The Teachers Path: Yoga, Western Culture and the Pursuit of Integrity

teaching yoga

The current expression of yoga and its teachings is a veritable minefield of ethical quandaries. The cultural milieu that modern yoga exists within offers up complex and unresolved issues for any teacher or practitioner who wishes to deepen their intimacy and integrity within the practice. Developing a sacred environment in which the relationship between the teacher, the teachings, and the student, are contained within a solid intention that includes transparency and a recognition of potential difficulties is, I believe, of vast importance. Especially if we are to truly benefit from the depth of understanding and mastery that this path offers.

"The practice of yoga is the commitment to become established in the state of freedom"

~ Yoga Sutra 1.13

Mostly, it is the larger framework in which the practice and teaching of yoga sits that concerns me. After having practiced and studied yoga for a number of years I have personally had difficult questions arise related to the teacher student dynamic, the business of yoga, and the challenge in offering the teachings and physical practice with authenticity and safety. These questions are not comfortable but I believe in order to teach it is necessary to be grounded in an awareness of them. My role as an instructor is an opportunity to reflect on what the teachings of yoga are really pointing to. I often ask myself "how can I best embody the true teachings of yoga when holding space for others?"

My relationship with yoga is complicated. To say the least. Like an intimate relationship that has developed over time, my practice evolves and changes with every twist and turn in my own developmental journey. Much of what I explore here has shown up in one way or another in my own teaching and practice life. These are questions I don't fully have solutions to and many of the problems I highlight I am, or have been at some point, at least partially complicit in. Because yoga is a comprehensive system of philosophy, spiritual practice and ethics, in addition to the somatic practices, it continually requires me to refine my perception and really look at how I am operating as a teacher and as a student.

While I do speak to the yoga community as a whole I do it with a strong awareness that there are many teachers and studios who ask of themselves the hard questions and are struggling each day to offer yoga in a way that is in alignment with their highest values. I am also aware that instructors have varied reasons why they teach and some may not share my ideas about what they believe is actually the purpose of yoga. For example, more and more students step onto the mat to lose weight or get in shape and are not interested in the philosophy and spiritual practice yoga offers. Is this so wrong? Generally when we have healthy bodies we live happier lives. But is it really yoga if it is divorced from the deeper practices of patience, ease and self reflection?

"If we profess to be teaching Yoga, which is a science and art of living, we must practice that way of living ourselves. If we wish only to teach poses or postures, it would be better to call what we do by a name other than Yoga"

~ Donna Farhi

As a dedicated yoga practitioner and instructor, I see yoga as a continual practice of reflection. If the practice is engaged with at this level, yoga provides space for the inner alchemy of true transformation to occur. My physical practice on the mat is a kind of microcosm of a larger picture off the mat and at times I am "practicing" more by focusing on inner inquiry than perfecting a forward fold. For me, the process of reflection and inquiry that yoga requires often leads to more questions than answers. However, if the context of practice is respected, and students are guided in discovering their own basic goodness, answers develop inwardly which naturally leads to greater wisdom. I share my thoughts here as an entry point for discussion and an invitation to those reading to turn towards the questions raised within their own practice of self discovery, and with the recognition that only a individual can know what speaks true for them. It it through this approach that I hope practitioners and students alike can come to a place of shared understanding which includes an honest look at ethics.

It is a rare occasion to have a safe and stable container where we are supported in doing deep physical, emotional and psychological work. And with the popularity of yoga growing, these opportunities are becoming more accessible and available to a larger subset of the population. At the same time the superficial aspects of practice, and the language of yoga, is being absorbed by mainstream culture and manipulated for other purposes than what it was originally intended.

Yoga today exists within the very particular context of western capitalism and materialism. It is difficult for many teachers to offer yoga within the current model and not teach to the prevailing expectations of charisma and appealing to the masses. Many yoga teachers inadvertently promote and participate in a kind of "yoga star" culture. One in which "success" and mystique is just as (or more than) important than a meaningful relationship of exploration, witnessing and growth developed over time. Within the current model, I believe, there is the threat of loss of accountability from the teacher which leads to all sorts of potentially damaging situations. And at the very least this leads to the watering down of teachings that truly do offer profound possibilities for healing and expansion.

This isn't to say that yoga can't be a for-profit business. In fact, teachers stand to benefit from a system that empowers them to be business owners and ethical. As a teacher who relies on my teaching income I am continually looking at how I can authentically represent myself by sharing my unique expression. If a teacher does the work necessary, and has cultivated the requisite respect for the teachings and practice, "yoga as business" has incredible potential. Many yoga teachers want greater respect within the larger western culture but are not willing to hold themselves to higher professional standards. It is my assertion that until individual yoga teachers start asking the hard questions about how to be a teacher in a way that is in alignment with the true teachings of yoga we will continue to see all the trappings of modern western yoga that we are currently facing.

