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.”
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 (https://www.90monkeys.com/2017/01/yoga-modern-ethics-beyond-yamas-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