It seems every month or so that there is a new story related to ‘yoga teacher’s gone bad’. Most of these stories contain a lot of moral complexity, but most people (at least the ones publishing articles or writing comments about them) seem to come down strongly on one side or the other. Either these teachers are morally bankrupt predators or they are humans making forgivable mistakes. Probably the truth is somewhere in between and the answer lies in the ancient wisdom of yama and niyama (yoga’s ethical guidelines).

Yoga is a household word in America, yet people use the term in widely varying ways – from the union between self & divine to an exercise program that emphasizes flexibility, it seems every third person has a different definition of yoga. When such a widely used word has so many different meanings for people, confusion is bound to follow. Due to the current popularity of yoga classes in the US, it is our responsibility as yoga teachers to educate people about what yoga really means.

Perhaps the complex and varied defintions of the word yoga are a blessing. It’s possible these definitions allow people to find relationship with the practices at their own pace, receive them as they are able, and share them when personally inspired. However, there is clearly a dark side to the nebulous definition of what has become a multi-billion dollar industry. When nobody agrees on the definition of yoga, then anyone can use the word to market themselves or their product.

The simplest thing to do is to go back in history to the earliest texts of yoga. This isn’t a perfect method by any means…as yoga appears to be much older than its oldest texts. Additionally, yoga has always been an inclusive philosophy that absorbed rather than repelled competing traditions (such as Buddhism). However, if a definition of yoga is needed (which I think it is), this is the best way to begin.

The Yoga Sutras (attibuted to the sage, Patanjali) lays out a systematic definition of yoga as having 8 stages or ‘limbs’: Yama (external ethics), niyama (internal ethics), asana (physical practices), pranayama (breathing practices), pratyahara (mastery of senses) dharana (concentration), dhyana (extended concentration), and samadhi (absorption). These are systematic, but not discrete. The order is specific, but at times they blend into each other and one can practice multiple limbs at once. In fact, it is common these days to begin practicing asana before one ever hears of yama or niyama.

It’s only fair to ask anyone who professes to be teaching yoga to contemplate and live by the ethics laid out in the Yoga Sutras to the best of their ability. These moral guidelines share many concepts with those of other traditions such as the ‘Four Noble Truths’ of Buddhism, the ‘Triple Jems” of Jainism, and even the ‘Ten Commandments” of Christianity. If your personal spiritual tradition offers a set of moral guides, time spent comparing them with yama/niyama will be a beneficial way to integrate both more deeply into your psychology. If you do not follow a spiritual tradition with such guidelines, or if yoga is your chosen tradition, the study of yama and niyama becomes even more essential. If contemplating ethics is not your cup of tea, and while you love a good workout but you could care less about training your mind – then at least have the good taste to call your classes something other than yoga.

As yoga instructors we have both practical and moral reasons to take our study of yoga philosophy & ethics seriously. The practical reason is to remain competitive in a saturated  and ever more sophisticated market. Yoga students as a whole are educated, thoughtful people. With the number of yoga teachers growing (it seems exponentially), most of them have many choices of whom to study with. As both teachers and students are becoming more experienced, students have less and less tolerance for regurgitated information. The importance of dedicated study and embodied knowledge cannot be overemphasized in the formation of a powerful, cohesive, and accessible yoga class.

Yama and niyama were never meant to be rules followed blindly. Instead, yama and niyama are seeds of universal ideas that are so rich and complex that we can contemplate them for the rest of our lives. The third niyama, swadyaya (self-study), is a call to dedicated studentship. Studentship implies a beginner’s mind, always open to experiencing more angles of the kaleidescopic complexity of our world. The concept of swadyaya is an inseperable companion to the niyama that immediately preceeds it: tapas (heat, fire, austerity). Tapas points to the necessity of a dedicated and consistent practice of contemplation.

Begin or recommit to this practice now. Choose one concept per week and sit with it. Meditate, study, marinate, and teach. The benefits of these contemplations are some of the most powerful gifts that the system of yoga has to offer. The more teachers who take on the study of these concepts, the more students will be exposed to them. The more students who study them, the more peace, truth, generosity, love, clarity, discipline, and service there will be in the world.

Which yama or niyama resonates the most for you? Are there any you are confused about or resistant to?

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