Early on as a blogger, I posted “Living Your Namaste” in the wake of violence that escalated on a national level in late spring of 2020. It was a way to reflect on the moment and bring something from the yoga practice to inform our thinking so we might move toward a better life in our own corner of the world. Today, instead of the lighter post I had prepared, I am turning again to the current moment to reflect on a violent weekend highlighted by events in Buffalo, Chicago, and Laguna Woods, California. To denounce the violence, acknowledge the many who are hurting and will need healing, and to consider how we can contribute to a more peaceful planet.
Religions and ethics-based philosophical systems hold non-violence at their core. Yet, moving from knowledge to action happens in small steps all along one’s life path; some, we are aware of and many, we are not. As a human considering the world in troubling times, I think about how I can lessen harm through how I live, teach, and lead, finding some wisdom in the teachings and practice of yoga.
The very first of yoga’s Yamas (ethical principles) is Ahimsa. Ahimsa (uh-HIM-suh) is defined as non-violence or non-harming of others or of ourselves. Within the yoga practice, we learn ahimsa by mindfully breathing and moving through poses without pushing ourselves beyond our capacity today, at this time. This teaches us to be aware of ourselves, our actions, and the results of our actions. Learning that extremes can create harm, we take our practice of ahimsa off the mat by working within healthy boundaries in our professional lives and by monitoring what we allow into our bodies and our minds, including negative self-talk or too much media. Non-harming depends on valuing ourselves enough to value others.
Beyond not inflicting physical harm, practicing ahimsa toward others means refraining from harsh words, reactionary judgements, negative thoughts, or any type of ill will. Hurtful social media (thumbs down on YouTube performances, accompanied by backseat criticisms), gossip, and treating people as invisible are sometimes rationalized as the norm in a modern world or as a personal defense against someone who we believe has harmed us. To be clear, ahimsa does not mean we shouldn’t stand up for ourselves and others, especially if victimized in any way; but it does teach us to avoid thoughtless, harmful actions that are not intended to improve situations or build others for the better.
How can we model and teach ahimsa in our work with singers?
Teach singers to become aware of their physical and emotional state through alignment and breathing. They should learn to ask, “What am I feeling today, in this moment?” Help them develop tools to find better balance, use their body appropriately, sing with easeful effort, and release self-criticism—to practice non-harming in mind, body, and spirit. Show them they have agency, some control over their own life, and that from moment to moment they can adjust in small ways to move toward a healthier version of themselves. When called for, refer singers to health care professionals who can provide resources they need.
Frame your work together in the context of commitment and humility. Only by honoring self and others, as well as the music and the text and the culture from which it comes, can we have a rich musical experience. Be aware of any brewing disrespect among singers or of the artistic/educational process and use this as a teaching moment (yes, even with older adults) so the rehearsal and the ensemble community can be a compassionate model of effective leadership and followership. Monitor the words you use as you challenge singers to excellence; be aware of how the director’s ego nearing performance can unknowingly lead to coercive tactics. Build your ensemble on a foundation of learning, growing, and becoming the best version of oneself within a community of art makers.
Acknowledge each singer’s presence and value. Invisible people are hurting people. They will ultimately find ways to be seen which may result in harm to themselves or others. Don’t let a day go by without letting singers know they matter, they are valued, and they are loved. As a singer but even more, as a human.
We know the oft-used metaphor of a pebble tossed in the water, creating ripple effects that go on indefinitely, well beyond our ability to know their ultimate reach. What is that pebble for you, for me, and for those we lead?
A small, then very large way of changing the world.
Dr. Ramona Wis is the Mimi Rolland Endowed Professor in the Fine Arts, Professor of Music, and Director of Choral Activities at North Central College in Naperville, Illinois and the author of The Conductor as Leader: Principles of Leadership Applied to Life on the Podium. Dr. Wis is a 500-hour CYT (Certified Yoga Teacher) with training in yoga history, philosophy, meditation, energetics, pranayama (breath work), anatomy, Sanskrit, and the teaching, sequencing, and adaptations of asana (posture-based) practice. Reach her at: