yoga teacher ethicsBy Sangeetha Saran

The topic of ethics in yoga teacher training is complicated, with much gray area.  Recently, a question was posed by an experienced, yet confused, yoga instructor, who we’ll call “Maria,” but that is not her real name.. A teacher for 8 years, Maria had become interested in one of her students. Both he and she are single.  He seemed to reciprocate her interest, asking her repeatedly to join him for lunch or coffee after some of their morning classes. Maria had always prided herself on being a strict follower of the yamas and niyamas, which are Patanjali’s code of ethics, so she came looking for some advice.

Yamas and Niyamas

The yamas and niyamas represent a philosophical basis for practicing yoga, and for being. Although many yoga practices prioritize the asanas before the yamas and niyamas, these ten principles suggest a way of living that is truthful, nonviolent, content, not covetous, without stealing, sexually responsible, clean, hard-working, self-aware and surrendered to God or the universal life force. Teachers have a responsibility to both live the yamas and niyamas and to instruct their students about them.

Daily Ethics of Teaching Yoga

In the West, these principles have not always been adhered to or taught well. As a result, many yoga teachers, Indian as well as American, have strayed from the path of ethical instruction. Have you ever stopped to think that talking about colleagues and students is unethical, for example, or that stealing clients or being lazy about one’s own formal practice is unethical? According to yogic philosophy, comparing oneself to another or complaining about things is unethical. Clearly, the disconnect between the code of ethics Patanjali wrote about and the daily life of an average yoga teacher has become so fraught with problems that some places have adopted an incredibly detailed ethical code that prohibits student-teacher relationships, smoking, false advertising or lying of any kind.

This yoga instructor had always prided herself on living according to yogic philosophy, was therefore troubled by her interest in her student. Her studio’s ethical code prohibited relationships with students, and one of her colleagues was beginning to notice the mutual interest. She eventually decided to be truthful about the situation with her colleague, who volunteered to take over as that student’s teacher to see if the mutual interest played itself out. It did, but Maria still felt uneasiness about the relationship, and this discomfort eventually prompted her to end their interactions.

Maria’s decision was hotly debated by some of her colleagues, who had encouraged her to pursue her interest when she was no longer teaching him as a student. Many still argue that there was nothing wrong with forming a romantic relationship with a former student, while others are steadfast that Maria did the right thing. One thing is certain, the day-to-day experiences of real life can make the ethics of teaching yoga difficult to figure out.

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