Respect and Permission in Yoga—Yamas and Niyamas

The first two of Patanjali’s Eight Limbs are the Yamas and the Niyamas.  Together, they set the stage for yoga practice. They form a comprehensive set of principles that govern moral and ethical action in relation to all spheres of life. An honest look at these all-encompassing precepts is enough to stop any thoughtful person in their tracks. Taken literally, they are unforgiving. To practice them requires great focus and is demanding on every level.

Are we actually being called upon to do and be these things? Yes, we are and as teachers or any kind of leader, it is even more critical that we take these precepts to heart.

At first glance, the Yamas and Niyamas are simple—and obviously challenging to live. As we explore and allow ourselves to inquire with depth and precision, they have the power to transform our personalities. They regulate our very thinking. They are checks on impulses and sculptors of right-action. They speak to containing the purpose and direction of our lives. They encourage—demand—that we stay true to the course of pursuing greater knowledge and clarity, and that we never cede to egoic desires for personal accomplishment and gain. These principles don’t lose importance, no matter how much or how long we practice. If anything, the yamas and niyamas increase in significance as our awareness broadens.

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As Teachers

The yamas go right to the heart of what is necessary to approach serious practice. Can we manage this? The niyamas add to the tall order, letting us know clearly the challenges ahead. They provide no outs.

Can we work together as a community to cultivate this?

We, the teachers, are invited to nurture our student’s growing yoga practice. Unfortunately, what we are witnessing today is that so many of the teachers who have been held in high esteem are not worthy of their status. I feel we need to look at this, not just “famous” teachers, and not only at the most egregious of abuse, but for the ways that we are all involved; culpable in silently promoting a system that subtly denigrates some and lifts others.

Who are we all in perpetuating a  system of thought where one person is allowed to have power over another? We are all in this together.

Who checks the teacher? Usually, it is only the teacher, and that’s a problem. As teachers, we are the most vulnerable to losing track of our own practice. As teachers, it is entirely on us to manage our own actions. It is our job to maintain complete respect for our students and to recognize, handle, and contain our own distorted egoic needs and unhealthy desires. We all have issues. They will come up. Expect them and prepare for them. Personal integrity is first and foremost for teachers.

Do no harm. Basic.

When we don’t actively embrace a willingness to take full responsibility for our inner challenges and our outer actions we are on the precipice of doing harm.  There are no excuses whatsoever for physical and sexual abuse. It is completely unacceptable in all situations.  And…we all need to be careful not to succumb to the minor abuses of power that are so seductive whenever we—even we the normal everyday yoga teachers—are looked up to because we are thought to have some greater spiritual connection and knowledge.

It’s true. This does happen.

The stronger the leader, the more important the Yamas and Niyamas. 

As awareness expands, our reach increases. People tend to see something in their teachers they wish they themselves had. They inevitably project their hopes and dreams onto them. They may see the teacher as wise, intelligent, or to have perceptual abilities that are beyond their own. Whether any of these projections are true or not is not the point. They often lead to a perceived power differential between the teacher and the student that almost always involves the student feeling lesser than the teacher.

As teachers and leaders, when we notice this phenomenon forming in our student/teacher relationships, we responsibly return to the yamas and niyamas. We are called upon by circumstances to go even deeper into our own practice and unearth the threads of egoic delight in power that are still embedded deep within our psyches.

This is a positive stimulus for the teacher. In the best of conditions, it helps to ripen the teacher’s wisdom. Seeing this phenomenon for what it is, is critical to our own, and our student’s well being.

Egos are tricky. We all know that much. We need to check our ego’s underlying rumblings and screams for attention. As teachers, it is our job to take our own practice seriously, and we know what that means. Importantly, it means returning over and over again to see how we are doing in reference to the yamas and niyamas. In the same ways that our practice is particularly challenging in our personal relationships, it is challenging with our adoring students as well. We all need to take the very real dynamics of student/teacher relationships seriously and attend to them carefully. As we have witnessed so often, not all teachers return to the yamas and niyamas as their power sphere grows. We cannot change what others have done, but we can take responsibility for ourselves now.

Permission and Touch—No Precedes Yes

The conversation about permission and touch in yoga is finally here. I think we are all relieved to have this discussion out of the shadows and into the open. The consent cards now available in studios are wonderful tools for students and teachers. I have found that I much prefer having them. 

Of course, we have to ask permission and be respectful about where, how, and if we touch. Consent cards are an important step in offering power to the students. But there are layers and mitigators to consent. As wise teachers, we need to recognize that even if we are given permission, permission may be granted out of the student’s own misunderstanding about when “no” is appropriate. Encourage your students to say no sometimes. Encourage them to look inside to see if they really do want you, the teacher, to touch or assist them on that day. They may be surprised by their own feelings and let them know that you really actually will not take it personally. Then you have to make sure you don’t.

As a teacher, how do you feel when your student declines touch? Of course, you respect your student’s wishes, but do you ever take it personally? Do you think it is about you in some way? Are your feelings even hurt? Do you think perhaps it means you are not a good enough yoga teacher? Maybe you feel none of this. Maybe you feel all of it. It doesn’t matter what you feel. Just accept it. Do the personal work on your thoughts and feelings, and be sure not to make it your student’s problem.

Keep this in mind: When a student is able to say no to you you are offering them a true experience of personal power. They may or may not be willing or able to say no in their lives. That they can say no to you without being rejected by you can be a powerfully bonding experience.

No precedes yes. If you want something new you have to be able to say no to where you are. Without a clear no, there can be no clear yes. Being able to say no in yoga class is profoundly important for all of us. Being able to accept no is a learning and a deepening for yoga teachers.

Mutuality of Respect Breeds Deepening Respect

No one who is in form—has a body and takes a breath—is impervious to abusing power. Let’s resist being drawn into even the subtle projections of others. Know who you are. We can do this together. Continual questioning of ourselves is our ongoing duty. This is our practice.

Let us initiate the respect relationship. Our true respect for others is seen and felt by our students. They respect us back. Respect deepens on all sides. This is teaching.

Let’s allow and enjoy appropriate respect from our students and actively disavow other’s projections. Let’s respect our own teachers and the teachings of yoga. It is fine to let our students know, that yes, we have practiced long and consistently. And perhaps, if it is true, your practice continues to bear fruit. Let’s not even allow a glimmer of erroneous projection. Let’s happily accept the respect that is due and is appropriate to our dharmic endeavor. Respect is a beautiful and true offering…when it is earned and warranted.

Let’s accept the invitation to be leaders and guides.

May we become increasingly intelligent and careful observers of life.

May we endeavor to grow in our perceptual abilities and continue to share our deepening vision.

Let’s point the way and lead. 

We can do this.

Let’s do this together. 

2 thoughts on “Respect and Permission in Yoga—Yamas and Niyamas

  1. Patty, this is such a beautiful and powerful affirmation of the power of truth, no matter what it leads to, in our lives. Whether as teacher or student, leader or follower, choosing the path of integrity can only be a means to greater realization of our own truth, and that of those we are in relation with on whatever level. Namaste.

    Liked by 1 person

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