Ethics and Yoga

A topic that was front and center for me this summer is ethics. It’s not necessarily a topic most of us have to consider on a daily basis, but when ethics issues confront us, they can be very sobering.

Depending on the type of work you do and the groups you are involved in, you may have signed an ethics contract of sorts. Many professional organizations and volunteer positions require individuals to respect and adhere to a code of ethics for their organization and the services they deliver. This is standard practice and most of us read these documents, sign them and don’t think too much more about them. Until there is an ethical lapse.

The journey of yoga is one where we use various tools and techniques to access the levels of the mind where discernment is refined and aligns us with our higher purpose. This has been borne out time and again by practitioners over the millennia. And yet, there is the pull of the lower mind and base desires that draw on us are ever-present. These desires can colour our judgement and result in decisions made which are clear ethical lapses despite our yoga efforts.

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When I immersed myself in the ParaYoga community and completed my Master Training, I had to sign a code of ethics agreement, the thrust of which was that ParaYoga teachers do not enter into intimate relationships with students and that we uphold a high ethical standard as yoga professionals. This ethics code was emboldened a few years later by a committee of peers and my teacher was incredibly proud that ParaYoga had established this standard.

The yoga world is riddled with ethical lapses by many, mostly male, teachers. Teachers who enter into inappropriate relationships with their students and breach the trust of that role, consciously or unconsciously exercising their power in a way that is wrong. These situations occur at many levels, including the most senior of teachers, some of whom were great Indian masters, including in the Himalayan Tradition, the lineage I’m a student of. Yoga systems like Anusara have imploded when the headteacher was outed for his relations and activities that were clear ethical violations. Most of us have knowledge of the egregious breaches of Bikram.

So, it was with sadness that I received an email this summer with bolded caps headline “PLEASE READ” where my teacher shared his own ethical transgression; he too succumbed to his more base desires and entered into a relationship with a student. The long email read as one rationalizing and explaining as well as his apology. And yet it also suggested that he was reaching out because his transgression had recently been made public. My question is, would he not have come clean if the transgression was not being made public?

I don’t yet know how this will impact the future of ParaYoga, but I do know that many students, especially women who have come to the lineage for healing from their own abuse and trauma, are very upset.  Like me, many chose to leave the ParaYoga community and quit our teacher. 

I’ve had my own ethical breaches as a teacher. I started a men’s yoga program that was thriving. I was actually making a good income by offering many weekly classes. The problem is I was using the popularity of these classes to hook up with students. Fortunately, I had the good sense to stop this of my own volition. My conscience was riddled with my actions. I chose to walk away from this lucrative teaching and used it as a learning opportunity, without any serious consequences to my actions - at least that I’m aware of.

My takeaway from ethical breaches is rooted in the teachings; the yoga tradition teaches that samskaras - the imprints of everything we do - remain within us, even those that may compel us to activity that is unethical. Yoga creates new and “better” samskaras to guide us forward and rendered those other samskaras neutral. But those old samskaras can raise their head anytime, especially when our practice lapses and discernment wanes. Thus, sadly, there will be transgressions from time to time.

I’m sure in your journey you’ve encountered your own ethical quandaries, whether of your own making or those of someone else. I’m interested in how you were able to make your way through. If you were victimized by a transgression, my heart is with you. As we’ve learned the last number of years we must believe those who are subject to abuse by those in power and work to make them whole.

I’d like to close by sharing with you my belief in how we move through these difficult stories in the yoga community. To me, it is always about the teachings and not the teacher. Idolizing teachers is problematic. The teachings are powerful and life-transforming as hopefully, you’ve borne witness to. But those who share the teachings are people with their own issues, samskaras and karma they are dealing with. We also must stand in solidarity and in loving kindness toward those who have been victimized by their teachers.

I wish you love, support and community. 

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