Home yoga Ahimsa: Incorporating the Concept of non-Violence in a Yoga Class 

Ahimsa: Incorporating the Concept of non-Violence in a Yoga Class 

by Marianne Navada
gomukasana arms ahimsa

Mainstream knowledge mostly associates non-violence or ahimsa with icons such as Gandhi or Martin Luther King Jr. and their accomplishments. Pivotal events, such as overthrowing the British Empire in India or the Civil Rights Movement in the United States, show that non-violence transforms societies. In a yoga class, we take this grand concept and apply it to the mat. Much like the historical events, practicing kindness to ourselves moves us forward and transforms us in ways beyond the physical practice.

In this article, I start with why it’s useful to incorporate ahimsa in a yoga practice. I follow that up with suggestions on how to add the concept in a yoga class. Last, I include statements to impart in class to make the concept more accessible and relatable.  

Yoga as a Training

Think of your yoga practice on the mat, as training for the realities of life. Living guarantees us challenges. At times, we feel stuck. Some days, we feel heavy and unmotivated. Some moments feel relaxed. As we go through our poses and vinyasas, we will encounter tightness and resistance. We pay attention to our breathing of course to open up and overcome, but we also converse with ourselves in the process. Should I do that extra chaturanga or push up? Should I modify or take the full pose? Am I ready to take it deeper?

Ahimsa or non-violence is one of the 5 Yamas, which focuses on self-regulation.  

When in this conversation, we can incorporate ahimsa on our mat. Through the practice of ahimsa, we cultivate awareness of the body. We become attuned to what it needs and make sure that we ground the decisions we make on what benefits us—whether to push or approach gently. 

Ahimsa tells us that to motivate and to reach our potential, we don’t have to scream or berate ourselves. We have to listen, understand, and be patient. Trust that even a millimeter of improvement each time we’re on our mat, can amount to something significant with constant practice. 

Studies show that chastising ourselves doesn’t lead to fixing or solving problems. On the other hand, when we practice self-compassion, we let ourselves think more clearly. As a result, we act and act with intention. This is why yoga doesn’t just improve how our body looks and feels. It changes our relationship with our selves. We eat better. We give ourselves the time and the effort it takes to grow. Being less critical, we find more joy and gratitude. 

Incorporating Ahimsa in a Sequence

Longer Holds

Incorporate a section in the class that asks students to hold a pose for 90 seconds, such as dolphin. This is a great way to train the body to pause and listen in times of stress or in a difficult position. It puts us in a place where we have to focus.

Start in forearm plank. Palms and forearms firmly on the ground, shoulder-width apart. Slowly walk your feel as close to your hands as possible. You’ll notice that the pose gets more intense on the shoulders as you do this. Walk your feet to the point where you think you can hold it for 90 seconds. The gaze stays in between the hands. If at any point you need to walk the feet back, pull back. Practice listening and being kind to your body.

Modifications

For teachers, provide modifications that increase or decrease the intensity of a pose and let students choose their path.

Opening/Grounding

Start in an easy seated pose such as virasana or easy seated pose. On an inhale, stretch your hands over head. Take as much space as you can. On your exhale, give yourself a hug. Wrap your arms around your shoulders and tuck the chin to the chest. Inhale kindness, and exhale give yourself another hug. This is where the teacher can set ahimsa as the intention for class.

Pull Back

Ashley Galvin’s Alo Yoga classes incorporate ahimsa when she talks about not going to your edge for certain yoga poses. In fact, she encourages students to find a spot that they can hold comfortably. This optimal spot allows you to feel an opening, without straining. 

Backbends and the Magic 3

When it comes to backbends such as wheel pose, I find that repeating a pose 3x (5 breath count each) allows me to feel different stages of the pose. Moreover, when teaching a class, when you tell students that you’re going to repeat the pose 3x, they are less likely to push the first time. This builds patience and allows them to be kinder to the body each step. 

Progression

Working towards a final pose for the class teaches students how to build up on a pose. This means that you can start slow and gentle, and the body responds naturally. Backbends and twists are a great way to progressively build up. For example, if the final pose is Marichyasa C, or seated twisted pose, incorporate twists in your sun salute. Cues can start with half binds and then work their way up to full bind. 

Words

Throughout my years of practice, I find that the right words at the right moment in a yoga class can be life-changing. I understand how teaching yoga in a class can become repetitive or it might seem like students are not listening. This is to remind the teachers out there that your words do make a difference. Here are a few statements that can enhance ahimsa in class.

It is estimated that there are around 100 trillion cells in a human body. When you find yourself wanting more than what the body gives your right now, remember that the cells that make you up, never stop looking out for you. Day-in, day-out, awake or asleep. 

You should never feel pain in yoga. The adage, “no pain, no gain” doesn’t exist in yoga philosophy. In our practice, gain happens with dedication, patience, and self-care.   

Tell me about your experience with ahimsa: How do you incorporate ahimsa in your practice? Let me know at marianne@lifdb.com. I may use your contribution in a future article or newsletter.

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