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Holding Space: The 1st Yama - Ahimsa

We’ve learned that quiet isn’t always peace, and the norms and notions of what “just is” isn’t always justice.

- Amanda Gorman, The Hill We Climb

If I had to choose just one aspect from the entirety of yoga for one to turn to again and again with open-mindedness, compassion, and humility, it would be the practice of Ahimsa (non-harming), the 1st of 5 Yamas from the 1st Limb of Yoga. For me, this is the quintessence of yoga and, as a matter of fact, of all spiritual practices. It carries the wisdom of truth that ties us all together.

Ahimsa is like the primordial seed, the basis of our being with one another – all other practices come out of Ahimsa and all of them return to it.

Observing and becoming aware of how we can cause harm with our thoughts, actions, and words at any given moment is a great start. Eventually this awareness automatically leads us to some course corrections in the way in which we interact with the world around us.

There are infinite ways to approach Ahimsa, some of them more obvious than others. Any change, even the slightest and seemingly insignificant, creates a spark that expands out into the world.

We all have experienced how powerful a simple smile can be when we encounter a disgruntled fellow human. It is tempting to become triggered and react with equal disgruntlement. But what if we take a breath and decide to instead respond with compassion, a smile and a kind word?

What we are doing in this moment is simply holding space for their suffering and their story that we know nothing about

Lately, I find myself contemplating and exploring this notion of ‘allowing space’ or ‘holding space’ quite a bit. Making space for different opinions and points of view, new ideas, different perspectives and approaches, something other than what we somehow defined as the norm.

This writes and reads so flawlessly but is equally easy to trip over. How often do we feel ourselves getting triggered, not allowing space for the other person or group and their views; and thus we find ourselves reacting rather than responding?

The whole world watched as Amanda Gorman recited her stirring and moving poem ‘The Hill We Climb’ on January 20. This was so much more than just a memorable moment from a presidential inauguration.

The true miracle was that space was given to this young woman who so skillfully shared her words and her art, embodying one of many sparks that set out to change the path of our world.

A whole generation of young people was given the gift of inspiration and empowerment in letting them know that anything is possible by peacefully using our voices.

At the same time the rest of us received a powerful reminder of how indispensable it is to recognize these moments and opportunities to create and hold the space for someone whose voice and actions need to be heard and seen and deserve to be amplified; not just for their own good but for the good of all of us.

When I step into my role as a yoga teacher, I am automatically confronted with an abundance of stumbling blocks, which can lead me to cause harm rather than help. More than once have I tripped and I continue to make mistakes, but at the same time I am grateful for the thought-leaders, the voices that have emerged to bring awareness to observing Ahimsa in our teaching.

I have fond memories of a community class I taught as a fairly new teacher. When I greeted students at the beginning of class I took quite a bit of time inviting them to take a rest whenever they need. About 10 minutes into the class, one of the students chose to settle into child’s pose instead of following the flow with the rest of the class. For the remainder of class she occasionally followed parts of the sequence I was offering but continued to return to extended periods of child’s pose.

As I made my way through the classroom, I would offer her hands-on support, which she gratefully accepted. After class I engaged in a conversation with her and she shared that it was her birthday and she realized she did not want to work her body so much. She thanked me for making her feel safe and welcome by inviting and supporting her to take the rest she craved. I believe she and I both brought forth Ahimsa during this class by following the call of allowing space.

The challenge with the practice of holding space is to not let it become a synonym for indifference.

My neighborhood is saturated with front yard signs reminding us of kindness as a community builder. While I wholeheartedly embrace this notion, I also see its potential pitfall. Kindness is for sure an important and vital aspect of the practice of Ahimsa, but I also believe we need to approach this with differentiation.

I know first hand how easy it is to be kind to the ones we love and share values with, and how incredible hard it can be to show the same amount of kindness to the person who challenges us by truly rubbing us the wrong way. The danger lurks in the moment, when we decide in seeming recognition of Ahimsa to stop being unkind to someone by simply not saying anything anymore, withdrawing from the conversation, and settling into ignorance.

While withdrawal may be a necessary interim self-care measure, I believe that Ahimsa asks us to eventually return to the interaction.

We are called to step up to the plate, to speak up and act in the face of injustice and wrongdoing. But what if we do this from a place of compassion, if we allow space to potentially recognize ourselves in the ‘enemy’?

The practice of Ahimsa is truly a hill we climb. To experience even only a fraction of the opportunity this holds for the way we share our lives with one another, we should forgo focusing on the goal of reaching the top.

The magic lies in allowing us the space to immerse fully into the beauty and vastness this climb has to offer.

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