Saturday, November 22, 2008

The Ethics of Teaching Yoga

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.     

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Injury Lights the Way

Accidents happen and lately they have been happening close to home.  Lisa and Sandy attacked by a dog, Cameron's bicycle accident and tonight when the elevator door opened I stared into the battered and bruised face of a man who looked as if he'd done a face plant into a storm drain.  In times like these it can be difficult to see the silver lining yet is important to remember that even injury can be a teacher and often it is one of our greatest teachers.  Something as individual as a misunderstanding with a colleague or as global as the abuse imposed on our planet are tremendous opportunities for growth.

I’ve had a few minor injuries and one serious injury in my Yoga career thus far.  The minor injuries were wake up calls that underscored the importance of being truthful about my body’s capability and the value of being content with one’s own practice at any given moment.  The serious injury completely transformed my approach to teaching, practicing and living Yoga. 

I broke my leg during a period of major transition that left me feeling completely ungrounded and desperately in search of my center.  Hobbling around on crutches was a poignant reflection of my inner state.  Once I moved through the initial shock, pain, restlessness of being temporarily disabled, my injury catapulted me into a deep inquiry around the unresolved residues that led to my accident, the trauma itself and the ensuing emotional aftermath.  At this point I had found Yoga Nidra but not my teacher Richard Miller.  I had yet to develop the language to describe the step-by-step reintegration of mind, body and spirit I was experiencing.  Looking back it is clear that Yoga Nidra was one of the major lines that pulled me up and out of the mire and back onto a path where work and play, offering and receiving are equal.  Two years later, this process continues to unfold and reveal more guests to welcome into my cozy living room.

The first set of emotions and beliefs I welcomed related to my ideas regarding work, work ethic, discipline and competition.  I loving refer to myself as a recovering type-A personality. The qualities of a type A personality are essentially beneficial if kept in proper balance.  When out of balance however these qualities can threaten physical vitality and emotional health.  The same is true of other personalities, though the type A's are notorious precisely because their determined and outgoing energy makes them difficult to miss.  Historically it is always been challenging for me to do “nothing” or to just “be”.  I have a very busy mind and am always on the move.  I equated even momentary stillness with laziness or failure and was frantically avoiding the discomfort of sitting alone with myself.  I had fully adopted the belief that I am a measure of what I do rather than who I am and this was the flame that led to my self-combustion.  The heavyweights in the arena of self-defeating inner dialog are shame, blame and guilt and the accident left plenty of all three to wrestle with.  When able to transcend this trio I moved deeper into the intricate web of my psyche in search of the core belief that led me to take an action that put my physical well being behind that of an automobile’s.

My type A tendencies were also present in my yoga practice.  Initially I was extremely goal oriented and the concept of enjoying the journey flew right over my head.  Practices that involved movement for movement’s sake or body sensing where foreign and uncharted territories I dared not enter.  After 15 years of gymnastic training, everything was a competition and I was my own biggest rival.  I was, and continue to be, drawn to physically challenging and acrobatic styles of yoga.  My unexpected injury not only forced me to slow down but it provided an opportunity to get comfortable with the uncomfortable.  The simultaneous discovery of Yoga Nidra was a blessing.  It softened my perfectionist tendencies, ameliorated self-imposed pressure and taught me to enjoy being instead of always doing.  The gem of the practice is that it pacifies the harsh voice of my inner critic by simply welcoming it.  When this happens I have effectively created a space for the whole of myself to shine.

Yoga and Yoga Nidra teach us that we are more than the collection of labels and roles we assume unconsciously or by choice throughout our life.  Thus it follows that I began to examine the many ideas about the role of a yoga teacher.  Right away I was confronted with the fact that being injured I was no longer able to perform and demonstrate the postures I taught daily.  I also became acutely aware of the pedestal I had put myself up on through the encouragement of my ego and the projections of students.  A belief that yoga teachers are immune to the trials and tribulations of life and are perfectly healthy, selfless and equanamous beings announced itself.  A motto I picked up from a Portland based teacher resonates, “Yoga teachers are human too!”  As a yoga teacher it is my intention to mirror my own commitment to authenticity, balance and self-study so that students have permission to walk their individual paths and let their inner teacher light the way.  All teachers will inevitably make mistakes both in and outside the classroom; this is part of being human.  But being human isn’t a loophole.  We must take responsibility for our thoughts, decisions, words, and actions.

And so I did.  There was a part of me that wanted to avoid the studio and my classes but I hobbled in, sat myself down, crutches and all, and taught anyway.  The mutual learning that resulted was immediately obvious.  I found that I was rather attached to practicing along with my students and that they in turn were attached to me showing them.  Not only was this an unwise practice for the longevity of my teaching career, but it prevented students from learning through their own experience and from one another.  Everybody is different and the importance of finding your own way into a pose became a central theme in my teaching.  I also realized the potential for comparison that arose out of my constant demonstrating and that my body perhaps wasn’t the most appropriate tool for learning.  Being stuck at the front of the studio I also saw how vague my instructions were and could continue to be when I was doing the postures along with the group.  The mindfulness involved in speaking clearly and succinctly while remembering a complex sequence is incredible.  Often I was more exhausted than if I had been practicing the entire time!  Lastly, I realized that by practicing while teaching I was unable to truly be there for the student.  I couldn’t see where they needed clarification or assistance and therefore couldn’t truly teach or teach responsibly. 

Ultimately, breaking my leg deepened my knowledge as a teacher and student of yoga.  When I finally got out of my cast, I learned an array of modifications that I can share when necessary.  I was given a small view into what it is like to being disabled and the experience left me with a profound respect and empathy for individuals permanently or temporarily handicapped.  Two years latter I am still digesting and healing from the experience.  Balance in all its manifestations is something I strive to maintain in my life.  

Earth and Ocean: A Yoga and Surf Retreat

Earth & Ocean:  A Yoga and Surf Retreat with Laura DeFreitas

Las Olas Hotel, Costa Rica.  December 1st - 6th 2008

Join Laura DeFreitas and Las Olas Hotel for a week of yoga, sun and surf in Playa Hermosa, Costa Rica.  This all-inclusive package is an amazing opportunity to explore two traditions that compliment and enhance one another.  Las Olas provides first class professional surf instruction and will have you going down the line in no time.  Daily yoga classes focus on balance and strength while counterbalancing key areas and cultivating the mindfulness and embodiment needed to successfully and safely negotiate a wave.  Yoga and surf share a deep respect for Mother Nature and together offer the confidence and grace to fluidly ride life’s big waves.  No previous surf or yoga experience required.  Surf lessons and breaks available for all levels. 

Retreat Costs:  $590

Package Includes 5 Nights Beachfront Accommodations, Airport Transfers, Daily Yoga Lessons, Surf Lessons and Equipment and Two Meals a Day.  Airfare not Included.

For More Information or Make Reservations for this Amazing Winter Getaway Visit:
For More Information About Laura DeFreitas and Yoga Visit:

Local Contacts:  Surf Questions - 650.270.9993.  Yoga Questions - 206.240.9254