अहिंसाप्रतिष्ठायां तत्सन्निधौ वैरत्यागः॥३५॥
Ahiṁsāpratiṣṭhāyāṁ tatsannidhau vairatyāgaḥ
In the presence (sannidhau) of one who is established in (pratiṣṭhāyām) non-harming (ahiṁsā) (there is) cessation (tyāgaḥ) of hostility (vaira). ~ Yoga Sūtra Pada II.35
Ahiṃsā – Nonviolence, non-harming
Ahiṃsā is not mere negative non-injury. It is positive, cosmic love. It is the development of a mental attitude in which hatred is replaced by love. Ahiṃsā is true sacrifice. Ahiṃsā is forgiveness. Ahiṃsā śakti. Ahiṃsā is true strength.~ Swami Śivananda
How we treat ourselves reflects how we treat others and vice-versa, whether we are conscious of this or not. As teachers we model to our students how we take care of our own wellbeing and avoid harming ourselves through our personal practice.
We can also remain conscious of how our words affect others. I’ve attended several yoga classes where the teacher has been unnecessarily harsh and critical, calling people out in front of the entire group. It feels bad enough being a witness to this, let alone being on the receiving end of it. I have personally experienced the sense of shame, injustice and frustration that comes with being unconstructively criticized with no learning to show for it except to never go back to that teacher again. Our human psychology is such that we learn better from positive reinforcement – which does not mean being spoken to like a three-year-old – because it helps us remain in the frame of what is possible rather than stuck on what isn’t working.
Yet even our encouraging words can unwittingly lead to harm. Admiring how ‘deep’ a student gets into a pose can have them push themselves too far, especially straining the joints and ligaments. Commenting on the beauty of a pose well done can also perpetuate the mistaken idea that the performance or look of a posture is more important than the inner experience of it, and can set up fellow classmates to feel inadequate or competitive as a result. If we use a student as an example or for demonstrating a pose, we benefit everyone by remaining as factual and neutral as possible, rather than praising the individual’s capacities.
Our emotional experiences of life are encoded in our bodies, and it’s very helpful to be able to read emotional patterns in the human body as a yoga teacher. What is known as the Startle Reflex (head pushed forward, shoulders raised and rounded, and tension in the compressed neck) is a deeply ingrained reflection of a previous and probably habitual response to shame, sadness, guilt, anger, resentment and other negative emotional states, including depression.
Observing these patterns in our students helps us better understand their personal experience of their body so we can respond more compassionately to any potential struggles they might have in their yoga practice. For example, it would be difficult for them to stand up straight without a great deal of effort and perhaps a scary feeling of vulnerability. They might not realize they lock their knees whenever they feel tired or anxious, and that this actually makes them feel even more ungrounded.
A few months after I separated from my husband, I attended the annual Iyengar Yoga conference in Brussels. It had been a rough time of betrayal, concern for the children and grief for the end of our 15-year relationship, even if I had chosen that, and I was in a process of rebuilding my emotional and physical strength.
The guest teacher, a dynamic Indian man, was at times cocky and arrogant during the weekend, and handled some people’s physical conditions rather roughly. At one point, as we were working on bringing the shoulders back into alignment using a yoga strap as a harness, he wrapped it firmly around the shoulder girdle of a young woman next to me. In front of everyone in the group he pointed out the radical change in stature once the chest opened and the shoulders had been brought back into alignment, then turned to me as the negative example saying: “look at the difference! You can’t even compare with this,” while giving me a genuine look of disdain. I felt shocked, confused and humiliated and it took a huge effort to stay in the circle without bursting into tears.
We should never embarrass, humiliate, or chastise a student, whether privately or in front of a class. Nobody learns under such conditions. If someone’s phone rings, we can say to everyone in general: “please keep your phone off or on airplane mode so we can all be fully engaged in our practice.” If someone has misunderstood our instructions, we can approach them individually and gently say: “Let’s start over from the beginning and try again.” Singling people out makes everyone feel uncomfortable.
I used to study with a French Iyengar teacher who was simply ferocious, although she calmed down a lot as she aged. She would yell humiliating insults across the room at people who weren’t following instructions, or who were not doing the pose as she had wanted. There are many similar stories of verbal and even physical abuse, especially but not exclusively from the Iyengar, Ashtanga and Bikram yoga communities. Clearly, this is not the way to educate people; for some individuals such episodes could trigger serious psychological upsets. No posture or practice is worth harming either the body or the feelings of another person.
We don’t know what people are experiencing in their lives, but we can safely assume that a human life is fraught with difficulty. Allowing everyone to be as they are while showing them how they can move forward with compassion is a delicate balancing act. Several years ago, in a private session that was part of an assignment for yoga therapy training, I was helping a woman stand in tāḍāsana while trying to show her a better alignment for her posture, which was quite out of balance. Only 30 years old, she had extreme kyphosis and seemed unaware that there was any other way to stand. My desire to make a difference and enthusiasm for the process blinded me to her disconnection from her body and lack of emotional readiness to do the work. She felt overwhelmed and judged by my attempts to show her how to change her posture, and never came back again.
