I speak from my own experience as a studio owner, as well as an avid yoga practitioner, when I say that there are some asshole yoga teachers out here.
It has made me question if 200-hour teacher training programs even discuss the ethics of yoga teaching, and consequently has made me an ethics fiend with the new teachers with whom I work.
It is as simple as following the moral code laid out quite efficiently by the sage Patanjali as part of the eight limbs of yoga, the yamas and niyamas. If we practice yama and niyama, if we embrace yama and niyama, if we represent yama and niyama in our thoughts, words, and actions, then it is nearly impossible to be an asshole in the yoga profession.
Let’s review a few a few select yamas and niyamas, and how they can explicitly relate to teaching yoga.
Let’s start with ahimsa, the first yama. Non-harming, non-violence; sometimes ahimsa is even described as non-killing. It is thought that if you can practice ahimsa in your daily life, then you are already practicing all the other yamas, as ahimsa is the most important one. I highly doubt (and strongly hope) that no yoga teacher chooses this path in order to harm someone. Yet, I have seen harm happen a multitude of times, both physically and emotionally. Often without the teacher even being aware of such behavior.
As yoga teachers, we need to be mindful of not only our physical assists that may cause harm if not done properly, but also mindfulness with our speech. We should refrain from using words toward our students that are condescending, or that may create a sense of negative self-worth. For example, instead of saying, “If you’re not flexible, bend your knees,” we can simply say, “Bend your knees, if it feels right,” or, “if it’s available, straighten the legs.”
Our goal on the path of teaching yoga is empowerment and strength. We want our students to realize their potential, not be told that they are inflexible, not strong enough, or too big or too small to achieve benefit from a posture. So, with ahimsa, let’s move beyond the obvious issue of physical harm, and become more aware of the words we use when we teach, and the potential effect those words have on others.
Aparigraha teaches us about non-attachment. In the business of yoga, we can stop comparing ourselves to other teachers, or having concerns about which classes are busier than ours, who has more of a “following,” and so on. It is always a nice reminder that no student is “yours.” Stop using phrases like “my students,” “my following,” or, “I taught them that.” When students transform or improve, they should get the credit for it. We need to let go of the ego that tricks us into thinking that we are more important than the transformative practice of yoga.
I have found even the most packed of classes have a variety of reasons for their success. Yes, an experienced and/or passionate teacher does help. However, one must consider convenience as a major determinant in which classes are most attended. I have had senior teachers leave a time slot, and although they would be missed, a large majority of the students still show up to that class despite the new teacher, simply because that particular day, time, and location works for them. We can remind ourselves that it’s not about us. Otherwise, we’ll find ourselves trying to hold onto “my” students, with an attachment to the attendance that inadvertently steals the joy out of our own teaching.
The niyama Ishvara Pranidhana is often translated as “surrender” to a Supreme Being or higher self. In essence, this means to cultivate a deep and powerful relationship with the universe, while making each action an offering to something bigger than us. This niyama can relate to many things, but perhaps most importantly it causes us to recognize that a higher consciousness, in fact, does exist.
There are a slew of new yoga studios in existence, with large studio corporations creating new styles of yoga, some that even pride themselves on stripping away the spiritual aspects of yoga to a mere workout. In a sense, watering down all that yoga has to offer. However, I encourage you to celebrate the spiritual aspects of this practice with the students that show up. This includes offering words and opportunities that help them tap into their instinctive understanding of oneness and the presence of their true self.
If all we offer in our teaching is the mindset of getting a skinnier body or an advanced posture, then we will only be offering a surface level of yoga to our students. In order to really get the deepest benefit from the practice, we have to offer an intention on the spiritual path of yoga. Don’t take this away from the practitioners in our classes. Even if people come to the mat for the “workout,” it is our responsibility to take them deeper. Guide them to seek a more connected, patient, and content way of life.
Without that contribution, we will be on a fast track to being an asshole yoga teacher.
Author: Lisa Dana Mitchell
Editor: Travis May