating the appetite for our own health and conscious development.

Lastly, please rest assured that becoming more settled and balanced is not boring! So many of us feel the pull of our extremist society. We are seduced by the ultra-hot, mega-fit, superficial, "more-is-more" mentality of our own culture, and we may derange ourselves to fit into that world. Thankfully, ayurveda teaches us that just as our fingerprints are unique and beautiful in their individuality, so is our Divine nature. Therefore the practice of right choices for balanced health will only reveal our unique individual gifts. And uncovering and cultivating these gifts will help us best serve our dharma (our true purpose) and the world around us.

#ayurveda Illustration: Will Dixon

Caroline Schmidt
Caroline Schmidt is a lifetime lover of learning. She is a yoga teacher, Ayurvedic Yoga Specialist, an avid gardener and devoted cook in Memphis, TN.  Her intension is to share the practices of yoga, Ayurveda, pranayama, meditation and good food as a pathway to healing the heart. Caroline views the practice (including cooking!) as a pathway towards balance, stability and a vivacious life. It is with respect to the tradition that she encourages her students to find and explore a connection... Read more>>