This taught me a good lesson: I realized that the Iyengar teacher who criticized me had also been trying to make a difference, but it simply came across in the wrong way. I have learned with time that listening and allowing is far more effective than trying to teach on top of a trauma or stress that is not ready to be resolved. Healing comes in many different forms, and this is not always directly reflected in the body.
Being sensitive to other people’s experiences helps us avoid causing harm to anyone who might be suffering from invisible demons – from low self-esteem to outright trauma. We can allow our students to choose not to do certain practices, or to stay in a particular part of the room to feel safer and more confident. Inviting our students to keep their eyes open if they would rather not close them is another way to allow people to feel at ease until they develop more trust in us and in themselves.
Of course, not just our words but our actions can be harmful. Unwelcome closeness, touching or postural adjustments can make some people feel unsafe. Over the years I have gradually reduced my use of physical adjustments to the point where I only intervene if I can see someone is unable to find the direction of movement on their own. Most of the time, I give verbal cues, and use my own body to mimic what I hope they will learn to do for themselves. Recognizing that many people aren’t comfortable working physically with others, especially virtual strangers, we should take care not to offer partner yoga to a group of students who thought they were attending a regular yoga class. Ask first, and offer a choice.
Yelling at or ridiculing a student is never appropriate. Hitting or otherwise imposing forceful adjustments on a student, although revered by some in the Iyengar and Ashtanga traditions, is neither necessary nor desirable. Some of the best adjustments I ever received were the result of a light touch, and even the suggestion of the movement by the teacher’s hand.
The harsh adjustments and punishments of the early Krishnamacharya-Iyengar-Jois approach reflect their own troubled experiences and should in no way be revered. That injuries have been so common – and either minimized or even glorified – in these traditions and not in others speaks volumes about the method. The old pun about suffering from “Mysore knee” after practicing with Jois isn’t very funny, as indeed many students would leave with sore knees or worse. The cult of the perfect posture does far more harm than good.
People are more likely to get injured when the pose takes primacy over the individual’s physical capacity or understanding. Āsana is not a simple question of mind over matter, especially for a body that has a habit of physical patterning established over years before coming to yoga. Trying to put someone in a position that they are not ready for will damage connective tissue, which is far more painful and harmful than tearing muscle, although both are also obviously undesirable.
We must always show respect for our students and their capacities. Everyone is always doing his or her best in any given situation, and most often we don’t have a clue what situation they might be in. Years ago, this realization struck home for me during a yoga class with an elderly and experienced teacher whom I greatly respected. We would often do some back-and-forth rocking and rolling up to standing as a way of building strength in the core and hip flexors.
That particular day, I was really unable to do more than just rock back and forth, and sort of push myself up with my hands to stand for the next sequence. Three months earlier I had given birth by emergency Caesarean to my third child, Victor, who died of a brain hemorrhage just over two days later. This was one of my first group classes since then, and I was not feeling very strong. I might have been over 30 years younger than her, but I felt like a 100-year-old woman. She saw me struggle to stand up and said: “you’re much too young not to be able to do that.” I felt gutted, then resentful. We must never assume anyone’s abilities based on their appearance or chronological age.
We have a responsibility to know something about the students in our class, along with their basic needs or challenges; do they work in a sedentary job? Are they pregnant? Have they recently suffered a loss? Have they ever had an accident or major illness? This allows us to adapt the class to their needs, and opens a pathway for better communication. This also helps when referencing any contraindications, because we can be more sensitive to their privacy. Over the years, for example, several of my students would tell me about their pregnancies in the early weeks, when they might not want others to know, and there would regularly be adaptations needed around menstruation. These don’t need to be blasted out to the entire class, unless you have an all-female group who are less likely to mind or might even be a welcome source of support for the person concerned.
Non-harming also means not allowing our enthusiasm for the healing potential of yoga to override the precautionary principle that would be more helpful. The achievement of a headstand is hardly a reason to put someone in a position of danger, and each student’s unique situation must be taken into account when proposing any practice.
The potential for harm also shows up in innocent ways, like eating a meal too soon before a yoga class, or in more serious ways like through eating disorders or compulsive exercising. Whether it be for yourself or a student, take care to find the most supportive way to avoid causing harm.
Each person and cultural context is different, so we need to become sensitive to how we can speak to our students. Our language might unwittingly push people too far, physically or emotionally, and we should remain aware of the tone of our instructions. Sometimes, without realizing it, we can set people up to compete against themselves or others in the class. Although this comes from their own inner drive and sense of self (and perhaps excess pitta), we should be conscious of how our language impacts the way people enter into a pose.
In the same way, we can encourage positive self-talk among our students, so we don’t allow anyone to say mean, disparaging or disempowering things to or about themselves, even in an attempt to be funny. Put downs aren’t funny, and words matter. We come to believe what we say to ourselves, whether silently or out loud.
