Four perspectives on yoga, martial arts, and ahimsa

Practicing sai.

Practicing sai.

Few people practice both yoga and martial arts. I personally know just three. Some yoga teachers and friends have questioned my devotion to yoga, and how I deal with ahimsa: the non-harming commandment of yoga. So I asked my friends. How did they justify their martial arts practice? Read on to learn how I and three other dual practitioners think about yoga and martial arts in general, and ahimsa in particular.

Steven Landau

Steven Landau in India.

Steven Landau in India.

So, you want to be a yogi? Learn how to fight!

“Human life is an ideological flow.”
--Shrii Shrii Anandamurti, Gurudeva of Ananda Marga

It’s a struggle, internally and externally, and the endgame is bliss. And there is bliss along the way. One of the more enjoyable things I do is to spar with a friend. I lose all sense of self and merge myself in the movement of my opponent. Of course if I get hurt it’s not so much fun, and I’m back into thinking about myself again.

Why do this in the first place? To become Sadvipra, of course. 

A Sadvipra is one who has ascended beyond the boundaries of caste and creed and even professional identity. A Sadvipra is a spirituo-moralistic aspirant who is ready to fight against injustice at all times, wherever it occurs. A Sadvipra imbibes all the four characteristics of human endeavor – laborer, warrior, intellectual, and mercantilist. Why become a Sadvipra? When you meditate deeply, you get to forget your own needs and start thinking about others. Then you cannot tolerate seeing others in pain or suffering exploitation. Hence the struggle.

I’ve always enjoyed physical and martial and spiritual arts. I delighted in gymnastics at the local synagogue when I was 11, yoga in my backyard when I was 12, fencing in high school when I was 13, judo during medical summer camp when I was 14, Aikido during medical school when I was 22, Tae Kwon Do when I was a professor teaching medical school at 30, Ninjutsu when practicing medicine at 50, tae chi when teaching elders at 60, self-defense when teaching friends at 65. 

How has this been useful to me or others? 

It strengthens my performance with public speaking. I love punctuating points with a “power move” and kiyap. Doing a few moves like a high kick gives me credence with my prison yoga students to show that meditation and yoga asana practice is compatible with physical strength and bravery. It has enlivened my yoga instruction by doing martial arts warm-ups in preparation for difficult yoga stretches. Learning to roll has saved me from injury in London and Santo Domingo when untoward circumstances caused me to fall. Accepting other people’s energy and utilizing it has enabled me to make friends with those who might otherwise be my opponents. And it gives me a feeling of self-respect, an invaluable commodity. 

How does yoga influence martial arts? Many of our Ananda Marga (Path of Bliss) schools and programs incorporate martial arts into the curriculum, in the program of creating Sadvipras to lead society. We teach Ahimsa, which is sometimes erroneously interpreted as non-violence. Actually, Ahimsa means non-harmfulness by thought, word, or deed. Good martial artists learn to use necessary force, and only necessary force, without intending to harm the opponent. We learn to use rasa, or flow, in moving without ego, and enjoy the vigorous dance of the match. We learn the meaning of Sadhana, the effort to complete, and strive for perfection while celebrating excellence. We learn the discipline of daily and twice-daily practice in honing our skills. We keep our bodies flexible, and harmonize our glands using the pressure points on the chakras generating by doing asana practice. We control and master our emotions with meditation. By becoming Sadvipras, we also become Tatsujen – the complete human being. And that’s what it’s all about.

Steven Landau, a medical doctor, has practiced yoga since 1971 and holds RYT 500 and E-RYT 200. He is a Tattvika (well-versed in philosophy), and a Senior Acarya (meditation and asana instructor, who teaches by his own conduct) in the Ananda Marga system. He has trained yoga teachers with the Shiva Dancing School of Yoga since 2007. He trained in fencing, Ninjutsu, Aikido, and Tae-Kwon Do for three years, achieving the rank of high green belt (just below brown). 

Marilyn St. John

Marilyn St. John in the dojo.

Marilyn St. John in the dojo.

