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Yoga and Modern Ethics: Beyond the Yamas and Niyamas

Almost every yoga teacher training has a section on ethics, specifically the yamas and niyamas as outlined in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras.

Ethics are particularly important in the teacher-student relationship in yoga because students may be vulnerable when they come to us for practice. Thus it’s vital that we instill their trust in us as professionals.

A natural power differential is inherent in the teacher-student relationship. Therefore we need to be extra-accountable as role models and hold ourselves to high standards. To read more about conduct and ethics pertaining to the teacher-student relationship, Google the “California Yoga Teachers Association Code of Conduct,” which was written by veteran teacher Judith Hanson Lasater in 1995.

The yamas and niyamas are the pragmatic principles and “rules” that were created to guide people’s actions given the karmic, or cause-and-effect, nature of the world. In that karmic world we need human decency and accountability.

But karma isn’t the whole picture. Its opposite is known as lila. Lila encompasses divine play, vulnerability, ambiguity, and the fact that anything can happen. As humans we are vulnerable to what the world dishes out, and the future is uncertain and unpredictable.

The yamas and niyamas are important and straightforward, and yet they don’t quite account for a world that is also “lilic.” In one moment your life could be calm, and in the next breath it could change forever if a family member is hit by a car, your spouse gets laid off, or your health takes a turn for the worse.

Don’t get me wrong — the yamas and niyamas are essential, and I wouldn’t want to live in the world without them.

Yet it’s important to recognize that they originated as part of an ascetical paradigm meant to encourage seekers to move away from the world of social contracts.

Most third graders have been taught the equivalent of the yamas and niyamas (“don’t steal,” “give credit where it is due,” “don’t lie,” “be clean,” etc.) and learned to follow them. As yoga teachers we are ready for more. It is time to take ethics one-step further and into modern times.

We can do this by recognizing that we live in a world that is both karmic (predictable) and lilic (unpredictable). To put it plainly, having modern ethics means getting your “ducks in a row” or getting your act together.

It means creating basic stability in your life so that when lila happens you can receive the play of the universe rather than getting run over by it. Being prepared for any possibility means that you can create opportunities out of challenges rather than. being a victim to them.

Why is this approach more ethical? Because when your life falls apart and you’re not prepared, your problems inevitably become other people’s problems. Take, for example, the yoga teacher who kept putting off getting health insurance until one day she was diagnosed with a serious health issue requiring extensive surgery. To cover her medical bills, the community had to rally to put together benefit classes and fund-raise on her behalf.

Or the person who kept putting off getting snow tires on his car and then got stuck in the snow, blocking a family’s driveway. Now he not only had let his co-workers down because he couldn’t get to work but also impacted the four people in the house, who were now unable to get on with their day!

Examples like these are endless.

Another thing to consider is this: if the yamas and niyamas are part of a yoga teacher’s curriculum, why do we see so many yoga teachers breaking ethical contracts and lacking professional responsibility?

Herein lies the problem. If ethics exist only in a karmic world that yogis are aiming to escape from, then they can easily blame their “elevated state” as the reason for their violating ethical standards. In short, the guru gets a pass. A teacher who blames her transgressions or lack of responsibility on her spirituality is doing what is called “spiritual bypassing.”

Modern, professional, and ethical teachers are, in Sanskrit, auchitya: “filled with appropriateness.” They demonstrate awareness and understand the world they live in. In summary, these teachers:

  • understand the features of a social contract (yamas and niyamas) and know that they are not exempt from its precepts.
  • are functional and stable in their embodied life. How? By inviting vulnerability (lila) rather than being victimized by it.
  • can embrace the paradox of social contract (karma) and divine play (lila).
  • have their “s**t together!”

The more of an authority you are in your field, and the more privileges you receive because of that authority, the more accountable and responsible you have to be. The best leaders surround themselves with a system of checks and balances — or a high council to call them out when they’re buying into their own hype and advise them on decisions. These leaders are able to take feedback well and openly seek guidance from others.

Take some time to think about your life and how you can increase stability and harness a system of checks and balances. Some ideas include hiring a therapist, putting a studio manager in place, seeking the support of a mentor or friends who can be frank with you, having an attorney you can call upon on short notice, assembling a business team, having godparents for your children, setting up retirement and contingency funds, having life insurance, staying on top of car maintenance, seeking help from family, having a list of pet sitters you can call on, and lining up a team of health professionals for you and your family.

This blog post is an excerpt from, The Art and Business of Teaching Yoga: The Yoga Professional’s Guide to a Fulfilling Career, by Amy Ippoliti and Taro Smith, PhD. Learn more about this best-selling book and purchase it by clicking here.

20160125 Amy Ippoliti 11148-3Amy Ippoliti is a yoga teacher, author, and earth activist. Her caring approach brings ancient wisdom to modern yogis, both on and off the mat. She is known for her genuine style of teaching, intelligent sequencing, compelling and clear instruction, and engaging sense of humor.

A pioneer for advanced yoga education, serving both students as well as fellow yoga teachers, in 2012 she co-founded 90Monkeys, an online professional development school that has enhanced the skills of yoga teachers and studios in 65 countries around the globe.

Amy is a faculty member at the Omega Institute, Esalen and Kripalu. A regular presenter at the Yoga Journal Conferences, Asia Yoga Conference, Wanderlust Festivals, and The Hanuman Festival, Amy represents prAna clothing, ToeSox, and Yuni Beauty as a yoga ambassador.

Amy has graced the covers of Yoga Journal and Fit Yoga Magazine and has been featured in Self, New York Magazine, Yoga Journal, Mantra Magazine, Origin Magazine, Yoga Digest, Yogini Magazine (Japan), Allure (Korea), Elephant Journal,, MindBodyGreen and many more.

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