Every yoga teacher is probably bound to incorporate the Yamas and Niyamas into their lesson plans sooner or later. These are really the backbone of our yoga practice, taken from Patanjali’s yoga sutras. It’s quite a challenge, however, to use a set of moral guidelines in the context of an asana class. Here’s what I’ve been thinking:-
1) Ahimsa – step back a bit and observe how it feels.
Ahimsa is traditionally non-harming or non-violence, in order to develop a sense of connection to all living things.
As a firm believer in starting with what you can actually change – i.e. yourself, that’s what I’m going to invite my students to work on. (It’s a life-long project, so don’t panic). Perhaps if we start in the class, they can take it over into every day life.
- We ought to look after ourselves and not harm ourselves physically, mentally or emotionally.
- We ought to like ourselves (that’s a tough one, isn’t it, but it shouldn’t be)?
- How can we be of benefit to others if we don’t take care of ourselves?
In a yoga class we are reminded that Patanjali stressed that yoga asana should consist of steadiness and ease (2,46). (We could get into a debate here about what Patanjali actually meant about steadiness and ease in Asana, but let’s not). So I’m going to invite my students to adopt a posture – triangle for example – to the edge of its availability, but then to come back a bit to the point where steadiness and comfort allow them to hold it without straining. And then observe what it feels like. From here they are free to feel the breath moving in the body and track the flow of energy.
At that point, we should practice another aspect of Ahimsa – don’t pronounce judgement upon yourself. Are you your own fiercest critic? Is anything you do ever good enough? Shouldn’t you just crawl under a rock and be a slug? Is this harmful?
(I recently listened to one of Jack Kornfield’s teachings in which he suggested that we investigate the source of our judgemental mindset and then name it. I am a very opinionated and judgemental person and I definitely get that from my late mother. These days when I find myself pronouncing on something I thank my mum for her contribution and then I try to let go of it. I don’t remember to do it every time, of course, but I have told my kids about this strategy and now if I forget and start sounding off about something or other, my kids might say ‘Granny is at your shoulder, my dear!’. That stops me in my tracks.) You could try this.. Give your inner critic the name of its originator and remind yourself that this ISN’T YOU.
Of course it isn’t – because YOU are lovely!
(I have to say that this idea of coming back from the limits of a posture isn’t originally mine – but I can’t remember who taught it to me. Thank you, whoever you are. Nor do I remember which one of Jack Kornfield’s teachings the naming strategy came from, but you can find Jack at jackkornfield.com and recordings of his teachings are widely available).