Ahimsa—not harming, nonviolence—is the first of Patanjali’s principles of yama. Yama, with niyama, are the foundation for a set of right living or ethical rules in Hinduism and yoga. Patanjali showed us how to overcome our human psychological and emotional weaknesses. True ahimsa is the cultivation of the positive within us, in addition to suppressing physical violence. It is also nurturing love. BKS Iyengar pairs ahimsa with the second yama, satya, or truth. He says the shame of violence, of harming others, is simply that it is an offense against underlying unity and therefore a crime against the truth. Truth is the soul communicating with the conscience.

The yamas can be learned through the practice of asana, (yoga postures). For example, acting over aggressively to one side of your body thus harming those cells. Restoring energy to the weaker side balances violence and nonviolence. Having positive thoughts about yourself and your practice, being sensitive to your body’s limitations and respecting your efforts leads to absorbing the quality of ahimsa in your body, mind, emotions and intelligence. Success in asana can only be attained if the self is purified in thought, word, and deed.

I find a definite correlation between my yoga practice and a martial arts career pertaining to ahimsa. Martial arts traditionally strive for peace. Morehei Ueshiba, the founder of the Japanese martial art of Aikido, which seeks to resolve conflict without injury, described ahimsa as his inspiration for the art. In Aikido practice, where strength is encountered, one finds the path of least resistance. The physical practice develops the ability to extend this philosophy into daily life, where it can be applied to personal and business relationships. This isn’t a passive approach; it is a positive one. You solve an aggressive situation by developing peaceful means for conflict resolution.

Karate and other hard styles of martial arts dictate how to have ahimsa in self-defense situations. Force must be the last resort. If it is necessary, its cause must be just, its purpose virtuous, and its aim peaceful. These are values taught to students as they enter martial arts training. Knowing how to fight, you realize the skills acquired are only used to protect yourself, your loved ones, or the weak. Only the minimal amount of force necessary to secure safety is used. Martial artists learn to assess situations, recognize risks and not place themselves in harm’s way.

Exploring this concept of ahimsa in our daily life in relation to friends, family and ones self will bring about a greater awareness of love and peace to heal humanity and the planet.

Marilyn St. John has practiced and taught Tang Soo Do for 39 years, achieving 5th black. She has also practiced Aikido, achieving 5th black. She has practiced Iyengar yoga for the last 15.

David Osherow

Yoga and martial arts are like yin and yang, they complement and complete each other. They even have a little of each other in their centers. I used to enjoy the little short moment of meditation in my Karate classes. My sensei would simply say meditation, and we would sit; no instruction, so simple, and so meaningful. I’d like to share about my own experiences, and then give you some information to follow up if you want to hear from real experts on the subject.

I know there are many who blend yoga and martial arts, Cameron Shayne and Paulie Zink for example, but I feel there are so many practitioners of both disciplines that would benefit greatly by delving into the other side of this yin yang.

What first struck me in martial arts classes is “wow, they’re not that good at stretching,” but if the class is an hour long, there isn’t all that much time for it. What I would like to hear from martial arts teachers is, take time to stretch at home or take yoga classes, flexibility is crucial to advance in martial art, and it helps prevent injuries. On the other side, I learned stretches in Kung Fu, and Aikido that are never done in yoga classes. I use them a lot and I think it helps me avoid injury.

Another illustrative issue is the fist. A tightly closed fist is not something you see very often in yoga classes, but I seldom go through an entire yoga class without using my fists to support my body weight in Plank or Chaturanga, or even for cat-cow. It’s much less stress on the wrist, as there is a strong straight line through the wrist to the first two knuckles of the closed hand. (Wrap the thumb around, it’s safer.) A closed fist is the opposite stretch from the open hands generally seen in yoga classes, and if you try it you’ll find it frees up a lot of energy in the hands and arms. But does it imply violence? My answer is, it could, but that is a prejudice. It’s about coiled strength and solid protection, and simply another form of the hand. Ahimsa is the issue here and this is an important bridge between yoga and martial arts. In short, Karate means the path of the empty hand, empty as in the emptiness of Zen Satori. Other martial arts are also grounded is spiritual, centered mindfulness.