In subtle ways, we can help our students avoid injury through the use of props or other adaptations, or by making sure they feel it’s ok to reach for a wall in balance poses. Offering props, such as blocks, to the entire group helps people feel better about using them. Especially newcomers can feel awkward if they are singled out for special adaptations, and everyone can benefit from using props from time to time to work on different aspects of a pose. With a beginner’s mind we can stay humble and open to new ways of doing things.
Equally, avoid language that classifies a posture or practice as more advanced or, conversely, easier. These value judgements are meaningless as regards the purpose of any given pose, and lead people to believe the path to advancing in a yoga practice is through complex yoga postures. Each stage is simply a progression towards an energetic state expressed as a physical pose and doesn’t need categorizing. Many people can effortlessly put their foot behind their head, yet can’t sit still for two minutes. Labels like ‘advanced’ are highly relative at best, and even misleading.
By encouraging students to slow down – and remembering this also applies to us! – we help them stay safe while teaching them how to be more patient and caring with their bodies and their current capacities. If you find yourself getting stressed and spread too thin, you might consider that either your teaching schedule or your classes could be too full, and you might need to cut back somewhere for everyone’s benefit.
At some point we can find ourselves affected by power games or naive projections that might come from certain students. The illusion of superiority or even perfection held by some students towards their teachers should be busted as quickly as possible, and the same applies to anyone who appears to be trying to compete with or ‘outperform’ us as teachers. We must have the insight and courage to recognize unhealthy relationships – however “spiritual” they might appear to be – whether they are with our own teachers or with our students. We can avoid a lot of harm by maintaining integrity in our relationships to everyone around us.
Relationships are challenging, and often relationships with authority bring up unconscious feelings around our parents. This applies to us as teachers as well as to our students, with each person reacting according to which hidden buttons are being pushed. If we feel triggered or flustered by a student’s behavior we can practice compassionate understanding and recognize that it’s our own shadow that is causing us to feel disturbed.
This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t deal firmly with people who are causing some disturbance in a class. Sometimes it’s just better to ask a student to find another teacher when things are too disruptive over a period of time. In more than 20 years of teaching I’ve only had to do this twice, but both times I had the overall wellbeing of my class in mind and I had long since realized it wasn’t personal (it never is). If a student consistently needs too much attention, or creates a lot of negativity around them, then it is perfectly valid to ask them to consider taking a private class or going somewhere else. We are not here to fix anyone or be subjected to other people’s issues; non-harming has to take everyone’s best interests into consideration.
Our choice of clothing and other yoga equipment is also a way to practice non-harming. Today, many of the clothes made specifically for yoga – and there are literally tons of them made each year – contain synthetic fibers and chemicals. This is true of the most popular brands as well as cheaper knock-offs, but luckily there are also many conscious manufacturers who use only natural and ecologically sustainable materials.
Lululemon arguably mastered the trend toward specialized yoga clothes in the early 1990s, but they now compete with dozens of other brands. Natural fibers should be preferred because they allow the skin to breathe and aren’t made from harmful chemicals that rub against the skin, the body’s largest organ, which absorbs whatever is put on it.
Moreover, we now realize the harm that these synthetics cause to the environment. The Story of Stuff Project explains how this happens: “Most of us wear synthetic fabrics like polyester every day. Our dress shirts, yoga pants, fleeces, and even underwear are all increasingly made of synthetic materials – plastic, in fact. But these synthetic fabrics, from which 60% of all clothing on earth is made, have a big hidden problem: when they’re washed, they release tiny plastic bits – called microfibers – that flow down our drains, through water treatment plants, and out into our rivers, lakes and oceans by the billions.”
The same caution applies to yoga mats, which are a major source of primary (from manufacturing) and secondary (from disposal) plastic pollution around the world. When I began to practice yoga in the mid-1980s we used cotton rugs (called dhurries). Around that same time, rubber or plastic ‘sticky’ mats were gradually introduced, inspired by BKS Iyengar, as a way of maximizing the grip; now they are everywhere, including the ocean. I like cork mats, with natural latex backing, and I also use eco-friendly mats made in Germany. I still use one I bought in 1994! There are lots of choices out there that support the environment. If possible, we should avoid buying mats and equipment made in China or anywhere else where the quality of the materials as well as the manufacturing processes are unsustainable and even unethical.
Countries like India, Nepal, and Indonesia (Bali) are buzzing with Western-focused yoga teachers, yoga studios, health spas, and restaurants. However much this tourism supports the local economies, it also does a lot of damage, culturally and environmentally. If we go to these places for our own practice, or to bring groups of students for a yoga retreat or holiday, we need to be aware of our impact on the local scene and minimize it as much as possible.
Ahiṃsā centers on our treatment of all sentient beings, and animals in particular, especially as this concerns our diet. Must we be vegetarian to practice yoga? Probably not, if we only practice in the superficial way it is taught today. But what about when are teaching yoga, assuming that we are walking the talk? Once we delve into a deeper understanding of what it means to live a yogic life, we inescapably arrive at the true meaning of non-harming, and eating animals becomes hard to justify. At the very least, it’s always possible to reduce consumption.
