Clear Away Your Harming Habits

Ahimsa Awareness Yamas

Sarah Jamieson Yoga


I love spring. One of the wonderful things about spring is that it can bring about a spirit of renewal – a desire to clear away the old and make space for the new. Spring Cleaning is a common renewal practice for many of us – we go through our homes and get rid of unwanted things, clean deeply, reorganize, and make space.

The practice of yoga can be thought of as the Spring Cleaning of our thought patterns and habitual behaviours. According to yogic philosophy, all of our suffering is a result of not being able to see or understand our true nature, and avidya is the Sanskrit word that describes this ignorance of our true nature. In the state of avidya, we don’t see that, as human beings, we are inherently compassionate, generous, and peaceful. Avidya is a result of our patterns and habits and our persistent unwillingness to see and know anything other than what our habits have trained us to see and know. Through the yoga practice, we clear away these patterns and habits so that we can get closer to an understanding our true nature, suffer less, and experience more joy.

How do we clear away habits?

The yamas, the first limb in the classical practice of yoga, are five ethical practices intended to slowly move us away from avidya and closer to an understanding of the inherent beauty and interconnectedness of all life. The yamas are practices of restraint, but they don’t teach us to restrain ourselves because what we’re doing is bad or wrong. Instead, the yamas teach us that restraint is actually a way to gain awareness. Stephen Cope put it eloquently in The Wisdom of Yoga:

“With each moment of restraint, the mind becomes a little more transparent. A little more reflective. A little more still. A little less reactive.”

Before the days of New Year’s resolutions, the yogis already understood that human willpower was not a very effective or long lasting way to change behaviour. To change your habits, you first need to understand and address what is motivating your behaviour. The yogic teachings prescribe restraint as the most effective way to gain this understanding. They assert that there is an incredible amount of power in the act of restraint.

Spring cleaning with ahimsa

This spring I encourage you to explore this practice of restraint through the first practice of yoga – ahimsa (non-harming). Ahimsa is the first of the yamas, and the practice is to restrain your harming behaviour so that you can begin to understand the motivations behind it.

Whether it is in the way you speak to yourself or your partner, or in the way you care for your health, your home or your planet, begin to notice moments where you feel inclined to act, speak, or think in a way that may cause harm. Pause in that moment. Compassionately remind yourself that you are a beautiful human being. Remember that the first limb of yoga is ahimsa because everyone struggles to move through the world in a non-harming way. You are not bad or wrong for doing harming things – you are human.

Holding all of this compassionate and understanding, ask yourself, “What am I truly trying to accomplish with this action or these words?”

The answer to this question might be hard to face at first. You might find that you are trying to protect yourself or realize that you are terrified. You might encounter strong emotions that you were completely unaware of.

But the wonderful thing about the power we meet in the moment of restraint is that it has a way of empowering us. In that simple moment of not reacting, we often realize that we don’t need to run, hide, or lash out in the way that we have been habitually doing. We have the strength to face what comes up. There is space for reflectivity and for asking questions, and there is the space to take a deep breath.

Something else that we tend to miss in the state of avidya is our interconnectedness with all of life, and how, as a result, my harming of myself, you, or the planet is harming myself, you, and the planet. As the yoga practice deepens, so does our appreciation for the fact that we are all in this together. As you begin to slowly clear away your harming habits, you are supporting yourself, this planet and every living creature that resides upon it.

It is this acknowledgement of our deep interconnectedness that is expressed when we say the word Namaste.


Photo Credit : Chris Yakimov

How to Keep Your Resolutions

Svadhyaya Tapas Yoga

Sarah Jamieson Yoga

I feel like I am being bombarded with the message that New Year’s Resolutions don’t work. I even shared an article on my Facebook page recently titled “10 New Year’s Resolutions You Can Keep.” I shared it because I liked the sentiment behind the resolutions the writer suggested, but in reflection I push back against the title of the article because it implies that there are resolutions you can’t keep. I believe any resolution can be kept, and I want to begin explaining why by looking at the definition of the word resolution.

In Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary, there is a long list of different definitions for resolutions, but the ones that are applicable to the way we use it in the New Year include:

  • The act or process of resolving
  • The act of determining
  • Something that is resolved

To dig deeper, there are also a number of definitions for the word resolve but the relevant one is:

  • To reach a firm decision about

Thus, a resolution, whether it is made in January or June, is simply the act of reaching a firm decision. So what is all the fuss about? How can a firm decision not work? Something is firmly decided and it is done. Right?

Not always, but does that have anything to do with the resolution – or does it have more to do with the people making the resolution?

January hits and we suddenly feel empowered to change everything we don’t like about our lives. We embark upon ridiculous and unsustainable diets and fitness routines, and two months later, when we’ve fallen back into our usual ways, we say, “Ah well, resolutions never last…” And, then the next time we resolve to eat healthy and exercise (whether in January or June), we do the exact same thing.

You’ve heard it before, but it’s very relevant here: “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.”

The key to keeping your resolutions is doing things differently. The yogic practice of svadhyaya, which is commonly translated as “self-study,” offers a great place to start. Begin by asking yourself important questions like these ones:

  • When have I been unsuccessful in holding to firm decisions I have made in the past? And, why?
  • When have I been successful in holding to firm decisions I have made in the past? And, why?
  • How much change is it realistic for me to take on at this point in my life?
  • What are the most important changes I want to make?
  • Am I able to see the value in taking small steps towards where I want to be?
  • Who are the people in my life that I can ask to support me in the changes I want to make?

Humans are creatures of habit, and breaking your habits requires more than the excitement and sense of renewal that comes with the New Year. It requires reflection, honesty and patience.

A decision – whether to eat well, exercise regularly or spend more time with family and friends – is never made only once. And, being honest with yourself about how challenging it is to make the same decision day-in and day-out will allow you to recognize and better prepare to face the challenge ahead.

The tradition of sharing our hopes for the New Year is a beautiful one and I would hate to see it lost to the propagation of the idea that New Year’s Resolutions don’t work. Instead, let’s collectively acknowledge the reflection, honesty and patience required to keep New Year’s Resolutions and deeply celebrate the human instinct to make change in times of renewal.

As an addendum to this post, I have written quite a bit in the past about how the more regularly and consistently you commit to a decision, the less frequently you have to make it. If you are interested in learning more about the idea of consistency building commitment, please read my blog posts that address the yogic practice of tapas:


Sarah Jamieson

Photo Credit: Chris Yakimov