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Yoga Trends

Ethical Dilemma

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Picture this: you’ve traveled far from home to attend the class of a renowned yogi. A few poses into the session, you notice that he seems distracted by a female student. Amorous, knowing glances between the two intensify as the class progresses. Suddenly, after the teacher has guided everyone into Bridge Pose against the wall, he disappears from the room with the student. To your astonishment—not to mention physical discomfort—the happy couple reappears 10 minutes later, flushed and giggling, rejoining the students now struggling to hold the pose.

You might later see some humor in the absurdity of the situation, or you might never move past outrage. Either way, you’d probably agree that the teacher’s actions fall squarely in the category of Unyogalike Behavior. As in any other community, there has been an occasional lack of good judgment among yogis, as seen in this real-life example. But the recent rise in popularity of yoga practice has come with an increasing number of ethical breaches—and not just in the realm of sexual impropriety. True stories of physical negligence, fraud, embezzlement, and ruthless business practices have joined sex with students in the Yoga Hall of Shame.

Exploitation of any kind in yoga couldn’t be farther from the intended goals of the practice. Yet unsavory headlines calling attention to teachers’ moral lapses have prompted yogis and students alike to question where things went wrong. Whatever the
causes, one thing is certain: The thought of yoga heading down anything less than a spiritual path has stirred the winds of change in the community. Yoga associations are revisiting the topic of ethics in earnest, clearly defining their beliefs and emphasizing ethical training of instructors. National organizations, schools, and studio owners have begun drafting behavioral codes, compiling structured grievance procedures, and soliciting the help of legal advisers to factor in the applicable laws.

Amid all of this activity, a larger question has surfaced: If ethical violations are really to be reduced, has the time come for all yoga teachers in the United States to abide by a single code of ethics? And if it has, can everyone agree on one (or even the idea of one), or would creating such a code cause more problems than it would solve? How the community ultimately works through these issues will have a profound impact on the future of yoga in America.

The Path of Icarus

The weighty matter of morality is taught early enough in life. As toddlers, we get clear signals about behavior—accolades when we share with playmates and frowns when we hit them. But a slippery slope presents itself soon thereafter. As it turns out, it’s not OK to share everything (like germs with a friend or your spinach with the dog), and hitting really depends on the target (a piñata gets the green light; a sibling doesn’t).

The nuances and exceptions to the rules multiply exponentially as we age, so it’s no wonder that even in adulthood, our moral principles are still a work in progress. While we end up holding many views in common with those around us, differences abound. “We might think that most people share a basic moral framework, but the polarization generated by most ethical issues of the day reveals that this is simply not the case,” writes Julie Stone in her book An Ethical Framework for Complementary and Alternative Therapists (Routledge, 2002). “Gut reactions vary enormously depending on a person’s cultural background, socioeconomic status, political beliefs, values, prejudices, personal history, and the views of others who have shaped that person’s moral development and education.”

With this already complex backdrop in place, consider the position of the yoga teacher. The sheer scope of the profession makes navigating the waters of propriety especially demanding. Spiritual guide, fitness trainer, therapist, healer—at different times, instructors may feel they play all of these roles. They also face the challenge of presenting an ancient Eastern ascetic tradition to modern Western students in a way that maintains its integrity while making it accessible to them.

And then there is the “pedestal problem”—our tendency to see leaders as all-knowing and perfect. As Jack Kornfield, cofounder of the Insight Meditation Society and Spirit Rock Center in Woodacre, California, notes in his book A Path with Heart (Bantam, 1993), this perception is called transference. “Transference, as it is called in Western psychology, is the unconscious and very powerful process in which we transfer or project onto some authority figure…the attributes of someone significant in our past, often our parents,” he explains. “In spiritual romanticism, we imagine that our teachers are what we want them to be instead of seeing their humanness.” This sets the teacher up to impossibly high standards, complicating an already knotty ethical landscape.

In light of all of this, ethical infractions are almost understandable (although not excusable). For some teachers, being an object of transference invokes a sense of invincibility, which Kornfield points out is often accompanied by an Icarus-like failing. Just as that mythological boy could not resist flying to the sun with his new wax wings, some yoga teachers—their egos buoyed by the stature accorded them by their students—succumb to the temptations of sex, money, and emotional control. For this reason, the subject of ethics has become a crucial component in the education of many yoga teachers.

Learning from the Past

Many of the major yoga teacher training centers in America begin their ethical instruction with a look back 5,000 years to the Yoga Sutra. In this ancient text, the sage Patanjali presents yamas (universal ethical guides) and niyamas (individual rules of conduct). The yamas cover the ideals of nonviolence, truth, nonstealing, self-restraint, and noncoveting. The niyamas advocate purity, contentment, austerity, self-study, and spiritual dedication. For some schools, the Yoga Sutra and other ancient texts provide more than enough material for moral exploration.