Still, we also have to recognize that we’re each following our own path, and we each take our own time on it. It’s also a form of violence to force our beliefs onto others, however well-intentioned we may be. Whether vegetarian or not, environmentally conscious or not, there are countless ways to alleviate suffering in how we consume things and take care of ourselves and others.
As the sutra indicates, by practicing peace and embodying it, we no longer need to advocate for it: we become a source of peace. Every small gesture of non-harming contributes to alleviating suffering overall. This is the foremost goal of yoga.
~ ॐ ~
When truth (satya) becomes firmly established (pratiṣṭhāyām) there is perfect harmony (āśrayatvam) between our actions (kriyā) and the results/fruits (phala) of our actions. ~ Yoga Sūtra Pada II.36
Satya – truthfulness
If you know something hurtful and not true, don’t say it. If you know something hurtful and true, don’t say it. If you know something helpful but not true, don’t say it. If you know something helpful and true, find the right time to say it.~ The Buddha
Especially as teachers, we benefit from learning to be kind and sincere with people, rather than being ‘nice’. Although some of us teach our friends, and certainly some students might eventually become friends, it’s worth remembering that your first job as a yoga teacher is to teach yoga, not make friends. This is necessary in order to maintain healthy boundaries and keep your authority as a teacher in any teaching situation, as well as having healthy boundaries around money in the financial exchanges you have with your students.
Choose to grow into yourself rather than just fit in: having personal integrity allows us to connect with others without compromising our values in order to belong. Honesty requires integrity in all aspects of life, including in our relationship to ourselves.
Being truthful can also mean needing to examine our relationship to our practice, or any other aspect of yoga that we might be “faking”. Being the healthy do-good yoga teacher in front of the class, then drinking, taking drugs and smoking when off-duty sets us up for inner conflict that will always cause trouble sooner or later, as well as diminishing our credibility in the eyes of our students.
This applies even more if there is a serious addiction problem or an eating disorder that results in constant lies and deception. Big body or small, are you honest about your diet, the quantity of food you eat, and whether you self-medicate?
By opening up honestly to someone who can help, we can find the needed support and the freedom to live life out in the open and without hidden shame. Even better, the vulnerability that comes from being truthful about our own situation allows others to be inspired and feel a connection with us as teachers that can give them courage to grow and change.
Yoga encourages purity and simplicity as a path to full awareness, which precludes intoxicants. Trying to ignore or work around this truth is delusional, and ultimately unhelpful. Lying to ourselves is no different to lying to others, because the end result will be suffering either way.
Be truthful about your knowledge and experience. It takes years to become a truly great teacher, because life experience trumps yoga teacher training every time. It is better to say: “I don’t know” than to pretend you do, because in your role as a teacher you are seen as an authority to at least some of the people in your class – whether you feel that way or not – and many people will take what you say without questioning it.
If we practice satya, we won’t consider teaching things we don’t really know enough about, nor would we share information that we have not integrated ourselves, or launch a course which we were not able to teach without having to defer to others for input. This also entails responsibility for what you are transmitting from your own teacher. Verify it from your own direct experience or from ancient texts before sharing it with students.
Aside from going twice a year for regular retreats, I also attended two retreats for teachers offered by Thích Nhất Hạnh (Thây) at Plum Village. The teachers who participated, ranging from school teachers to university academics, asked for mindfulness tools to use in their classrooms. It seems like a reasonable request: the typical approach to learning is that you memorize or learn techniques then apply them in the educational setting. But Thây was very clear that the retreat was for teachers to practice mindfulness themselves first, to enable them to share it sincerely with their students from a place of understanding.
This is proper teaching and the work of real mastery. We know instinctively when someone is insincere. Talking about yogic concepts without embracing them yourself isn’t much better than handing out a list of techniques on a piece of paper for people to take home with them.
How we present our qualifications is also an aspect of satya. For example, despite what we read in the bios of many yoga teachers, no yoga teacher is Yoga Alliance Certified. Yoga Alliance is a voluntary registry of yoga teachers and schools, and does not – and never did – certify yoga teachers. It is a false prestige that can mislead students who don’t fully understand what it means.
We can encourage students to be honest about how they feel physically and energetically, and provide a space where this honesty is easy and natural without fear of being judged. At my first Ashtanga training in Goa, two experienced students were asked to demonstrate the advanced series of poses to the entire class in the intense daytime heat of the yoga shala, just before lunch. Both were vata-pitta types, and they quickly showed signs of exhaustion and dehydration as they went through the sequence, vinyasa after vinyasa, only a couple of hours after their already intense morning practice. Neither they nor the teacher stopped this absurd performance, even when they were clearly wavering. Eventually, one of them had to stop before fainting. This was all in the name of yoga, but what was the point?
We should allow our students to feel welcome to rest as necessary, regardless of what others are doing. This way, they learn to take care of themselves and find their true capacities. Being truthful in these circumstances also implies that these breaks are not taken as a way of avoiding what they don’t want to do, which also happens, and this itself can be a wonderful teaching opportunity.
