Achieving peace, happiness and good health starts with Ahimsa, the first precept of Classical Yoga. Ahimsa means “non-harm” in our actions and, most importantly, in our thoughts. The mindful application of Ahimsa to our thoughts is crucial to our health and happiness.
From the study of neuroscience, scientists have learnt that the physical structure of the brain and how it affects our body chemistry are directly impacted by our thought patterns. Negative thoughts activate our flight or fight response, secreting the hormone cortisol, which lowers our immune system. Positive thoughts, on the other hand, trigger the release of dopamine, which makes us happier, strengthens our immune system and helps cure illness. Thus, our health and happiness are directly affected by the extent to which we experience positive or negative thoughts.
The effects of positive and negative thoughts are cumulative. Whenever we have a thought, signals are sent to the corresponding area of our brain. The more positive thoughts we have, the more we strengthen the positive, joyful area of our brain, and vice versa. Neuroscience tells us that, by changing thought patterns so as to reduce negative thoughts and increase positive thoughts, we can effectively “rewire” our brain and achieve better health and happiness.
What this means in practice is that we should make conscious efforts to replace negative thoughts with positive thoughts. Psychologists have observed that people are far more likely to focus on negative thoughts and remember bad things rather than the good. A classic example is if you are called into your boss’s office, the first thing you think of is what you may have done wrong or what bad news might be coming, even though the chances are just as likely it may be good news. Thus, our challenge is to replace this negativity with positive thoughts.
The application of Ahimsa to our thinking means catching any negative thoughts as they arise and replacing them with positive thoughts. If we are called into our boss’s office, can we think of good news to share – our latest achievements, or suggestions for doing things better? If someone does something to upset us, can we stop our negative reaction and replace it with something positive?
Most problems between people arise from miscommunication. How often have you said something and had it misinterpreted, resulting in someone being upset with you? Married couples are all too familiar with this problem. The next time someone says or does something which upsets you, find a way to respond with love and kindness. One way is to create a story that engenders compassion. For example, you could imagine that person who spoke to you gruffly is suffering from the news of a death in their family; or the car that accidentally cut you off might be driven by an overstressed parent, struggling to find a way to pay for an operation needed by their child. We have all been in situations where we have accidentally behaved thoughtlessly toward someone else as a result of issues we are dealing with. Most people mean well. Remembering this, and creating stories to explain the problems we encounter, gives us the ability to respond to the negativity of others with love and compassion.
Eliminating negativity in our own thoughts towards ourselves may be an even greater challenge. Ahimsa means being kind to yourself, not punishing yourself for mistakes that have been made and not being critical of yourself. We are “wired” to review mistakes we have made in the past, or our shortcomings, so as to explore how we could do better and to be better prepared for the future. However, this dredging up negativity results in the cortisol release that damages our health and happiness. So the next time you find yourself thinking negative thoughts about yourself, notice; stop immediately and replace these with positive thoughts.
I have developed a mantra, where I remind myself how much I love that special person in my life. I repeat this mantra the moment a negative thought enters my mind. It works! Over time there has been a gradual reduction in my negative thoughts – I have been slowly rewiring my brain – with the result of more positive thoughts, increased dopamine, and greater happiness. Happiness is indeed a choice.
Ahimsa may be viewed in terms of what we should not do (non-violence, non-harm). However, removing negative thoughts leaves us with positive thoughts, resulting in better health, increased happiness, and a sharing of love and compassion. To quote Christine Malossi:
The most important quality of ahimsa is not the negative command not to harm but its broader positive message of love. Love toward oneself and all beings is the very first step and the foundation for the entire philosophical system of Classical Yoga.
Christine Malossi The First Yama: Ahimsa – Nonviolence https://www.yogauonline.com/yoga-basics/first-yama-ahimsa-nonviolence