“As far as ethics goes, K. Pattabhi Jois says that Ashtanga Yoga is Patanjali yoga,” says Tim Miller, director of the Ashtanga Yoga Center in Encinitas, California. The hundred-plus teachers Miller trains each year examine the yamas and niyamas in depth. In the Sivananda lineage, the 13,000 or so teachers trained worldwide to date also explore ethics using the ancient texts. “We teach ethics in terms of the laws of karma, as taught in the Bhagavad Gita, and the yamas of the Yoga Sutra,” says Swami Srinivasananda, director of the Sivananda Ashram Yoga Ranch in Woodbourne, New York. “We advocate behavior of brahmacharya,” he adds—that is, an ideal of celibacy, which the Sivananda tradition stresses is especially important in relationships between teachers and students.

Schools that teach classical ethics often take pains to draw contemporary parallels. “It doesn’t do much good to recite something from 1000 b.c.e. and expect it to be relevant, unless you make it so,” explains David Life, cofounder of New York’s Jivamukti Yoga Center, which has trained several hundred teachers in its system.

So focused is Jivamukti on modern matters of conduct, Life says, that teachers often don’t get much past the first yama, the doctrine of ahimsa (nonharming). “There’s a lot of work needed to be done in that area in our culture,” he says, “starting with our diet and how it impacts other beings.” He hopes this precept will help guide teachers as they go off to lead their own classes. “We look at ethics in terms of the nonharming yogic precept to be kind to others and to create opportunities to develop compassion,” Life explains.

Still other schools take matters a major step farther, punctuating classical ethical study with clear-cut behavioral codes. Sometimes these guidelines spring to life in the aftermath of a scandal; other times they exist to preempt ethical pitfalls. Either way, they reflect a strong belief in clarity. “You can’t just rely on people to interpret the scriptures,” says Joan White, chair of Ethics and Certification for the Iyengar Yoga National Association of the United States (IYNAUS). “You need to address what’s going on in our society. We also need to be more specific in our descriptions of what the yamas and niyamas mean for us.”

Making the Mandates

The California Yoga Teachers Association was one of the first groups to create a code of ethics. In the early 1990s, the association’s board, in consultation with experts in the field, drafted a document recognizing “the sensitive nature of the student-teacher relationship.” Its principles cover recommended practices and offer guidelines on student-teacher relationships, including one that might have helped in the case of the teacher who disappeared from class with his student: “All forms of sexual behavior or harassment with students are unethical, even when a student invites or consents to such behavior involvement.”

The codes of ethics of different groups vary widely. IYNAUS, which requires its American teachers to sign a professional ethics statement annually as part of their registry renewal, bases its code on the yamas and niyamas. Much of this code centers on maintaining the integrity of Iyengar techniques—not mixing them with other systems, for instance, and staying current with the latest practice developments. The rest covers areas like intimate relationships with students (avoid) and substance abuse (ditto), and lists various responsibilities.

But what if teachers don’t comply? “We have a formal complaint process,” White says. “If they are shown to be unethical, we suspend their certification mark and no longer consider them teachers in good standing. They are even removed from our Web site and literature.” She adds that the organization gives serious consideration to written complaints from students.

The Kripalu Yoga Teachers’ Association guidelines focus primarily on the power dynamic that can exist between students and teachers, emphasizing the requirement to “never exploit the vulnerability of a student for personal gain or gratification.”Much of the code champions a “safe and sacred space” through clear, professional boundaries—first and foremost, teachers are required to refrain from having sex or romantic relationships with students. Not only does every Kripalu teacher sign the code as a requisite for certification, but visiting instructors to the Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health in Lenox, Massachusetts, also agree to abide by its terms while on the premises.

Teachers of Kundalini Yoga as taught by Yogi Bhajan follow similarly specific mandates. Printed on the back of their teaching certificates is a “Code of Professional Standards,” which covers everything from student-teacher relationships (“All forms of sexual involvement are unethical”) to dress (wear white or off-white) to diet (avoid alcohol, tobacco, drugs, and meat). The code also defines promotional parameters, advising teachers not to make “exaggerated claims about the effects of yoga” or statements “likely to exploit a student’s fears, anxieties, or emotions.” Hari Charn Khalsa, program director of teacher training at the Kundalini Research Institute in Espanola, New Mexico, says, “A student may come to yoga to cure their cancer. Will that student feel more grounded and at peace after a class? Probably. But will yoga get rid of the cancer? Of course not. Teachers aren’t doctors. They need to know what they’re there for and honestly convey this to their students.”

Ethics Overhaul

With thousands of schools, teachers, and classgoers, yoga in America has evolved into a vast and varied practice. A student can choose from many styles, taught in classes geared to any ability, nearly anywhere in the country. The prolific blossoming of yoga practice makes it difficult to pin down its ethical future. But signs point to change.

A few organizations already favoring ethical codes are taking them to the next level. IYNAUS, for instance, recently revised and expanded its ethics statement with the guidance of B.K.S. Iyengar and his daughter Geeta Iyengar, author of Yoga: A Gem for Women (Timeless, 2002), and a new grievance process will soon accompany the code of ethics for Kundalini teachers. For its part, the 3HO International Kundalini Yoga Teachers Association has created a process to deal with student complaints that also protects teachers from false complaints.