Over the past couple of decades, hundreds of studies of varying degrees of validity have explored the benefits of yoga. We anyway know from our own practice that yoga brings positive results, many of which are directly health related, and some of them are less tangible, like feeling better overall. As avid yoga practitioners we want to share our enthusiasm for the practice with our students, and the principle of truthfulness is a worthy guide. Over the years I have heard some pretty wild claims about what can be achieved from a yoga practice, and several centuries-old texts on yoga also fuel the optimism. Before spreading these possibly exaggerated or even false ideas we should sit with them, examine them, and decide whether they are even worth sharing.
Similarly, if we make a mistake or realize we have been teaching something that turns out to be false, we must rectify it with our students and colleagues as soon as possible. If we don’t, we’ll get stuck in defensiveness or confusion, and even lose credibility. It seems easier to ignore or defend mistakes than it does to admit to being wrong, but the truth always wins out in the end.
Satya also reflects the highest truth of yoga – we are all interconnected, and what happens to one affects us all. Paradoxically, the intention and motivation behind being untruthful can sometimes be pure, as when civilians hide people who would otherwise be killed by soldiers during a war. Our intention is what determines the karma rather than the action itself.
What is enquiry into the Truth? It is the firm conviction that the Self is real, and all, other than That, is unreal.~ Ādi Śankara
~ ॐ ~
Those who are deeply rooted (pratiṣṭāyāṁ) in non-stealing (asteya) have access (upasthānam) to all (sarva) jewels (ratna). ~ Yoga Sūtra Pada II.37
Asteya – not stealing, non-covetousness
Let what comes come, let what goes go.~ Ramana Maharshi
Greed causes us to abuse resources that other beings need. Asteya helps us to see this clearly, and reduce our cravings and desires. Are we counting up Instagram or Facebook followers and likes, and wanting ever more? Do we want to outperform a colleague or get that sponsorship deal? How does this serve us as teachers, and what are we teaching through our actions?
As teachers, we should be as rigorous as possible with our time and energy, as well as that of our students. One way this can look is by showing up ready for each class with clear and sufficient energy and with enough time to set up, settle in and be available to the students as they arrive.
Class time should be devoted to the class itself, and not for talking about personal issues. If your car broke down or you’re wondering whether to move, keep it for after class, if at all. Such unnecessary chatter doesn’t add value, keeps the attention on ourselves instead of our students, and is a poor example of selflessness and self-restraint. It’s also a waste of the students’ time, and not what they showed up for.
We owe our knowledge to many generations of yogis and teachers who have gone before us. We don’t own it; we can’t claim credit for it and it doesn’t belong to anyone in particular. Showing gratitude and honoring our personal lineage as well as the entire yogic lineage is a way of recognizing that this teaching is eternal and has been generously handed down to us to practice ourselves and to share with others, not to be glorified by it.
Similarly, if we attend someone else’s yoga class, we should respect their approach and not aim to copy it. Attending a yoga class should be about your own personal practice, not with the ulterior motive of mining for new techniques and ideas. On a few occasions, I have had to ask new or trainee teachers to put their notepads away and simply be in the practice during a regular yoga class. I understand the desire to add new skills and understanding, but if the practice hasn’t been integrated and digested from your own experience, you shouldn’t be teaching it. Approaching the practice in this intellectual way is not only taking from the teacher in front of you, it is also taking from the student to whom you will one day be teaching from theory instead of understanding.
We should never try to take students away from other teachers – people will naturally gravitate to the teacher who suits them best at any given time. A simple way to determine if what you are doing is acceptable would be to imagine yourself in the position of the other teacher.
Some people seem to confuse teaching with demonstrating or entertaining. Teaching requires a depth of understanding of the subject matter that you are teaching, whereas performing can be done by someone with a superficial grasp of the subject. The difference can be profound for the students receiving the teachings. In once invited (at her instigation) a teacher from Los Angeles for a workshop she had proposed to do with a partner, who cancelled at the last minute; because of this, she had to teach the yoga portion of the session as well as her ‘energy and sound’ bit. Although she claimed to have been trained as a yoga teacher, she read everything directly off a piece of paper in a way that clearly demonstrated she didn’t know what she was talking about. I was embarrassed to have invited her because we were not getting what was promised – and hyped, LA-style (lesson learned) – or indeed what we had paid for. Pretending to be something you’re not is a form of stealing as well as lying.
If we have not fully understood or developed some aspect of the teachings, we cannot rightly claim to be proficient in that knowledge. Doing so not only comes from an egoic desire for recognition, it is dishonest, and the student will feel cheated that the teaching wasn’t up to the expected standard. I have been to several seminars and classes given by people claiming to have experience and knowledge they clearly didn’t have, as well as visiting teachers who present the same thing repeatedly without developing the teaching or even changing the handouts.
