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Ethics, Adjustments, and Cathartic Release

In yoga teaching, touch can be necessary, or ill-advised. The treatment of a student's emotional release can be equally sensitive. Thankfully, the health care profession provides some adaptable standards for teachers.

By Michael H. Cohen, J.D., M.B.A.

Ethics, Adjustments, and Cathartic ReleaseThe owner of successful yoga studio in a major metropolitan city recently welcomed his new yoga teacher with this advice: "Our Power Practice is extremely rigorous and precise; therefore, to ensure that all students are appropriately following the correct sequence of poses, be sure to give each the same adjustment."

Across the same city, the owner of a rival successful studio instructed his teachers as follows: "Adjustments should be correct, precise, standard. Teach every student the correct pose." He demonstrated. "Tailbone tucked in, shoulders back, like so." He added, "Now you do exactly like me."

In a third studio somewhere between the two, a student began crying during shivasana. "Process emotions through the breath," the teacher responded, and the student immediately stifled her tears. In a fourth studio nearby, the teacher encouraged another student's crying. "These are all of our griefs," he said. In response, many pent-up voices wailed at once.

Which of these practices are ethically and legally risky? And which could be justified as essential components of yoga teaching? Would it make a difference if, in any of these studios, one of the students claimed an injury (physical or emotional) from the recommended advice? If your answer to each of these questions is "it depends," you are well into the gray zone of ethics. Like questions of liability, most ethical issues require analysis, call for a delicate balancing of values, and cannot easily be answered with certainty. While at times academic, ethics discussions are meant to be applied in practical situations, and the values that guide the discussion are quite established, at least in the care-giving professions.

For example, clinical providers in health care are guided typically by two primary ethical duties. The first is nonmaleficence, the classic obligation to "do no harm." The second is known as beneficence, the obligation to act in a way that is beneficial to the patient or client.

Ethically speaking, in applying these values to the first and second anecdotal examples above, the key question is whether teachers who give a standard adjustment will fail to provide any benefit and even, possibly, injure students. In general, touch in yoga teaching is completely necessary yet also fraught with risk; depending on the context, motivation, and extent of permission or implied consent, touch can wound or heal (see The Ethics and Liabilities of Touch). Despite the desire for a "standardized" correction, respecting students' limitations while giving adjustments can be seen as one form of nonmaleficence.

Similarly, in the third and fourth anecdotal examples above, the answer to the ethical question depends on whether encouraging cathartic release will do no harm and provide the student benefit. Again, this can vary according to the situation; intuiting the right response may depend a lot on experience, sensitivity, and rapid assessment of the needs of both the individual and the group.

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