For Yoga Teachers on Ahimsa
– written by Sofi Dillof
Although I appreciate that yoga teachers are bringing yogic teachings into their asana classes, the way in which it is being done concerns me. For example, I hear yoga teachers teaching students that to practice ahimsa, they should honor their bodies while doing asanas and not do anything that will be harmful to them. While I appreciate the desire to encourage students to be safe on their mats, using ahimsa in this way dilutes at best, and obstructs at worst, the meaning of its practice. I can see where some of the confusion is coming from because many books written by Westerners teach about ahimsa in this way. Here in the West, people are prone to thinking about themselves and likewise, being hard on themselves. To tell them that ahimsa means to practice taking care of and being kinder to yourself is frankly an easy sell and if it’s an easy sell, the traditional meaning of the yoga teachings are tossed aside. This is an example of the misappropriation of traditional yoga wisdom due to it’s filtration through the Western lens.
How does one practice ahimsa? Ahimsa is the first of the five yamas from the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. The yamas are the ethical restraints of our actions toward others. Things that we should not do. Himsa is a Sanskrit word meaning harmful. When you put an ‘a’ in front of a word in Sanskrit, it negates it. Thus, ahimsa means the non-harming of another living being with your thoughts, words or actions. Notice the word ‘another’. It does not mean the non taking of harmful thoughts, words or actions toward yourself. This doesn’t mean that you should take harmful actions toward yourself of course, it’s just that this specific practice is about how we treat other living beings – human and nonhuman alike. Imagine that you are a practicing Christian (or maybe you are) and you heard it said that Jesus taught we should do unto ourselves as we would have others do unto us. This might be true but it is very different than his message that we should cultivate kindness and respect toward others and treat others as we would have others treat us. It’s not just bending the teaching, it’s losing it all together.
How might the teaching of ahimsa be brought into an asana class? One way is to have students become aware of when they are having negative thoughts about another student in class or about the teacher. Perhaps they think the other student is breathing too loud or the teacher is talking too much. As a teacher, it is important to follow up the observation with a practice of what to do when one become’s aware of the harmful thought arising. For example, in Yoga Sutra II:33, it is suggested that when the mind is disturbed by disturbing thoughts, one should contemplate the opposite positive thought.
Another way to work with this yama in class is to focus on asanas that create space for the energy of compassion to flow. Taking compassionate actions toward other living beings is essential for someone on a spiritual path. As my teacher, Sharon Gannon, says, “Compassion means to feel yourself in another living being. When you can feel yourself completely in another, the idea of others disappears and when otherness disappears you are left with oneness, which is yoga”.
Lastly, you can bring this teaching into class by creating opportunities for students to examine the roots of their harmful tendencies toward others. The root cause of all painful occurrences, according to yoga philosophy, is the minds misapprehension of reality. The reason to practice yoga is to transcend this occurrence and experience reality as it truly is. Find a way to bring this teaching into your exploration of ahimsa and you will be doing greater justice to the tradition and to your students.