Receiving fees from students further underscores the importance of this notion – if a teacher has one or two years of experience is it right that they charge the same fee as a teacher of 20 or more years? Did we simply obtain a teacher training certificate from a commercially driven school or did we genuinely receive our teacher’s blessing to teach yoga having shown ourselves capable of it through dedication over time? Does our certification sincerely reflect our skills? Are we using that weekend workshop to claim special expertise?
With their permission, we should use the name of only the school or tradition whose practices and philosophy we actually follow; to do otherwise is misrepresentation. As teachers we should always remain good students by consulting regularly with our own teachers and other practitioners in our chosen lineage to ensure what we are practicing and teaching is correct and in accordance with the original teachings. If this is not possible, then it’s better to drop the association with that lineage altogether, or step up our efforts and realign with them.
Changing or inventing practices to satisfy one’s ego, personal biases or preferences and then claiming them as one’s own also amounts to stealing from the lineage. It’s worth asking ourselves whether anyone actually has the right to take centuries of (mostly anonymous) learning and generosity of spirit, modify it according to preferences (or through ignorance) and then trademark it for personal gain. What makes us think we can do as we please with what we have learned? That inquiry alone would be a worthwhile practice of svādhyāya.
~ ॐ ~
When moderation and restraint for your spiritual evolution (brahmacarya) is firmly established (pratiṣṭhāyāṁ), vitality (vīrya) is obtained (lābhaḥ). ~ Yoga Sūtra Pada II.38
Brahmacarya— fidelity or sexual restraint, sensory control
To believe that you depend on things and people for happiness is due to ignorance of your true nature; to know that you need nothing to be happy, except Self-knowledge, is wisdom.~ Śri Nisargadatta Maharaj
Brahmacarya literally means walking with Brahman, or consciousness. In other words, we avoid engaging in activities or relationships that would take us away from that path. This doesn’t have to mean total chastity, although that might be the preferred way forward for some. It does mean that if we engage in relationships, we should be conscious of their effects on our energy, our wellbeing and our overarching goals, and stay away from inappropriate relationships.
Using someone else for our own selfish desires is an abuse of brahmacarya as well as ahiṃsā and aparigraha. Having sex with somebody as a way to satisfy physical urges without the foundation of a relationship leads to a number of psycho-emotional complications, or kleśa, like feelings of guilt, shame and embarrassment, which undermine the humanity of everyone concerned.
Over the past several decades countless scandals have emerged because of the unethical behavior of many famous and otherwise revered yogis, and their sexual impropriety and abuse is all the more shocking precisely because brahmacarya is such a central aspect of yoga philosophy. It’s worth noting, however, that vows of celibacy or sexual restraint are not a part of tantra, and this can lead to confusion in the yoga world. Who is practicing what, actually?
Still, sexual relations between a teacher and student involve a power dynamic that can’t be ignored, and tantric or not, sexual restraint is the most ethical way to conduct the teacher-student relationship. Sexual relations with a student are inappropriate, whether in a yogic context or any other teaching context. What if it’s true love, not lust? This happens, of course, and is a wonderful thing. But then the teacher-student relationship should be terminated so there is clarity in both private and public life.
My first Yoga Teacher Training was somewhat tainted by discussion around the ethics of the teacher, who had left his long-time partner for his mistress who became pregnant during what was – by his own characterization – meant to be a fling. He took full responsibility for her and the baby, plus the second one on the way at the time of my training, but it created a fair bit of debate over what it meant to teach yoga and what constitutes a yogic lifestyle. This happens often enough, and just a couple of years later a similar situation occurred involving another popular teacher who left his wife of 30 years for a much younger student with whom he had a baby. As long as emphasis is placed primarily on the physical practices of yoga, these incidents will be considered less important. But when the emphasis is on the entire practice including yama and niyama, it takes on a different scope.
Āyurveda tells us that ejaculation depletes Ojas, another word for vitality. Modern science tells us that ejaculation lowers testosterone, which amounts to the same thing. So brahmacarya is as much about self-restraint as about conserving one’s energy for higher goals.
Incidentally, online porn use (increasingly widespread since the early 2000’s) is considered a major culprit in the growing problem of erectile dysfunction amongst young men, something that used to be a problem mainly for older men. Researchers studying the brains of compulsive pornography users see the same brain changes that are common in all addicts. As with any addiction, people need a stronger dose to get high, pushing boundaries to get the same excitement. This can mean what people are watching gets more hardcore, and socially and personally damaging. Pornography is also a highly dissociative addiction because stimulation is external, which can make it very difficult to be in the body and have normal face-to-face relationships. This might also be why millennials are having less sex generally than other generations.
As teachers, if the context allows, we can support our students by educating them about the consequences of habits like this on their mental and physical health and emotional lives. If social modesty makes it difficult to talk about the subject, it can be included in general teachings about the yama and niyama. Often, some form of outside support will also be needed to overcome a porn addiction, and yoga can be a great help in getting people back into their body and away from dissociative experiences as part of the healing process.
