Ahimsa Yoga Flow: A Yoga Class Theme for Non-Harming
By: Steph Ball-Mitchell, E-RYT-500, RPYT, RCYT, YACEP
Our Ahimsa Yoga Flow is designed for teaching the importance of the first yama, non-harming. The practice of yoga includes physical movement but goes so much deeper than just physical movement. Part of weaving it all together is taking yogic concepts and putting them into physical practice on the mat. We know that we've truly gotten into the practice of yoga when we realize we're taking what we do on our yoga mat off of the mat and into the world, and vice versa.
Ahimsa is one of the most important concepts in yoga philosophy to practice and embody. Ahimsa is our first yama, and comes to us from the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali offer yogis a guidebook for the ethical way to live, laying out an 8-limb path of yoga. The 8-limb path is really all about what it means to be a practitioner of yoga. The eight limbs include yamas (external disciplines), niyamas (internal disciplines), asanas (yoga postures), pranayama (breath control), pratyahara (withdrawal of the senses), dharana (concentration), dhyana (meditation) and samadhi (full absorption or enlightenment).
The yamas are the first limb in the 8-limb path of yoga. Yamas are sometimes referred to as "restraints" or "abstinences." I like to think of them more as external disciplines. There are 5 yamas and they are all practices that we should adhere to when dealing with our external environment. They include ahimsa (non-harm), satya (truthfulness), asteya (non-stealing), brahmacharya (the right use of energy), and aparigraha (non-gripping or non-possessiveness).
I always think of ahimsa as being very important because it really is step 1 of step 1 in our guidebook of yoga. Creating an ahimsa yoga flow was such a powerful experience for me as a practitioner of yoga because it provided me with the opportunity to really dig deep internally and search my soul for what ahimsa means to me and how it has impacted my life. Then I was able to take all that I drudged up from my internal quest and act it out in movement on the mat and in my practice. The process gives new meaning to the phrase "putting theory into practice."
When I went inside to search myself for answers about what ahimsa really means, a lot came up for me. Over the years, I've heard a lot of people argue that ahimsa is about veganism. I've heard people say it means simply non-violence. I've studied with many teachers, read many of the sacred texts of yoga and also various interpretations of these texts. I've slowly worked on my own transliteration of the Yoga Sutras. After all of the research, I believe that ahimsa is about non-harm.
In Sanskrit, "a" always negates whatever comes next. It means "not." Himsa means harming, injuring, being violent or killing. When we look at the teachings of the sages, we see that ahimsa carries more weight than the other yamas. It is about not harming others, ourselves and our environment. It's about practicing loving kindness and having compassion for others. It can include being kind to animals, being kind to our neighbors and even to those who aren't kind to us. Moving a little deeper than the obvious, it also includes refraining from negative self-talk and being kind in our thoughts.
Deep within each of us, our true essence is full of kindness, compassion and love. When we move away from this, we are really working against ourselves. I see ahimsa less of an active practice that involves choice and more as a natural result of practicing yoga. As we move more deeply into our own practice of yoga, we begin to increase our awareness and find great connection with ourselves. We get to know that true essence that lives within us on a deeper level and this leads to the natural consequence of a gentle and compassionate disposition, or the practice of ahimsa.
When thinking of the poses that should be in an Ahimsa Yoga Flow, I tend to think of poses that foster compassion and kindness. I think of a gentle practice, and postures that help us to connect with our innermost selves. The yoga poses for ahimsa, breathwork for ahimsa and mudra for ahimsa that I've included can be practiced individually or as part of a greater sequence. When I practice vinyasa, I include these practices in my vinyasa practice for ahimsa after my sun salutations.
From downward facing dog, lift the right leg into three-legged dog and step the right foot between the hands. Bend the right knee and seal off through the back left foot as you rise into a traditional Warrior I pose, sending the arms up overhead. Take a few inhales here as you find the spirit of the Warrior. The Warrior is strong but maintains a gentle heart.
Virabhadrasana I is a powerful pose. Vira means "warrior" and bhadra means "in great virtue." As you stand in traditional Virabhadrasana I, find your inner warrior and tap into your own great virtue. After a few breaths, lower the hands to the heart, coming into Padma Mudra (see instructions for Padma Mudra below).
From Warrior I pose, open the hips towards the long edge of the mat and spread the arms out to the sides as you come into Virabhadrasana II. Be sure to practice any modifications for Warrior II pose that make sense for you. Remain here for a few breaths as you meditate on that ability to be as strong as a Warrior while keeping a heart of kindness and compassion.
From Warrior II pose, flip the front palm to the sky and lean back to reverse your warrior. Here we find a gentle opening in the front body as the left arm drops down the left thigh and the right arm reaches up and then back. Be sure to remain long through both sides of the body as you gently open and lengthen through the right.
Stay here for a few breaths and then cartwheel the hands down to the mat, maybe taking a vinyasa. If you choose to skip the vinyasa, come straight into downward facing dog pose. Hold here for five breaths and then lift the left leg into downward facing dog before stepping the left leg in between the hands and repeating these three postures in the Ahimsa Yoga Flow on the left side.
From downward facing dog, lower down on the knees and shift the hips back to child's pose, Balasana. With the big toes together and the knees spread wide apart, come to sit back on the heels or maybe on a block. Extend the arms out in front of you and lower the chest down to the floor.
Child's pose, by many standards, is probably one of the gentlest postures that one can practice. It offers you the opportunity to really turn inside and increase your sense of awareness. You're able to get in touch with that true essence deep within yourself that helps you to tap into your natural gentleness. This brings about the practice of ahimsa.
From child's pose, begin to shift forward into tabletop. Walk the knees up towards the hands, cross the ankles and roll back onto the sit bones. Bring a bolster or a stack of pillows behind you. Scoot the sit bones back towards the bolster and recline back as you bring the soles of the feet together and let the knees splay wide apart. You may want to bring blankets or blocks underneath the knees if that feels good. You want to make sure that you feel completely supported in this restorative pose as you tune into yourself and prepare for breathwork.
Our Ahimsa Yoga Flow would not be complete without breathwork for ahimsa. While we rest in this supported version of reclined bound angle pose with bolsters and maybe even blocks and blankets, we come into gentle pranayama practice.
With the option to close the eyes and maybe even use an eye pillow, begin to inhale deeply through the nose. Draw the oxygen deep into the belly. Imagine that you are inflating a balloon in the belly. Exhale through the nose, as you the imaginary balloon deflates. Continue to inhale and exhale deeply through the nose as you feel the rise and fall of the belly.
Allow your heart to be as gentle as your breath. Imagine that you are inhaling kindness and exhaling frustrations. Release any harmful thoughts that you've been holding onto, and relinquish any negative self-talk that you might be prone to.
Remain here for about ten minutes as you take a supported Savasana. After your Savasana is complete, roll over onto the side, removing any props and come into a comfortable seated posture for mantra and mudra.
Padma Mudra, or Lotus Mudra, is all about compassion and rising above harmful feelings. To come into Padma Mudra, bring the hands together at the heart. Let the pinky fingers and thumbs come together as you spread the other fingers open into the shape of a lotus flower. Think of the lotus flower growing from murky waters and blossoming into a beautiful flower, rising above all the dirt beneath it. You too can rise above feelings that are harmful for yourself or for others into a place of kindness, gentleness and compassion through your practice.
Keep what you have with Padma Mudra and begin to chant, "Lokah samastah sukhino bhavantu. (“May beings in all realms experience the feeling state of ease”) for a few moments.
I hope that you've enjoyed this Ahimsa Yoga Flow. Namaste friends.