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

I see you.


I’m reading Elizabeth Gilbert’s new book Committed, and amidst many fascinating facts about marriage, she touches upon the word respect – claiming that the word, which comes “from the Latin respicere (‘to gaze at’), suggests that you can actually see the person who is standing next to you” (102). 

I love this way of looking at respect.  I find that understanding the origin of this word gives me a whole new appreciation for the value and experience of affording someone or something respect.   

I see this sort of respect in how the Na’vi greet each other in the movie Avatar – with the words, “I see you.”  And, of course, as a yogi, I see it in the word namaste, which can be translated as “the light in me sees the light in you.”  

I’ve also heard namaste translated as peace, which makes sense to me as well, because I see the kind of recognition and acknowledgement present in the act of saying namaste (or “I see you”) as the foundation of peaceful action, or ahimsa (non-harming).  When we respect, when we truly see, what is around us – from our community to our environment, it becomes very difficult, if not impossible, to engage in harmful action. 

When I see you,
And you see me,
A peaceful world,
Will come to be.