Restraint applies in several other ways, too – over-eating, over-exercising, over-working and any other indulgences and excesses should be avoided. Similarly, we must also avoid any kind of fanaticism, which is never really about the object of zealotry but is the result of unconscious disappointment or even self-loathing that is projected onto others. With all the best of intentions, we can become overly zealous about our diet, lifestyle, consumer choices, or even the type of yoga we have chosen to practice; if this happens, our attitude needs to be examined and perhaps softened to avoid harming ourselves and others.
If we aren’t ready for the restraints we undertake (and especially if constraints are imposed upon us by someone else), there will be a residual desire or kleśa and unconscious frustrations that can lead to even more inner or outer harm than if we simply continued to engage openly in the behavior that had been forcefully curtailed. When the time is right, unhelpful habits and cravings tend to fall away effortlessly as we lose interest in those things that bring only temporary satisfaction.
Whatever is happening in our life, we always have the option to take the high road. An attitude of virtuousness for its own sake and aiming for a spiritual life is another way of expressing brahmacharya.
~ ॐ ~
When the lack of desire for attachments and possessions (aparigraha) is established (sthairye), there is a profound understanding (saṁbodhaḥ) of meaning (kathaṁtā) of existence (janma).
~ Yoga Sūtra Pada II.39
Aparigraha – non-attachment, non-possessiveness, not grasping
The end of desire is the end of sorrow.~ The Buddha
Aparigraha means taking only what we need, keeping only what is necessary in the moment, and – most importantly – letting go when the time is right!
When we walk softly upon this earth we use only what we need and avoid clinging to thoughts, people or objects as if they permanently belonged to us. Non-attachment applies in all realms, including our thoughts, opinions and beliefs as well as our material objects and physical self. We can have things, engage in relationships, and hold beliefs without needing to control, own or maintain them in any particular way. Living like this brings a lot of ease and freedom, as well as inner peace.
While the yogic diet is largely predicated on non-harming, as it applies to the wellbeing of the one who is eating as well as how and what they might eat, the yogic way of eating also contains elements of aparigraha and tapasya. Eating in moderation, leaving some space in the stomach for the proper combustion of the food, avoiding greed and excess, and avoiding harm to the body and mind through highly restrictive diets or obsessions around food are all hallmarks of a yogic diet.
The sixth chapter of the Bhagavad Gītā also teaches us that yoga sādhana won’t be effective if the person is still attached to the results of their actions, and therefore still has their mind in the grip of external (conditional) happiness and distress.
Attachment, whether to beliefs, a way of life, relationships or objects, grows out of our search for permanence in a world that is ever-changing on every level of manifestation. Whether it be fanaticism about one’s choice of diet or method of practice, this ignorance is what the practice of yoga is trying to eliminate, but it is hard to shake off in the commercialized and mediatized contemporary world of yoga.
Our current obsession with identity is narcissistic and divisive. Curating our own labels in a bid to be recognized or seen as special or as a member of a special interest group can contribute to fissures in society among people who could otherwise just discretely get on with their lives and personal choices. Labels are sometimes useful shortcuts for identifying a particular group or movement in a normal conversation, and they are impossible to avoid without sounding precious, but labelling others is dehumanizing and should be avoided wherever possible.
Our attachments to gender, sexuality, race, religion or politics is incompatible with yoga. Occasionally, with the best of intentions, yoga teachers and groups perpetuate an attachment to social identity, which is a key source of suffering and infliction of suffering. Offering yoga for sufferers of X, or survivors of Y can be an effective gateway to healing, but, ultimately, we should be leading people to the understanding of their true nature, beyond appearances and ideologies, and untouched by suffering.
The more we look for a separate sense of “I” the clearer it becomes that there is no inherent independently established self to be found. When we hold our sense of “I” as simply a temporary and helpful function of our role in society, we can relax around our sensitivity to identity and appearance. The “I” we believe ourselves to be can’t be separated from the mind and body: it doesn’t exist outside of our identification with the body-mind.
We can look at our use of language around our work to see where it can feel possessive. I often refer to “my students,” “my classes,” “my practice” or “my teachers.” But is any of it really mine? What do I own? Notions of I, me, and mine cause suffering. We might even unwittingly create a sense of duty or loyalty amongst students who don’t want to disappoint us by going to someone else’s class, or feel guilty if they do.
The idea of ownership – whether of ideas, objects, and especially land – falls apart pretty quickly when you begin to look more deeply at the truth of life. Understanding this truth allows us to enjoy and benefit from what we have now, without anxiety around how that will look in the future. Nothing is truly ours.
Too often, people confuse non-attachment with indifference, but this is not the same thing at all! We can fully participate in social life, decision-making and enjoying and owning stuff, yet without holding anything too tightly. Not taking more than we need applies at the buffet table as well as in the clothing store or car dealership. We learn to live happily with less, and to accept the comings and goings of life.
Our constant busyness and boasts or complaints about it are a form of grasping as well. Grasping for activities to fill the time, stealing that time from our families, and especially children, creates a sense of separation and isolation from others.
