In January and February, I teach the yamas and niyamas—the first two limbs of yoga—in my yoga class. Using a new idea each week is a great pedagogical tool, and it meshes with January’s sense of newness and resolution.

The very first limb of yoga is yama, or restraints, and the very first yama is ahimsa, nonharming, nonviolence. As one of my teachers describes it, “First, do no harm.” This has obvious application in the way we deal with others, but how does it play out with ourselves?

First, in class, we must avoid hurting ourselves physically. That’s easier said than done for athletes, who are often experts at pushing through pain. On the mat, it’s unsafe and unwise. Stop at the first twinge; shy back from any sign that you’re going too far. Your breath is a preliminary indicator that you’re doing too much: if it grows choppy, or you hear yourself gasp, be alert to where you are and see if you can pull back.
We also have to avoid harming ourselves with our thoughts. Self-critical judgment is normal, but much of the work of yoga is detaching from that crabby voice. Instead of succumbing to it, simply notice it and let it go. Nonviolence begins at home.
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