But while individual schools may fine-tune their approaches to conduct, their standards will hardly cover the entire community. Teachers from some lineages will still have crystal-clear guidelines to inform their dealings with students; others may not have had any training in ethics at all. The remedy, say many, lies in a national code of ethics.

There are many challenges in creating one. Topping the list is potential teacher resistance—especially if the code were to be mandatory. “A lot of us came to yoga as we turned away other voices of authority that told us what to do,” explains Ana Forrest, founder of the Forrest Yoga Circle studio; she also leads teacher training courses internationally. She weighs integrity seriously in her training of would-be instructors, introducing real-life dilemmas and encouraging her students to write personal ethics statements. But would Forrest favor the idea of a national code? “I’m mixed on it, to be truthful,” she says. “My ultimate answer would be yes.” She then adds candidly, with a laugh, “But only if I agree with it.”

A second barrier is the inevitable reinventing-the-wheel issue. “Codifying laws about ethics?” asks Swami Srinivasananda. “I think the scriptures have done a good job of that already.” John Schumacher, director of Unity Woods Yoga Center in the Washington, D.C., area, who trains teachers only through apprenticeships, seems to agree: “I think we already have a national code of ethics in yoga—it’s called the yamas and the niyamas. It’s fairly straightforward.”

Plain logistics present a third hurdle. Tim Miller wonders, “Who would set the standards? Who would be the Great Holy Ones governing all of this?” The task of finding people to represent every possible point of view—and without ethical skeletons in their own closets—seems insurmountable. But even with the right group in place, a final document would no doubt still be flawed. “A code that could foresee all possible actions would be too unwieldy,” Schumacher says, “while one that just covers a few main areas would be too broad. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, when you try to formalize something like this, you choke the life out of it and open up a can of worms in the process.”

A fourth obstacle is that the idea itself just might not work. “There’s an expression about yoga: ‘Some of it is taught, and some caught,'” Miller says. “Ethical behavior lies in the latter category. You can make someone aware of ethics, but practicing it needs to come from the inside.” Getting people to sign a piece of paper, he says, will not change their behavior.

Taking the Next Big Step

In the mid-1990s, the yoga world faced a similarly fractious issue. To the great agitation of many longtime yogis, the training of teachers had begun to range from weekend Internet correspondence courses to years of intensive study. The notion of national certification standards arose, and Yoga Alliance, a group honoring all styles, was formed to create them. It developed a Registered Yoga Teacher list in 1999; being listed on it is by no means mandatory for offering classes, but more than 6,000 teachers currently are.

It’s not surprising that Yoga Alliance is now exploring the idea of a national ethics code. Schools and organizations seeking registry with the group have always had to supply their own codes of ethics. Yoga Alliance president Hansa (who goes by one name) says a committee has begun to review those codes with an eye toward developing one that would act as a general guideline but wouldn’t supercede any existing codes.

Whether or not this effort results in a national code, the attempt is illuminating the challenges inherent in reaching an agreement about ethical principles. For example, one of the more than two dozen codes the alliance is reviewing mentions ahimsa and advises teachers to follow a vegetarian diet so as not to engage in any harming actions. “But not everyone interprets ahimsa as requiring one to be vegetarian,” Hansa says, “so these are things we need to think about.”

And because the specter of litigation shadows teacher misconduct, Yoga Alliance has had to solicit the advice of legal researchers to identify how federal and state laws would apply to yoga’s ethical questions. On this point, Hansa gives a real-life example of a man who accused a yoga teacher of sexually assaulting his girlfriend. The woman herself didn’t have a problem with the act, but her boyfriend still pressed forward with his grievance. “What are the laws on this?” Hansa asks. “Is this grievance a legal or an ethical issue?” And another question for the lawyers: When a group (Yoga Alliance or any other organization) has a teacher sign a document agreeing to X, Y, or Z behavior, does that imply a legally binding guarantee for students that the teacher is ethical? Could the organization be held responsible if the teacher breaches the code?

Having to apply the rigid, sometimes sticky rules of the legal system to the organic practice of yoga seems unfortunate, to say the least. In some ways, the exercise itself might prove harder on the community than just letting individual preferences prevail. (After all, if teachers treat people poorly, they’re likely to find themselves with an empty studio.) But some feel it’s worth navigating the rough waters to honor yoga’s foundation in the yamas and niyamas and to prevent even one injustice.

“We can’t have the respect and privilege of being in a profession like this and say we don’t need to hold ourselves to a code of ethics,” argued Donna Farhi, author of Bringing Yoga to Life (HarperSanFrancisco, 2003), in a speech to aspiring instructors. “We can’t on one hand define teaching yoga as a profession and on the other hand say that ethical behavior is left to individual interpretation.”

But the proper course of action is anything but clear. With so many issues to consider, Yoga Alliance is moving cautiously. “It’s easy to sit down and write an ethics statement,” Hansa says. “It’s much harder when you realize that what you’re doing will impact the world of yoga forever.”

Contributing Editor Jennifer Barrett lives in West Hartford, Connecticut, where she fields challenging ethical questions every day from her three young daughters.