We have seen that yoga has existed for thousands of years and somehow managed to develop quite well with utmost simplicity. Then along came the gear. There is yoga gear for every imaginable aspect of a yoga practice as it is interpreted today – there is even ‘yoga jewelry.’ Or is there? If we allow ourselves to get sucked into the black hole of greed and consumerism, simply attaching the word yoga to anything makes it an implied necessity for a modern yoga practice. We can enjoy wearing mālā beads, whether we use them for Japa or not, or a natural stone or Rudrākṣa bracelet, but it’s not necessary to call it more than that. And it’s absolutely not necessary for a sincere yoga practice.
Detachment is the beginning of mastery.~ Śri Aurobindo
As yoga teachers, we can apply non-attachment to our preferences for a particular style of yoga, or the attainment of perfection in a pose, or noticing how we might push ourselves to perform ever more challenging poses. For what? Practicing non-attachment means we can avoid being dogmatic around what a yoga pose looks like and find the unique expression of it for each individual in any given moment. There are thousands of iterations of postures whose primary aim is after all to enable us to sit quietly in meditation, making the poses themselves ephemeral and ultimately uninteresting.
Some schools of yoga have unconsciously (or perhaps consciously) developed cult-like followings that can prevent practitioners from questioning them; in my experience, Ashtanga Vinyasa, Yogi Bhajan’s Kundalini Yoga, and Iyengar Yoga are such examples. In an Ashtanga yoga teacher training with the late Derek Ireland, one of my classmates was a senior Iyengar yoga teacher from the UK. She confided to me that if her Iyengar Association – of which she was a board member – knew that she was experimenting with Ashtanga yoga, she would be ‘excommunicated,’ to use her words. She had the wisdom and open-mindedness to allow herself to explore other ways of doing things, and her capacity to detach from her training and community – if only for a few weeks – allowed her to expand her knowledge.
This is the much-vaunted beginner’s mind. We must use our individual discretion to keep checking in with what is good and right for us in every moment and at every stage of life, remaining vigilant to any tendency to cling to a particular form or ideology in the name of yoga.
There will come a time when we will also need to let go of a way of teaching, or the style of yoga we teach. This has happened to me in several phases, and with many iterations. A combination of a knee injury, feeling my body change around pregnancy and having a baby and watching students push themselves too hard in yoga classes despite my efforts to encourage more mindfulness led me away from Ashtanga Vinyasa yoga to a more therapeutic and individualized approach to teaching. This was not because I don’t think Ashtanga Vinyasa yoga is a good practice, simply that I was becoming clear that there is a good time and a context for each practice and I could no longer ignore that as a teacher.
We can even examine our relationship to our role as teacher through aparigraha: are we attached to being an authority, or being the best in the room, or doing the perfect posture? Do we compete with other teachers for more recognition or students? Can we let go of trying to accumulate a lot of followers on social media? We can also notice our reactions when these expectations or needs aren’t met. We mustn’t get attached to the idea of maintaining a tribe that is focused on us as an individual or on a concept we espouse. If we strive to remain the focus of an evolving community, we end up stifling it.
As the implicit authority in the (yoga) room, what teachers give importance to matters and takes on a degree of importance amongst our students. Are we modeling non-attachment and non-grasping, or that it’s important to have the latest yoga pants?
Overly identifying with the body, whether it’s a big body, a hard body, or a skinny body, takes us away from yoga. This is another form of attachment – the attachment to form or appearance – which is encouraged by media and commercial interests who explicitly manipulate attitudes around health and beauty. Unfortunately, it is prevalent in the yoga community as so many people come to yoga through dance, gymnastics, bodybuilding, or other body-conscious practices which emphasize form over substance.
As teachers, we can model how to inhabit the form without being obsessed by it. Teachings on impermanence – of appearance, physical capability, and health – are very useful in this regard. As students become more open to the concept, we can help them see that this applies to all aspects of life. Letting go and allowing life to flow also means honoring the physical changes in ourselves without the need to fix it or fake it with toxic chemicals or to otherwise strive to look younger than we are. We can look and feel wonderful in every stage of life, and all the more so when we learn to love ourselves as we are. Clinging to youthful looks and a culturally-defined notion of beauty creates suffering because we are going against our own nature, as well as against satya, truthfulness.
One of the most obvious ways this can look is to recognize our own changing form, and acknowledge that the wisdom of yoga helps us to adapt our practice as we age, or in specific circumstances, and any resistance to this will cause suffering. Śrīvatsa Rāmaswāmī’s wonderful book, “Yoga for the Three Stages of Life” summarizes Krishnamacharya’s teachings along these lines. Yoga must be adapted to the individual and their circumstances, not the other way around. Unhelpfully, these days many popular yoga classes teach unchanging sequences which are offered to people who end up competing with themselves and striving to match their ideal of what a yoga practice should be, even if it works against their wellbeing.
(Read the introduction of Yama-Niyama for Yoga Teachers here)
(Read about The Niyama here)
. According to Indian tradition, only vegetarians can wear Rudrākṣa beads, which are considered the tears – ākṣa – of Rudra, the fierce form of Śiva.