“Oh, you are a yoga teacher? You must be so flexible.” or “I can’t do yoga, I can’t touch my toes!” are common things we yoga teachers hear when we share what we do! But yoga is so much more than poses. And should be accessible to all through its many wisdom streams.
Despite the fact that millions practice Yoga regularly worldwide, many are still unaware of its underlying philosophies. This trend, perhaps, has developed because the practice of Yoga incorporates everything from meditation, chanting, and worship ceremonies to the study of ancient scripture, the embodiment of various physical postures, and advanced breathing practices.
Uniting all of these components into one practice has become challenging in our modern, high-speed lives. Yoga philosophy has endured over centuries precisely because of its ability to teach people how to live with nature for better health, happiness, and wisdom. This ability for ancient yoga practices to apply in modern times allows integration in a wide range of areas, including modern medicine, culture, interpersonal relationships, business, ethics, sports, and even cutting-edge scientific technology.
Asana is wonderful! And yoga is so much more than just asana. The demotion of yoga philosophy to the realm of mere superstition or only religion is part of a colonial worldview that only sees some as capable of complex and sophisticated intellectual thought. It is important that we understand that yoga has always had vast, diverse and varied philosophical schools, paths and interpretations - and that dissent or disagreement was not always seen as bad, but merely a refinement of one’s vichara, or critical thinking.
Modern Western yoga practice has adapted so much that it is not similar to its ancient, original style or even aware of its complex, diverse philosophical roots. Both the philosophy and practice of Yoga have always been living and breathing, never static. By continuing to adapt the practice to fit into the world, practitioners keep this ever-changing form of Yoga in alignment with its entire history. The key to this evolution is to ensure that teachers and practitioners are moving forward in innovative ways that are still rooted in the ancient tradition and its foundational philosophies.
And in addition to asana, one aspect of practice, there’s much richness to be experienced from these various paths of practice and philosophies. But how to begin or deepen?
While there is knowledge gained from studying texts that analyze the philosophy of yoga, sometimes, you literally just don’t have time! Or, you don’t know where to begin. Here is where a teacher can help us interpret and apply the texts to our lives. There is also the truly transformative moment or “aha” when a teacher helps you go beyond the text to embodiment. And you realize you are truly living yoga philosophy.
For example, take the first yama of yoga, Ahimsa.
अहिंसा Ahimsa means not, harm. Nonviolence or non-harming.
In Yoga Sutra 2.35 Swami Satchidananda translates:
2.35 अहिंसाप्रतिष्ठायां तत्सन्निधौ वैरत्यागः॥३५॥
ahiṁsā-pratiṣṭhāyaṁ tat-sannidhau vairatyāghaḥ ॥35॥
"In the presence of one firmly established in non-violence, all hostilities cease."
Exploring ahimsa in your life
Before we explore what ahimsa is— a practice we do to care for ourselves and to show up fully in the world—let’s remember what it is not.
Ahimsa is not:
Just personal self focused self care
Tone-policing folks saying to use Ahimsa and show up “nicely”
Being a vegetarian or vegan and thinking that’s all we need to do to be an ahimsaka
About being a “nice, good person”
Trying to “fix” anyone or offering our own solutions, advice or help without being asked or invited to do so
Non-violence and non-harming to yourself, people, animals and the environment; kindness above all
Part of our spiritual practice that can support us in being kinder, compassionate, and more engaged in the world
Taking a stand for the earth, healing justice, social justice, self-care and equity
Taking a direct action against injustice in a system that violently oppresses others, even in ways that make us feel uncomfortable. Martin Luther King Jr. said “Uprisings are the voice of the unheard.” Ahimsa asks us to heed that call.
There is so much depth to this foundational practice of yoga. Ahimsa does not have to be complicated. It simply means becoming mindful of each action we do and doing it with the least harm and with the most love. Ahimsa is both practical and aspirational.
Ahimsa is love, embodied. It is absolutely caring for yourself and also ahimsa happens in a social context. We can implement ahimsa to social institutions, like education, healthcare or business. How can you look at your personal life, family, friends and also the social structures you engage with? If we are dismissive of ourselves, self doubt, self hatred, it is hard to be out in the world in meaningful ways.
You are deepening and decolonizing when you take ahimsa off your mat and into your life as well as into the world. Receiving tools and support from teachers who can guide you to embody the philosophy brings it off the text or mat and into each moment of your life. It equips you with tools you’ll have all of your life.
Direct knowledge gained from applying the philosophy in daily living is a more effective path than just thinking or talking about it. Perhaps yoga in the West is on the precipice of a whole new horizon of yoga experience! Let’s imagine the depth together.
Yoga no longer becomes something that you do, and becomes something that you are!
What a precious life skill and honoring of this tradition.
To learn more about the depth of this tradition and be the first to know when I release my upcoming masterclass on embodying yoga philosophy, Love in Action: The Ahimsa Masterclass, join my email newsletter here.
Basham, A. L. (1976). "The Practice of Medicine in Ancient and Medieval India". In Leslie, Charles (ed.). Asian Medical Systems. Berkeley: University of California Press. pp. 18–43.
Barbara D. Metcalf & Thomas R. Metcalf, A Concise History of India (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002)
Constance Jones and James D. Ryan, “Devi, Indra,” Encyclopedia of Hinduism (Infobase Publishing,
Peter van der Veer, Imperial Encounters: Religion and Modernity in India and Britain, (Princeton, N.J.:
Princeton University Press, 2001)
Ranganathan, Shyam, The Yoga Sutras, Penguin Classics (May 30, 2008)
Sharma, Priya Vrat (1999). Suśruta-Samhitā With English Translation of text…. 1. Varanasi: Chaukhambha Visvabharati. pp. 7–11