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Yoga Ethics and the Student/Teacher Relationship


Thinking of human ethics, I see them on four levels.

On the first and most superficial level, we have laws of nature, social rules, legislative systems and codes of conduct.

We won’t put our hand in boiling water because we don’t want to get burnt. We won’t be rude with the neighbors because we don’t want to be isolated. We won’t steal the car because we don’t want to go to prison. And the yoga teacher won’t get involved with the sexy student because he/she signed a list of ethical guidelines.

On the next level, we have karma (or divine laws).

If one lives long enough and keeps their eyes wide open, one might understand that their actions have consequences that extend beyond the above mentioned list. One will not steal even if they cannot be caught, because they are aware of these consequences. (At this level, a certain amount of fear might be still at the roots of one’s choices.)

The third level is more profound and fine drawn and consists of yoga laws. The yogis are consciously assuming the rules and the practice, understand them and lovingly do their best to follow them.

But the deepest and the most subtle expression of ethics is that which naturally flows from yoga practice (or any other truly assumed spiritual endeavor).

I had a first glimpse of this reality many years ago, when I first read the verse 38 of Tao Te Ching. There are many translations of this book and when I study old sacred texts I like to read as many interpretations as I can, in order to better understand the depth and the nuances.

For this essay I consider this translation to be the most appropriate:

Therefore, when the Way is lost there is virtue.

When virtue is lost there is benevolence.  

When benevolence is lost there is righteousness.  

When righteousness is lost there are rituals.  

Rituals are the end of fidelity and honesty,  

And the beginning of confusion.”  

( Stenudd, 2011)  

Thus, the supreme expression of ethics is no longer enforced, it derives from the very  embodiment of theTao (the Way), which is in itself a good synonym for Yoga.The second  best is virtue, which equates with the third level from the above classification, the laws of  the yoga. Righteousness and rituals represent the second and first level. They are  necessary but incomplete.  

On the same topic, I found (and loved) this quote:  

Yoga and ethics are intrinsic to one another. Ethical behavior is the natural expression of  a person in equilibrium.[…]  

The experiences of transcendence and immanence are openings to something larger than  the everyday ‘small self’ going about its business as with blinkers on.”(Macneill, 2012) 

Why then do we see so many yoga teachers breaking ethical rules of conducts? Why then  the path toward light has a dark side?  

Spending my last eleven years on this path, being surrounded by many spiritually inclined  friends and watching/studying a lot of spiritual masters, I found several possible reasons.  

While we all yogis aspire to embody the highest expression of the Yoga Ethics as  described above, we are humans and somehow bound by our human nature to fail once in  a while.  

Being a teacher in general and yoga teacher in particular carries great potential for students to project an image that might be above the teacher’s real capabilities. The role of  a teacher comes with inherent authority which can easily shift in a power game.  This projection together with the knowledge and virtuosity achieved through practice can  generate both the admiration of the students and the arrogance of the teacher. Depending  on each one’s personal inclination or psychological background, this admiration can be an  engine in student’s evolution, but can also lead the student to give up their own autonomy  and even common sense, and to invest the teacher with absolute credit.  There is an old saying, “Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely”. This is how  students, unwisely delegating their own discernment, can influence their teacher’s  delusion. This game applies not only to teachers but also to leaders. This is how  dictatorship arises.  

With dedicated and strenuous yoga practice come the siddhis (supernatural abilities).  Patanjali, in Yoga Sutras, chapter 3, verse 36 (or in some versions, verse 37), gives a  warning on this siddhis that can be a distraction on the path. But the siddhis can also lead  to arrogance and breaking of the ethics. Achieving extraordinary powers like healing others  or seeing the past and the future can be a confirmation of one’s advancement on the path.  But when attachment intervenes (and honestly, it is SO HUMAN to become attached to  these extraordinary capacities), it can lead to great imbalance in the teacher-student  relationship.  

Another possible cause resides in the incomplete understanding of the powerful insights  that come when one is directly experiencing the divine. Direct contact with the ultimate  reality can be highly disturbing and requires exceptional maturity and grounding, in order  to be integrated in a healthy way. Experiencing direct intuition of our divine, eternal, of  absolute perfection nature can bring both huge relief and great confusion, greatness and  arrogance, revered wiseness and incredible foolishness.  

This is why in the past an aspirant to any spiritual path had to pass some tests and to  prove their maturity in order to access the teachings. As well as why many traditions  require that any practitioner should have a spiritual guide.  

One of the ways in which these profound insights can mislead the practitioner is that they  can perceive themselves above karma, above ethics and above any law. (Above or  beyond; “transcendence” and “beyond” are terms very often used in any form of spiritual  bypassing.)  

This can be very much true from a certain point of view, (because what is spirituality but a  bunch of paradoxes that we somehow have to integrate?;) but it is a trait of our divine  nature and does not quite literally apply to our human existence.  

The last reason, but not the least, is that any being on the spiritual path will be challenged  and tempted. The more advanced they are, the more subtle, yet powerful and deceiving  are the temptations. 

Buddha and Jesus were tempted but they had the strength to remain in balance and act  according to their highest values.  

Nevertheless, yoga teachers or yoga practitioners, we are human. We live in the world, we  still have desires, we still have needs, may them be real or imaginary, may we be aware of  them or not. We are imperfect beings in search of absolute perfection which is already our  most intimate nature; but this is another apparent paradox of the spiritual journey, that  does not absolve us from making mistakes.  

What then can help the yoga teacher to resist these seductive traps?  

Well, a yoga teacher has YOGA as their most forceful and complete ally. All of the yoga  philosophy and all of the yoga precepts are the most valuable instrument in this battle.  Taking the commitment not only to teach yoga, but to practice yoga as a way of life would  save us of lot of trouble. On the other hand, no one said it would be easy and trouble has  its role in spiritual evolution.  