This comes back around to what martial artists can learn from yoga. Aside from the physical benefits of deep stretching, there are all the philosophical aspects that can inform any physical practice. Yoga teaches us to listen to our body. We focus on what the body is telling us in different asanas, and it’s saying a lot. Every injury from “doing yoga” is the result of not really doing yoga, not really listening—focusing attention on the sensations as you move into a pose, hold, or come out. We get hurt when we heedlessly try to make our body into the shape of a scorpion or whatever. Discomfort is ok, but if you pay attention and move with awareness, your body will always warn you not to go too far. That attention is what yoga is all about, and I guarantee it will help your practice of any martial art.

Resources and things to Google:

  • Cameron Shayne and Budokon

  • Paulie Zink and Yin Yoga

  • Ahimsa the bridge between yoga and Karate


  • Liz Arch

  • Yoga Journal: Kathryn Budig

David Osherow has practiced yoga for 42 years, teaching in the late 1970’s and ’80’s. He achieved green belt in karate, and also studied Kung Fu and Aikido.

Leslie Snow

Leslie with her Isshinryu Karate teachers at the annual tournament, 2015. From left: Sensei Don Gyr (her primary instructor), Shihan Mitch Kobylanski, Leslie, and Shihan Lewis Lizotte.

Leslie with her Isshinryu Karate teachers at the annual tournament, 2015. From left: Sensei Don Gyr (her primary instructor), Shihan Mitch Kobylanski, Leslie, and Shihan Lewis Lizotte.

My martial arts journey began before yoga. When I was 50, I searched for a physical/mental practice that had the depth and breadth of dance that I could practice for the rest of my life. Isshinryu Karate’s flowing, half-soft, half-hard technique, along with its self-defense aspect, won me over. I began a serious Ashtanga practice a few years later. I keep my martial arts practice on the down low with my yoga friends, because they tend to question whether I am obeying the non-harming commandment of yoga. See About.

Yoga’s first Yama, Ahimsa, or non-harming, is the first of the “ten moral commandments” of yoga, as put forth in the Yoga Sutras, 2.35. It states: In the presence of one firmly established in non-violence, all hostilities cease. This is all it says, therefore is open to interpretation. It does not mean to do nothing while someone attacks or kills you. It’s more about not harming oneself with negative thoughts or mirroring those violent thoughts that others send you. Inner peace, which some say is the goal of yoga, can defuse a potentially violent situation. The Yoga Sutras, 2.16, states: Pain that has not yet come is avoidable. The equanimous mind, developed through yoga and meditation, does not react physically or emotionally to external stimuli, even when threatened, but observes the working of the mind. This is the highest ideal.

Karate, and Aikido, which I now practice, have their own morality. Karate is defensive only. You protect yourself first, and harm the attacker only as much as you must to protect yourself or another. In Aikido, we train to avoid permanently harming the attacker at all, only to disable the attack so one can escape. Both espouse that avoidance of violence as the ultimate mental and emotional skill. The best martial artists are the ones that never need to use their tactics.

I asked my karate sensei once what he thought about Ahimsa, he said, “If he attacks you, he has already hurt himself.” Karma!

Whereas yoga is a solo practice, (the “cone of solitude”), martial arts depend on the interaction with another. Point sparring in Karate and randori in Aikido, push one to access all aspects of the self in relation to another, to intuit his intention, distance, and timing, to respond appropriately, not react, without letting fear paralyze you. Both, martial arts and yoga, however, require managing fear.

Both yoga and martial arts give me an integrated physical and mental daily practice. Both give me physical exercise; mastery of my body, my energy, and my mind, resulting in equanimity and an ability to access flow state; and community. 

My yoga practice gives me knowledge of my self; martial arts gives me knowledge of my self in relation to others. Some may feel that I am not committed to either practice. Perhaps I do have one foot on the yoga mat in the studio and one on the tatami in the dojo, yet I feel they complement each other perfectly.

Leslie Snow practiced Isshinryu Karate for eight years, achieving 2nd black. She has practiced meditation for nearly 40 years and yoga for eight; she hold RYT 500. She now practices Aikido.