For Yoga Teachers: How To Teach The Yamas in Class

Ann Swanson
For Yoga Teachers: How To Teach The Yamas in Class

Now, as teachers, we know that a lot of people come to our classes mainly for the physical aspects of yoga. That’s okay, but it can also be frustrating. We know that yoga is a lifestyle with a rich set of ancient philosophy; it’s so much more than asana.

Teaching asana infused with the Yamas and Niyamas in the cues can help students practice embodying the philosophy, which can overflow into everyday life. For many, in the modern day, asana is a gateway into the other limbs of yoga.

This article outlines the Yamas, with practical cues you can use or adapt to add depth to your yoga teaching. Also, I include ways for us to model the yamas in our business and lives.

Ahimsa: Nonviolence

Ahimsa is the yama that gets the most attention in yoga classes and teaching–and rightfully so. We have experienced the power of yoga for healing and transformation. The flip side is that since yoga is so powerful, it must have the potential for harm. It is a huge responsibility for us as teachers to know that the poses we teach in our classes, if not appropriate for the student(s) present, could actually cause harm.

In our yoga asana practice, business and lives–just as in the Hippocratic Oath–we must “first, do no harm.” I start almost every class with a reminder to my students of the concept of ahimsa.

When you see a student forcing their body into a shape that they should perhaps never go into, it is an opportunity to bring up this yama. I always tell my students that being an “advanced” yogi does not mean going into fancy poses or attending a class labeled “Level 5.” A truly advanced yogi knows their limits and listens to their body, which may mean their pose looks different than pictures of yogis like Pattabhi Jois, perhaps with props.

Cues to consider:

- “Everything I teach is a suggestion and that ultimately, it is your responsibility to choose not to do something that may seem harmful to you. You are the world’s leading expert on your own body. Don’t do anything harmful.”

- “Feel free to rest at any time. Feel free to wave me over or talk to me after class if you need modifications to make poses accessible to you.”

- “Have you ever heard the motto ‘No pain, no gain?’ Well, in this space, we practice ‘No pain, NO PAIN.’ Don’t do anything that causes or increases pain in your body.”

Satya: Truthfulness

Being truthful in our asana practice means choosing the asana practice that is truly the right fit for your experience and energy level.

Being truthful in our lives means that we try to have our thoughts, speech, and actions in alignment. Sometimes our minds can play tricks on us—telling us things that are not true, like “I always do this” or “I am so lazy” or “This is all his/her/my fault.”

Your brain is a mysterious, quivering, greyish-pink, oatmeal-consistency mass with electricity literally buzzing through electrical pathways. That buzz does not represent the truth. Yoga asana can be a ripe time to observe our thoughts and ask: “is that true?” This inquiry can help us replace the wiring of destructive thought patterns with more constructive ones.

Cues to consider:

- During a meditation, say: “Observe your thoughts. It is completely natural for your mind to wander. It is also natural for the mind to judge and create stories. When you notice this happening, consider asking: is this really true?”

- “Be truthful with yourself about where you are today. If you need to take a break or grab a prop, feel free. Everyday is different.”

Asteya: Non-Stealing

Obviously, we don’t want to steal in our yoga business. Asteya could also be interpreted as accepting abundance, which is a relevant philosophy for us to model as teachers running a business. Whether you are simply contracting a class a week or running a full-time online yoga therapy business like me, you are in business.

I believe that we, as a yoga community, can all support each other instead of directly competing. The field of yoga is growing and your integrity-filled success helps me and every other teacher.

As a yoga anatomy instructor, I also consider structural compensation in poses as a way of stealing from one place in the body to give to another, simply for the image of the pose. It is vital that we have a keen eye for common compensations in poses, which can be gained through experience and anatomy training.

For example, when someone does not have flexibility in their shoulders to raise the arms up overhead as in Sun Salutations or a Warrior I, they may extend their back, sticking their low ribs out to make it look like their arms are above their head. However, this compensation lacks stability in the core and can lead to back pain in the long run.

Cues to consider:

- “Notice if you are covering up a weakness in one area of your body with another part of your body. Can you find a balance of engagement and ease in your body in this pose?”

- “Breathe in abundance, breathe out anything that is holding you back.”

Brahmacharya: Moderation (and Conservation of Energy)

The traditional definition of this is celibacy. However, since you are probably not living a monastic lifestyle–I know I am not–we will have to interpret brahmacharya for our householder lifestyle. The intention of celibacy for young boys living as monks is to avoid distraction from learning in order to grow spiritually.

We can all definitely work on the concept of moderating distractions and conserving energy (Netflix? Facebook? Oh, I think I just heard your phone ping).

Cues to consider:

- “If you find yourself feeling breathless, slow to a pace that allows a steady, even breath. Save your energy for the rest of the class. We still have an hour to go.”

- “Yoga asana gives us an opportunity to practice building, slowing, and conserving our energy. Notice the shifts of energy throughout the practice. How could you use these techniques throughout the day to shift your energy during challenges? A few poses in the bathroom stall? Some pranayama and mindfulness during a stressful meeting? Yoga is so powerful to transform energy.”

Aparigraha: Non-Possessiveness

Aparigraha is most often translated as non-possessiveness, but it can also mean being grateful instead of jealous. Students can often look at us or other students and compare the way their asanas look. Or, sometimes students can get stuck in comparing the way their poses look or feel now with 10 years ago. It is our job as teachers to create an inclusive, non-judgmental environment.

Cues to consider:

- “Imagine you are doing your practice alone, where your mat is your personal island, not attached to how your poses look, not comparing yourself to or competing with others. This is not a contest. This is YOUR personal practice.”

Teachers out there, how do you integrate the yamas into your teaching? My list only scratches the surface of the possible interpretations and cues. Be sure to check out the second part of this article: “For Teachers: How to Infuse the Niyamas into Teaching Asana.”

Image credit: Andrea Taylor