Ethics and values change in time and from place to place. Most of us grow up and adopt a set of moral values that we often don't give a second thought. Then we encounter something that makes us question. For me, that was Yoga. It offered a group of values that I have adopted as my moral compass ~ because I quickly realised we cannot simply rely on our mind or ego (ahamkāra). The mind needs that moral compass to guide it. The Sage Patañjali offered us a set of values in the Yoga Sutras, known as the yama-s and niyama-s, that still holds good today. The yama-s are about our contact and relationship with others, the niyama-s are about our relationship with ourselves.1
Let’s consider the very first yama that Patañjali gives us - ahiṁsā which is commonly translated as non-violence. Hiṁsā means violence. Adding the prefix a indicates not, so it becomes non-violence. However it’s a bit more complex than this. The prefix a has six meanings and one of them can be translated as ‘not’ or ‘non’ but it also means ‘less’ or ‘small’. I was relieved to discover this because ahiṁsā can also mean less or limited violence. For example, if one sees someone being attacked might it not be a greater violence to simply walk away and do nothing? It’s too easy to think of ourselves as non-violent since we don’t go around hitting people but hiṁsā can be physical, verbal, mental or emotional. 2
As teachers and practitioners of Yoga we are called to deeply question the value of ahiṁsā in our own practice of Yoga. We need to know our own bodies well enough so we don’t commit a violence against ourslves, for example, some years ago I had knee surgery and I need to practise my Yoga in a way that does not cause harm to my knee. Ahiṁsā is a value that we need to develop beyond the confines of our mat both towards ourselves and others.
To teach Yoga is to offer a great gift to people but the very first ‘contract’ that we make with our students is to do no harm.
How much knowledge do I have about the body?
We may set out to do no harm but if we have a poor knowledge of anatomy and physiology we may be putting our students at risk. Yoga is a beautiful, awe-inspiring philosophy which uses the physical body as a means to the transcendent Self. When we teach āsana and prānāyāma, mūdra and bandha we are teaching a physical exercise but using it as a way to stabilise our awareness. In order to teach Yoga safely we need to have an understanding of the mechanics of movement and to adapt our classes for the students in front of us and the lives that they are leading. In our society many of the students in our classes will probably be spending most of their day sitting at a desk, using computers and then once a week come to their Yoga class. Unfortunately they arrive at the class with the posture of sitting at a desk and their head, neck and spine are out of alignment. To teach people Śirṣāsana (the headstand) or even Sarvāngāsana(the shoulderstand), which takes the neck into an extreme position, in a general class could be harmful. Research is constantly evolving on the effects of physical movement on the body, as teachers can we always remain students learning about the physical body and developing our teaching as a result, rather than getting caught up in any dogma that is potentially risky to our students.
Do I teach asana in a way that is harmful?
Most students will want to ‘please’ their teacher and with this in mind we need to create an environment that does not leave students wanting to force themselves into an āsana causing pain and discomfort to gain our approval. How do we demonstrate the asanas in our classes? Do we demonstrate them so well that our students try and copy us or do we offer alternatives in a way that doesn’t diminish?
All of us teachers have to check how much of our ego is involved in our teaching. Now that’s a tricky one. Yoga is focussed on transcending the ego and not seeking to strengthen it. We are seeking to transcend the ahamkāra, the ‘idea of I’ in our search for the Self. Can we develop our self awareness so that we can see when we are using our position as a teacher to strengthen our ego and instead focus on helping the students in our class?
Perhaps developing humility as a teacher is a way to grow ahiṁsā in ourselves and transform our teaching into something sacred?
How harmful is my touch as a teacher?
We need to question ourselves about our adjustment of our students in our classes. Are we using a guiding touch to invite them into a more helpful position or are we forcing them into a posture that they are not ready for?
Our attitude when adjusting is important, this is where our intention can be non-violent, so that we do it not to correct or impose but to assist. Having learnt from Swami Ambikananda, she is the shining example for me of how to touch and adjust students in a Yoga class.
As male teachers we sadly cannot ignore the sexual abuse and violence that has crept into Yoga, therefore as men teaching women we need to be extremely respectful.
We need to know the person’s history and what it is that is preventing them from going further into an asana. We need to be absolutely sure that our student is not averse to touch: for some people touch can remind them of trauma.
What is it that makes a teacher lean on a student and push them into āsana and what makes us as a student accept it? To use force when adjusting a student would seem to the very opposite of ahiṁsā, to lean on a student risks injuring them, how can this ever be justified?
Some year ago I had a personal experience of this when I attended some Yoga classes with a teacher who without warning forcibly pushed me into āsana, at that point my trust in him was broken and I never went back to his class.
In conclusion, a brief search on the internet will confirm that people do get injured in Yoga classes3, we might assume that our teaching is non-harmful but can we evaluate our classes and do everything we can to prevent injuries. To practise ahiṁsā and indeed all the yama-s and niyama-s of Patañjali, requires thought, sensitivity and an honest and unflinching examination of ourselves.
©Uddhava Samman, June 2023