Boundaries and Ethics in Yoga
Yoga is more than a series of physical poses. It’s also a system for living your life off the mat.
The Eight Limbs of Yoga, the Yoga Sutras, were the ancient ‘rules’ to living a better life as taught by the Indian teacher Patanajali, a very long time ago in around the 2nd Century BCE (Before Common Era). The Eight Limbs of Yoga were guidelines to living a holistic yogic life through ethical, behavioural, physical and mental disciplines in order to cleanse the mind, body and spirit and reach a state of enlightenment.
Much of the Yoga practised in the UK today is Yoga of the body – Asanas, the physical postures that make up the Third Limb of Yoga – with some Yoga of the mind – Pranayama (breathing practices, the Fourth Limb), Pratyahara (stillness of the mind, the Fifth Limb), Dharana (focusing of the mind, the Sixth Limb), Dhyana (meditation, the Seventh Limb) and Samadhi (oneness with the object of meditation, the Eighth Limb).
Somewhere along the way in Western Yoga we’ve left behind the First and Second Limbs of Yoga, Yamas and Niyamas. These are the ethics of Yoga – how we treat others and how we treat ourselves.
Maybe this is a reflection of modern life, but I think these principles are as important today as they were in the 2nd Century BCE.
Ahimsa – not causing injury or harm to others or ourselves through our thoughts, our words or our actions is a key concept or ‘code of practice’ within Yamas, the First Limb of Yoga, but it seems to be overlooked by many modern Yoga teachers, and gurus who should know better.
Founded ten years ago by Tarana Burke, the #MeToo Movement has been gaining momentum year on year. From Catholic priests, television presenters and Hollywood stars, it’s now moved into the Yoga world.
Recently, there have been numerous reports of well known Yoga teachers or gurus having engaged in misconduct with students, ranging from vulgar comments and inappropriate adjustments to rape.
Maybe part of the problem is elevating the status of some teachers, usually male, to the status of guru – a position of power where he is answerable to no one and can do whatever he wants, no questions asked – an almost God-like status.
One notable example is the founder of Ashtanga Yoga, Pattabhi Jois. During the 1980s and 1990s, there were whispers about his sexual exploitation of his students and the distressing nature of his adjustments, but it was not until after his death in 2009 that a steady stream of incriminating photos, videos and stories came to light pointing the finger at this highly revered teacher who many women were too fearful to challenge as he was held in such high regard throughout the realms of Yoga.
One Yoga teacher and writer who I follow and admire deeply is Matthew Remski and it was through an article he published on his Facebook page that I got more of an insight into one woman’s personal experience of studying with Pattabhi Jois. However, what is very sad is that even after reading this some people within the Yoga community appear to be victim blaming and playing down what she has experienced. On a more positive note, many other Ashtanga practitioners also now acknowledge her testimony and are questioning their own behaviour when they had been present.
“As restorative justice, I hope that Ashtanga Yoga reinvents itself. This is not impossible. Kripalu Yoga did it after the scandal with Amrit Desai. Reinvention would include ceasing all public display of feel good images and public discourse lauding other aspects of Jois. I don’t hear people publicly celebrating all the achievements and merits of Harvey Weinstein right now. And if there were a ‘Harvey Weinstein School of Film Production,’ probably the name would be changed.”
And then there’s Bikram Choudhury, the founder of Bikram Yoga, who fled to India after several women filed civil complaints against him for sexual misconduct and abuse of power and the US civil courts subsequently awarded millions of dollars in damages against him, which he’s yet to settle. And there’s now a warrant out to arrest him, if they can find him!
The #MeToo Movement has given women a voice – a voice to speak out about harassment – and that can only be a good thing.
However, on a day to day basis people turn to Yoga for a variety of reasons. For some, it’s just about the physical postures but for many they are seeking something else. Perhaps they wish to find space or calm or maybe they want to discover more about themselves, and for others they come to heal.
When I greet a new student when she comes through the door of the studio for the first time with her mat under her arm. I don’t know her; I don’t know her circumstances; I don’t know what lies behind that smile or that fearful expression. I don’t know how much courage it’s taken for her to walk through the door to join my class. I may never know, and I always respect this.
My classes are safe places for everyone to practice Yoga.
My first port of call for any adjustment would always be through verbal cues or demonstration. I will very rarely come into a student’s personal space and place my hands on her body to physically adjust her, and if I do it’s only with their express permission; a relationship of trust between the two of us can then build over time.
Perfect poses are not necessary to practice Yoga, so subtle adjustment is rarely needed – your personal experience is far more important. However in some instances, a supportive hand can feel very welcome and nurturing and can guide you gently without force into the flow of a pose. So, I prefer to demonstrate poses to the class, or get other students to do that for me, working slowly through how to get into and out of the pose and offering variations for students who may find certain aspects difficult or for whom that particular pose is perhaps contraindicated.
I try to offer corrections without singling people out; often saying things like “some of you could go longer, it might be easier” or asking the whole class to check that their knee is in line with their ankle in Warrior II, for example, or that their little finger is grounding to help there be softness in the arms in Downward Dog.
The #MeToo Movement has raised the public’s awareness to extreme harm, but subtle things can be just as damaging. Simply being too close can be a very frightening experience for some people and a critical comment, however well meant, can cause great distress to others and I know that I have done this myself before without realising it at the time. So many things can be a trigger in the Yoga room, and teachers won’t always get it right, but if we can have an awareness of what we say and a good understanding of some of the history and issues our students may be facing then we can at least think ahead to what might or might not be appropriate and can consider what we say and do when teaching our students. It’s a constant cycle for us as teachers, a cycle of reflection and review, reassigning our values, our approach and our boundaries and ethics to be able to support our students in a safe and effective way.
Ahimsa is core in my classes. Everyone is respected; everyone is safe. No one has to do anything they don’t feel able to. Everyone has a voice. I actively encourage my students to do what they feel and also to question everything… Just because I’m suggesting it doesn’t mean you should do it; you always have a choice. Do what feels right for you. Listening to your own inner wisdom is how you create your own practice out of the class and on the mat at home.
I specialise in working with women one to one and enjoy being part of their journey of reconnection and self-discovery. I provide a safe and nurturing space supporting women to find more balance and harmony in their lives by deepening their inner connection to their own body’s needs, helping them cope pre-conception, with fertility issues, prenatally, postnatally or during times of transition, grief or loss and helping alleviate the symptoms of menstruation, perimenopause or menopause.
Please get in touch for your free 20 minute initial consultation if you feel you need support with your health and wellbeing or would like to know more about how Yoga can benefit you in your life.
If you would like to delve deeper into this subject, here are a few more links and I welcome comments and further dialogue on this issue too. If you have experienced what you felt was unacceptable behaviour in your Yoga classes or training then get in touch. We provide a safe space for sharing and listening to your story.