The ethics of teaching yoga are complex, controversial and often dry issues that are nonetheless absolutely essential to a solid teacher training program. The ethical quandaries that can arise in and outside the classroom affect us all whether we are a student or a teacher, male or female. My intention is to generate awareness and dialogue around the subject of ethical teaching so the art and practice of yoga can continue to flourish.
Initially I was so overwhelmed with the logistics of teaching classes that did the authentic practice of yoga asana, pranayama and meditation justice that I didn’t give too much thought to the ethical responsibility of teaching. Ethical inquiries were certainly addressed in my teacher training but I didn’t take the time to establish my own personal code of ethics until much later. This code of ethics continues to morph and grow with every class I teach. In the beginning I handled each situation as is arouse and did my best to follow through with decisions and actions that felt ethical in both a narrow personal sense and a broad universal sense. I certainly made my mistakes and to this day I don’t claim to have all the answers. I do know that the journey to this point was invaluable in the development of my own internal ethical compass, boundaries, and intuition. I am grateful for the opportunity to teach the Ethics of Teaching segment of the Yogalife Teacher Training in Seattle, Washington for it has proven to be yet another avenue for self-discovery, clarification and reflection. In my research and reading on the topic I’ve found my personal beliefs resonate most strongly with Donna Farhi’s. Her book “Teaching Yoga: Exploring the Teacher-Student Relationship” and accompanying CD “Holding A Heart In Our Hands” have been instrumental in my own process and in the creation of this teacher training segment.
When discussing the ethics of teaching yoga it is helpful to first inquire into the purpose and meaning of yoga. The longer I tread the path of yoga the more it is a means for me to return to something that is and always has been complete, full of love, joyful, and free – the True Self. Those on the path will attest to the dedication required to meet and welcome the suffering of our own creation the practice reveals. When we attach to false perceptions about ourselves and believe that we are limited to the vehicle of the body, and the fleeting feelings, sensations and thoughts of the mind we forget who we really are and become defined by alternating waves of fear, love, pain, pleasure, comfort and discomfort. Yoga shows us how to systematical deconstruct and dis-identify with all that we hold true about ourselves, both positive and negative, to reveal a clear and discerning light within. What speaks to me about the eight-fold path of yoga is its affirmation that the journey is not about changing or creating anything new but restoring an awareness of that which has always been. Yoga is something we are. Yoga is a way of life. It is a commitment to living life as fully as possible according to the ten ethical precepts recorded by Patanjali in the Yoga Sutras.
The Yamas and Niyamas are often viewed as the ten commandments of Yoga. We all fail at times and everyone makes mistakes but we are redeemed through the intensity of our aspiration and a heartfelt desire to live by these precepts. Richard Miller stated that the Yamas and Niyamas are emphatic declarations of who we are when we live connected to our True Nature. We are peaceful, truthful, generous, pure, joyful, self-reflective, grateful and devoted beings and through the practice of yoga these qualities shine brighter and brighter. The Yamas and Niyamas are also referred to as inner and outer restraints. I believe that we, the human race, are not inherently “bad” and I am grateful for Donna Farhi’s clarity around the purpose of these restraints. What we are trying to restrain is the deeply rooted belief that we are separate and the tendency to see the world in shades of us and them, me and you. When we loose sight of the intrinsic interconnectedness of all beings everywhere it may make it easier to act outside of the precepts of True Nature and engage in harmful actions, words and thoughts.
Now that I’ve shared a few thoughts on the meaning of yoga, an inquiry into the role of a yoga teacher follows. The word “to educate” comes from Greek midwifery term “educari” which translates as “to be present for the birth of.” As teachers of yoga we hold sacred space in which the student can safely undergo the fiery process of transformation. The teacher-student relationship is an incredibly potent one that can change the trajectory of a life in an instant. Hence the two-fold need for a strong desire to facilitate the blossoming of a student’s greatest potential and clear boundaries. Implicit in the teacher-student relationship is an imbalance of power. We often work with students at a critical point in their life where they sit on the precipice of repeating history or creating new patterns of thought and behavior that lead toward future healing. The teacher in whom the student has placed their absolute trust can affect the direction they go for better or worse. As much as teaching yoga is about boundlessness it is also about the creation, maintenance and defense of healthy boundaries so as not to abuse this power. Boundaries are necessary throughout the process of transformation. Without them the process gets blurry and effectively ends. Thus, as teachers we constantly engage is self-reflective study. Asking questions such as “Would I like to be treated in this manner?” “How will I feel about this later?” “Will this behavior require me to lie, be untruthful or cause suffering for me or another?” and “Is this action a departure (abuse) from the purpose of teaching or selfishly motivated?” can help us hone our internal compass and firm our boundaries.
The yoga teacher wears many hats. Some hats are consciously assumed while others are unconsciously projected and transferred from the student onto the teacher. The teacher may simultaneously or alternately live in the students mind as the teacher, healer, priest, therapist and coach archetype. The teacher may live larger than we know in the student’s mind and the experience of being unconditionally seen and accepted by another can be as intoxicating and addicting as a drug. The dynamic of this relationship can facilitate the abuse of power and has the potential to breed a co-dependence that can inhibit the ultimate aim of the Yoga – the recognition of the inner teacher. Adoration can lead to self-aggrandizement on the part of the teacher and an unhealthy yielding of power on the part of the student. A teacher in the truest sense humbly steps off the pedestal and encourages the development of self-reliance and freedom thereby passing the torch and igniting the students own inner light and wisdom.
In the end as Banner and Cannon so succinctly suggest in their book “The Elements of Teaching,” “Teachers are ethical not only because the trustee role requires it, teachers are ethical so that their students can learn to be ethical too.” This is no small feat. At times in my teaching career I have felt like an isolated island in an archipelago of other teaching islands. Actively reaching out to colleagues and senior teachers in my community has been an amazing source of support and affirmation in the search to live ethically and authentically within my boundaries. I hope that this brief article supports you in your teaching and allows the greater teaching community to take another step forward in creating a safe yoga environment for all practitioners.