We have yamas and niyamas in our arsenal and all we need is to reconnect with them in  absolute honesty, love and humbleness. We will find there the alarm bells, the reminders,  the right questions and the right answers.  

Any deviation from the ethics is potentially harming others and ourselves. We have to  remind why we value ahimsa, and, with self love and compassion, to return.  We have satya for seeing the truth and most important, for understanding how and why we  sometimes unsee the truth.  

We have asteya that should govern our finances and brahmacharya to bring a higher  sense of responsibility in our sex life.  

We have aparigraha to remind us not to collect Rolls-Royces.  

Highly important and useful I find to be self study: the ability and willing to honestly notice  our deviations and find what triggers them. The capacity to ask deeper and deeper  questions about the needs we want to respond to, about the void we want to fill, about  what casts a shadow over our inherent good will. The strength to stay with these questions  in self compassionate and sincere contemplation. The willing to admit the deviation and to  correct it.  

This requires both strong discipline (tapas) and permanent remembrance of God.  

Paul Macneill in his above referred study, The Importance of Practice, states that the yoga laws contains not only yamas and niyamas, but all the eight limbs, and this is very illuminating perspective.

Yoga comprises many different practices, including meditation and self-study (or self attentiveness), that help to dissolve a sense of ‘I am’ as separate from everyone else. From this dissolution of self […] compassion will flow through you. This is the foundation of yoga ethics: that when we realize our expanded nature, even to a small extent, we are naturally inclined to treat others well.”

(Macneill, 2012)  

In this regard, besides yamas and niyamas, we have practice ( asanas and pranayama) to  connect with our body, our emotions, our intellect and with the energy of the Earth and of  the Universe. We have the advice to practice pratyahara.  

We have concentration and contemplation that bring ultimate awareness and connect us  to supreme wiseness and serenity.  

We can also hugely benefit from following the best practices of ancient yoga, which  suggests that the teacher will invite the student to teach. The teacher knows best when his  pupils are ready: are they able to teach, are they physically suited for the “job”, do they  have in depth knowledge of yoga philosophy, and most importantly, are they spiritually and psychologically clear and strong? Perfect asana is beautiful but I find of great significance  for a yoga teacher the ability to get (and to keep) their ducks in a row. “Medice, cura te  ipsum”/ “Doctor, heal thyself first” should be a pre-requisite for any spiritual guide to be.  

It is also of great benefit that a teacher stays in touch with their own mentor and remains  open to dialogue, feedback and corrections. This is an important part of the very special  relationship that grows between student and master and requires maturity, a certain  degree of humbleness as well as a lot of love and mutual trust.  

In the same spirit but in a more contemporary approach I found precious advice in an  article written by Amy Ippoliti:  

The more of an authority you are in your field, and the more privileges you receive because of that authority, the more accountable and responsible you have to be. The best leaders surround themselves with a system of checks and balances — or a high council to call them out when they’re buying into their own hype and advise them on decisions. These leaders are able to take feedback well and openly seek guidance from others. Take some time to think about your life and how you can increase stability and harness a system of checks and balances. Some ideas include hiring a therapist, putting a studio manager in place, seeking the support of a mentor or friends who can be frank with you.” (Ippoliti,2017)

And if all these don’t work, we have the Code of Conduct and let us not forget about  karma.  

To my delight, I found a reflection of the last suggestion stated in California Yoga Teachers  Association Code of Conduct: “To seek out and engage in collegial relationships,  recognizing that isolation can lead to a loss of perspective and judgment.”  (Lassater-Berkeley, 1995)

My personal opinion is that ethics as required for a yoga teacher cannot be coerced. It  comes from inside or ... God help us. But it is of great practical value to have a clear and  very specific frame of reference, like a good code of conduct. If it cannot substitute the  one’s good will, it can offer at least some topics of reflection for teachers and a scale of  measure for the students.  

Coming back to the students, even if they might not be accountable, they have their part in  the play and their own responsibilities. The student needs to reconcile another paradox: on  one hand absolutely trusting the teacher is a requirement in many yogic traditions. On the  other hand, the students should be constantly encouraged to validate through personal  practice, intuition and direct knowledge - every teaching they receive.  Building healthy discernment and cultivating modest but solid autonomy, keeping alive  vigilance, these are valuable tools of the student for maintaining ethics in relation with the  teacher and why not, with the path.  

Adyashanti, who is my main spiritual teacher, gives a lot of space in his teachings to the  importance of spiritual autonomy.  

There is a fine line between being truly open to the guidance of a spiritual teacher and  regressing into a childish relationship where you abdicate your adulthood and project all  wisdom and divinity onto the teacher. Each person needs to find a mature balance, being  truly and deeply open to their spiritual guide without abdicating all of their authority.”  (Adyashanti, 2012)  

I found a beautiful comparison in many texts and traditions and I think it concludes best  this essay: for best results, devotion (bhakti) should be permanently accompanied by  wiseness (jnana), working together like the two wings of a bird. 


Adyashanti. (2012). The Way of Liberation - A Practical Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment,  page 5  

Ippoliti, Ami. (2017). - Yoga Modern Ethics Beyond Yamas and Niyamas  (

Lassater-Berkeley, Judith - California Yoga Teachers Association Code of Conduct Reprint of article written in Yoga Journal, Nov/Dec. 1995

Macneill, Paul. (2012). Yoga and Ethics: The Importance of Practice  



Patanjali, Yoga Sutras translated by Constantin Fagetanu.(1993). page 262  

Stenudd, Stefan. (2011). The Taoist Classic by Lao Tzu translated and explained by Stefan  Stenudd, page 169 

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