One of the most common areas of questionable ethics I have encountered is that of teachers teaching material they have not yet integrated and/or fully understood in their own practice. In particular this is very prevalent when offering mindfulness and meditation guidance. Teachers offer "advanced yoga" workshops after having only been a teacher and/or practitioner for a few years. The culture of personality eclipses the value of practicing with a teacher who is operating from embodied understanding and eventually limits the benefits students can receive. Instead of producing highly skilled practitioners and teachers the yoga world currently pumps out a fair number of "actors" who are not teaching from a place of authenticity and humility. Those that rely on pithy quotes, standard alignment cues and/or fancy postures due to their physical strength or flexibility, without having a strong foundation of personal practice, mentorship with senior teachers, and experience with the body and mind, move their students through classes that are missing the depth only experience and self study can provide.

Internationally recognized senior teacher and yoga therapist Donna Farhi in her book "Teaching Yoga" names a kind of "cultural pathology" we face within the yoga world. This pathology tells us we can't be a beginner and that we must quickly become (or at least look like) someone who is experienced and knowledgeable without first going through an unavoidable period of learning. This can lead to students who act as if they are entitled to arrive late, eat or text during class, push themselves to take postures beyond their skill level instead of using modifications, or simply "do their own thing" during formal class time. Ultimately the path of yoga teaches us to look inwardly and listen to the messages of our own body, but for most, if not all beginners, the guidance of a sensitive and attuned teacher is necessary to start. Without this support our growth is inevitably limited and the potential that the student teacher relationship is meant to provide is lost. Additionally this creates enormous limitations to the possibilities of true mentorship and to the cultivation of a personal practice based on a nuanced and experienced understanding of the body and mind.

Unfortunately the model of study that has become the norm within yoga circles is that of drop in classes in which the instructor is asked to teach to such a huge variety of body types, injuries, and skill levels. When a student chooses to enter into a teacher training they can do so after having practiced for a very short period of time, and after a relatively short teacher training they are welcomed onto yoga studio schedules -- especially if they have the "right" personality, marketing, or teach a style that is in demand by students. After their initial period of study teachers often only accumulate further training from a vast array of workshops. While exposure to new concepts and teachers is important and inspiring it will never replace the experience of working with a single teacher or group of teachers over an extended period of time.

Because yoga exists within a model that often values profit over the preservation of the teachings the demands of inexperienced students often drown out the views and wishes of senior teachers. While offering another class that emphasizes physical prowess and diminishes the importance of rest may be popular, it is in the long run, not serving the vast majority of students. It is hard for teachers and studios to separate the worth of what they're offering from the fondness and the more superficial preferences of their students. Especially when operating in a system of for-profit studios in which class numbers are watched closely. But Farhi implores us to question whether what we are offering has relevance for our students and whether it is guiding our students to listen to their own inner authority and limitations. She uses the following question:

"Am I departing from the greater quest, which is to help the student to discover his true identity?"

Teachers are often under pressure to teach material to students who are obviously not at that level of practice. This often leads to beginners repeatedly practicing difficult or poorly aligned asana (postures) leading to strain and stress on the body. The issue of yoga injuries is a massive area of interest that has exploded recently within the yoga community and is beyond the scope of this article. Visit Matthew Remski on his blog where he discusses the current model that is unfortunately leading to many injuries and his many conversations surrounding the dismantling of that model.

Yoga has been, for me, a place of depth, healing and support. I have been impacted by teachers who have brought forth undeveloped and fragile qualities within me for greater scrutiny with grace and skill. In contrast, I have also had teachers negatively contribute to my growth as a spiritual seeker, practitioner and teacher. As an instructor it is always important to remember that a yoga teacher can potentially exist in the mind of the student in ways that are blind to the teachers personal foibles. It is because of this that teachers must evaluate their relationships with students, impressions upon them, and remain very diligent when assessing and creating professional and personal boundaries.

In my own teaching career I aim to authentically and humbly offer what is a part of my own practice. I continually feel honored to guide and support others in a process of unfolding and self discovery and to be a part of many yoga circles that aim to serve their communities. 

All of this leads to an awareness that yoga is an ever expanding investigation that asks what it means to be having this human experience and how to live it best with heart and integrity. Eventually through this process of query and practice the division between teacher and student softens and that which speaks true for the student, and whatever has been integrated, becomes a part of the students experience and practice. And so in this way it is possible for yogis to eventually honor their own unique expressions together and share in the union that yoga offers while still respecting the deep roots of the teachings.  

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