‘Ahimsa’ is a concept contained in ancient yoga texts, written some 2400 years ago, which is directly applicable to athletes practising yoga today.
One of the foundational texts guiding the practice of yoga, The Yoga Sutras, contains a set of ‘ethical principles’ for yogis to live by.
The first of these is ‘Ahimsa’, which translates as ‘non-harming’. If you are an athlete doing yoga, it’s helpful to be aware of this concept and apply it to your practise – especially if you have a competitive mindset and like to ‘push your boundaries’.
Practising ahimsa in your yoga basically means that you don’t do anything that hurts yourself or sets yourself up for injury. This takes discipline, as it runs counter to that modern-day mantra of ‘No pain, no gain’ in the quest to be ‘better, faster and stronger’.
Change the ‘no pain, no gain’ mantra to ‘no pain, no pain’, and you will be practicing ahimsa.
Stretching out your muscles can help bring balance to your body, but it needs to be done with the appropriate intensity and intention. If you come in to a stretch with an aggressive approach, aiming to push through your boundaries, your body is likely to respond with the ‘stretch reflex’. This is when it realises you have reached the boundary of your safe range of motion, and rather than go deeper into the stretch, it tightens up to protect you from crossing the line into the territory where you could injury yourself.
An aggressive, competitive approach to yoga can be anything from a waste of time, to potentially damaging – so ‘ahimsa’ certainly is relevant. (This is a word of warning to those of you attend classes where the instructor enthusiastically tells you to “Go beyond your flexibility!” – seriously, ask yourself what is ‘beyond your flexibility’ – quite possibly a visit to the physio, that’s what).
Practising ahimsa in your yoga means coming into poses more gently and with greater awareness, which will lead to better, positive results.
Practise ahimsa (non-harming) in yoga: Avoid moving into poses to the point of pain. Be kind to your muscles and joints. Learn to distinguish the difference between ‘pain’ and ‘discomfort’.
Pain in yoga (especially in the form of sharp, nervy sensations) is a signal from your body that you are doing something wrong or harmful.
In contrast, discomfort may come from something that is challenging or confronting to you, mentally and/or physically. Working through things that are uncomfortable for you on some level can be revealing and helpful.
Learn your limits, and respect them. Yoga is an excellent discipline for developing greater body awareness.
By moving mindfully you can gain valuable insights about your body, your habits, your strengths and weaknesses. These can feed back into and inform other areas of your training and performance.
Become accepting of your abilities. Yoga helps you to become less judgemental and more accepting of your abilities. In reference to the famous quote – yoga can give you ‘the serenity to accept the things you cannot change, the courage to change the things that you can, and the wisdom to know the difference’.
Recognise the role flexibility has in your training and sport. Flexibility certain can be beneficial, and necessary. But flexibility for flexibility’s sake alone is of little value to most athletes.
Training for a smart balance of flexibility and stability will help you achieve better efficiency and form, and lessen your risk of injury. Practising yoga, with an attitude of ahimsa (non-harming) can certainly help you with this.
Sarah MacDonald is a professional yoga teacher and New Zealand’s only officially certified Yoga for Athletes instructor. She recently opened Balance Yoga Studio in Cambridge where she is committed to helping people of all ages discover the benefits of yoga. She specialises in working with athletes of all levels from any sport, and can tailor yoga sessions to complement any athlete’s training regime.