Yama (moral injunctions), Niyama (observances), Āsana (posture), Prāṇāyāma (regulation of the breath), Pratyāhāra (internalization of the senses), Dhāraṇā (concentration), Dhyāna (meditation) (and) Samādhi (absorption of consciousness in the self) are the eight (aṣṭau) limbs (aṅga) of Yoga. ~ Yoga Sūtra Pada II.29
There is an inherent power imbalance when one person is considered the teacher and another is the student, yet we shouldn’t succumb to the notion that this is a bad thing. A teacher by definition is someone who has knowledge we don’t yet have in a particular domain, and imagining we are in a relationship of equals is foolish – why else would anyone make the personal and financial effort to show up to a class if they could just carry on doing as they please?
While the teacher naturally should have some authority in a class or individual setting, the only way this can remain a constructive and healthy relationship is if both teachers and students adhere to yogic ethics to the best of their abilities, resolving any issues that arise between them according to these same principles.
We should practice what we teach, because yoga is not a theoretical pursuit. Of course, we hear this a lot, but too often nowadays it’s understood as practicing āsana. The more important practice is yama and niyama, as indicated by its primordial position in the eight limbs of yoga as laid out in the Yoga Sūtra of Patañjali.
Teaching yoga is so much less confusing when we remember we have foundational principles to rely on, and these are already built into the practice of yoga through the yama and niyama.
~ ॐ ~
Given our current environment in which morality seems like a quaint idea, where world leaders and even yoga teachers and gurus openly lie, cheat and abuse power (and somehow this is tolerated by supposedly pious people) and where yoga has become an Instagram-able showcase rather than a practice of self-realization, it might seem old-fashioned to emphasize the Yama (the standards we aim for in our relationships with others) and Niyama (the standards we maintain for ourselves), which are set out in numerous ancient texts as an integral part of yoga.
Where today people frequently compare and blend yoga with Pilates, acrobatics or dance, these restraints and observances remind us of the moral compass of yoga that distinguishes it from any other physical practice. This clear guidance helps us build our spiritual practice and live in such a way that we can look in the mirror every day knowing we are whole.
But are we using ethical guidelines as our compass, or only when they serve our personal needs? It’s not a menu to choose from: the yama and niyama are a complete, interconnected template for living – and especially for teaching. We model what yoga represents whether on or off the mat, and our teaching has more power when combined with the integrity of striving to live a yogic life.