The Sadhu and the Snake: Practicing Ahimsa in India

Iyengar overseas a student and his teachers working at the trestler. Look at his left foot! (Source

Finally! We have Wi-Fi in our apartment! A small thing that makes living in India for a month a little easier. A cable was blown from the roof in a monsoon, so there is nothing to say that can't happen again, but for now us four Canadian yogis are basking in the glow of world wide communication. I wanted to take this chance to write a bit more about the therapeutic classes I am taking and how blessed I feel to have the opportunity to work with Stephanie Quirk, as well as having Sam and Cynthia as my assistants. It is meaningful for Cynthia, especially, as she is on year five of a six year course with Stephanie in therapeutics. This may be a post that is really only of interest to my yoga students and yogi friends, but nonetheless...


For most people I meet, they are curious about yoga as a "workout" or to help a health problem or as a way to reduce stress. There is nothing wrong with this --the postures (or asanas) are top of mind when we think of yoga in the West. "I can't even touch my toes!  I'm not flexible enough to do yoga!" However, having a flexible mind is much more important than a flexible body if you want to be a yogi in the East! When I teach at home, I rarely discuss the philosophical or spiritual aspects of yoga because I believe that through mindful practice of asana, the openness of mind will come. For many new students, the postures are the entry point and we must start there. Here in India, we are  taught the philosophical aspects of yoga in each pose and I have been referring to the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali in my practice, much more than I generally do at home.

The sutras are an ancient text from approx. 2nd century BCE written by a scholar, Patanjali, who (although others wrote about yoga before him) is seen as the definitive voice. Arranged in four chapters, or padas, the Yoga Sutra clarifies the basic teachings of yoga in short verses called sutras. In the second chapter, Patanjali presents the ashtanga, or eight-limbed system, for which he is so famous. Most Westerners are most familiar with the asana (posture), the third limb, and it is often their introduction to yoga, however the yamas are really the first step in a practice that addresses the whole fabric of our lives, not just physical health or solitary spiritual existence. The rest of the limbs are the niyamas, more personal precepts; pranayama (breathing exercises, of which we have an entire class taught by Geeta on Friday evenings) ; pratyahara (conscious withdrawal of energy away from the senses); dharana (concentration); dhyana (meditation); and samadhi self-actualization (some say, enlightenment).

The Yoga Sutra is not presented in an attempt to control behavior based on moral imperatives. The sutras don't imply that we are "bad" or "good" based upon our behavior, but rather that if we choose certain behavior we get certain results.

So the eight limbs of yoga begin with the yamas which are essentially guidelines for ways of being. The first yama is perhaps the most famous one: ahimsa or  "nonviolence/ nonharming." This refers not only to physical violence, but also to the violence of words or thoughts. To practice ahimsa is to be constantly vigilant, to observe ourselves in interaction with others and to notice our thoughts and intentions. 

It is often said that if one can perfect the practice of ahimsa, one need learn no other practice of yoga, for all the other practices are subsumed in it. Whatever practices we do after the yamas must include ahimsa as well. Practicing breathing or postures without ahimsa, for example, negates the benefits these practices offer.

Fall 2012 xRay of my spine

Many people are surprised to find out that I have scoliosis because in my daily life it isn't that prominent. I have almost twenty years of Iyengar yoga practice and a strong commitment to physical fitness and I think it has done a lot to mask the curvature, at least on a daily basis. However, on the mat,  the scoliosis can be very evident. Iyengar yoga has given me the tools to be able to connect the action of my mind with my body and use my breath to create space and remove pain. For me, ahimsa in the yoga studio means I push myself to a point of challenge and discovery, but not injury.  It means I let the teachers words resonate, but never cause distress. As a teacher, I tell my students that everything that happens on the mat is really a metaphor for your life and so ahimsa must come with you into your daily world too.  For me this is the hardest work. The things I say to myself about my body's ability and how it "should" or "should not" be and behave can be harmful.

I found this sweet story about ahimsa online. It is told in the Vedas, the vast collection of ancient philosophical teachings from India, and this is a children's educational video. I feel like the story is a good reminder about balance in ahimsa:

Protecting ourselves and others does not violate ahimsa. Practicing ahimsa means we take responsibility for our own harmful behavior and attempt to stop the harm caused by others. Being neutral or apathetic is not the point. Practicing true ahimsa springs from the clear intention to love each other and ourselves.

Patanjali's Yoga Sutras II. 16
heyam dukham anagatam

The suffering from
pain that has
not yet arisen

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