Yoga Teachers need Yoga, not superficial imposition of Code of Ethics

The Yoga community in the US, needs to prioritize their integrity to the very practice of Yoga.

In her recent article in The New York Times titled “Yoga Teachers Need a Code of Ethics”, Sarah Herrington makes a case for a need for “Code of Ethics” for Yoga teachers in the current aftermath of scandals involving Bikram Choudhury, John Friend and Amrit Desai. According to her, the 36.7 million yoga practitioners nationwide, of which 72 per cent women, are prone to sexual harassment at the hands of certified Yoga teachers, who fail to follow Yoga Alliance’s “Code of Conduct” or any other self-imposed “Code of Ethics”. Exploitation by Yoga teachers has left students spiritually, emotionally, mentally and physically violated. So, she prescribes an “Ethical Code”, as a solution.

Sarah has the right intention, but unfortunately proposes a misguided solution. By advocating for Ethics in Yoga, she perhaps does not fully understand Yoga, despite her experience as a practitioner of Yoga. Yoga is a set of practices that leads one to integrity and authenticity. The problem is not a lack of ethics as such, but a lack of Yoga in the Yoga community. To become certified as a Yoga Teacher, all you need is: 1) some interest in Yoga; (2) the capacity to walk into a Yoga Alliance certified Yoga Studio; and 3) 200 hours of your time. That’s all. Now, you can start teaching. Contrast this with the way Yoga was taught, traditionally. Before the American industrialization of Yoga, heightened levels of integrity and sacredness came as part and parcel of immersion in the practice and was provided for by the practice itself.

Paramahamsa Nithyananda says, “There are 3 kinds of people teaching yoga: 1) teaching yoga from their “personal experience”; 2) who know only the scriptures. Teach only from scriptures, but does not have personal experience. Pundits, scholars; and 3) very rare are the third category of teachers, who have a solid personal experience, who are authorities, responsible for what they’re speaking, and completely connected, rooted, centered, on the traditional yogic scriptures. Those are the rare beings from whom you should learn.”

Unfortunately, most of the Yoga teachers in the US do not even fall in the first category. They are complete beginners with very shallow priming in the Yoga Sutras or Bhagavad-Gita. They do not fully understand the theoretical aspects of Yoga. Neither do they appreciate its sacredness. This is because, in the US, Yoga like everything else is commoditized and packaged to sustain a 16.1-billion-dollar industry. Just because the industry is flourishing, it does not mean that the quality of “Yoga as a practice” is protected. A good example is that of the food industry in the US, where the size of the industry has not resulted in the provision of nutritious food to its consumers. This aberration has taken place despite strict regulation, including various ethical codes. When profit is at the heart of the things, there’s always a workaround. However, consumers are now becoming increasingly aware of the food they are eating by relying on labels. The organic standard, for example, helps one decide what to expect and whether to eat or not eat a food product.

Yoga on the other hand, lacks such labelling. The mere certification to call it Yoga, does not make it an authentic or desirable Yoga experience. With Yoga, it is nearly impossible to determine what one is getting into without investing significant time. By the time one learns the difficult lesson (pun intended), it is too late. Hence, the awareness needs to come before one even signs up to join a certain Yoga community. Also, the secularization of Yoga, has disconnected Yoga from its roots and lineage, leaving it dry and lifeless. We now have Yoga communities like: BeerYoga; Broga (Yoga for Men); Doga (Dog Yoga); and inthespirityoga (Yoga Studio and Wine Lounge). As Sarah would agree, even if you introduce a “Code of Ethics” to these Yoga communities, it may still ultimately lead to disappointment for its members, given the distortion. Innovation too, has it limits. Turning a holistic system into some catchy institution without any essence is corruption, a ridiculous reduction, and certainly not innovation.

Sarah, as a practitioner of Yoga for 20 years fails to bring out the very ethics that should stem out naturally from one’s Yoga practice. For example, Ashtanga yoga means “eight-limbed yoga,” as outlined by the sage Patanjali in the Yoga Sutras. According to Patanjali, the path of internal purification for revealing the Universal Self consists of the following eight spiritual practices: Yama (moral codes); Niyama (self-purification and study); Asana (posture); Pranayama (breath control); Pratyahara (sense control); Dharana (concentration); Dhyana (meditation); Samadhi (absorption into the Universal). The very definition of Yoga is “Chitta vritti nirodha” (“Yoga is the silencing of the modifications of mind”).

Yoga teachers who cannot consistently silence their minds, should not teach Yoga to others. Addressing Ethics in Yoga via quasi Biblical commandments is a futile exercise and, in fact, it can be argued that it is disrespectful to the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. Such a proposition suggests that Patanjali, though a wise sage, somehow missed out on these external ethical dictates that ought to have been incorporated in the Yoga Sutras. Bringing ethics to Yoga is like trying to extinguish the extinguisher, defying the very purpose of Yoga. The reason more and more people are drawn to Yoga is because they are tired of living a life full of commandments and rules. Yoga helps them realize their Dharma i.e. their own version of righteousness.

The Patanjali Yoga Sutras, already have an ethical system imbibed in them, and have continued to do fine without any external commandments, when practiced sincerely. The Yoga community in the US needs to prioritize its integrity to the very practice of Yoga. That means, Yoga teachers need to do Yoga. The ethics will follow thereafter.

We don’t need to rely on Karma alone, when there is Dharma.

Ayush K. Garg (@ayushkgarg) is an attorney at law based in the US and New Delhi. He holds a doctorate degree in jurisprudence from Northwestern University and has previously served on matters of national interest at the Supreme Court of India. He takes keen interest in: Yoga philosophy; cognitive science of religion; Indology; legal dimensions of religions; and the religious dimensions of laws.
  • Stephanie Cunningham

    The individuals who are accused of the sexual misconduct only had a 200 hour training? I doubt that and your point makes no sense in the context of ethics training. I don’t know that a code of ethics in and of itself will do much good but it may be a start to say that this activity is not acceptable, it is sexual assault, and you can be prosecuted for it. It doesn’t matter if you are some yoga guru or not.

    • Balaji Srinivasan

      I don’t see that the article is saying that ethics are not needed or that sexual assault is acceptable or that sexual assault is acceptable if it comes from a yoga guru or that sexual assault should not be prosecuted. Sexual abuse or assault should be and is penalized under exisiting legal regimes whether it occurs in a yoga studio or outside of one.

      The point being made is that a superficial application of an ethics standard from a Western productized lens may not adequately achieve the objective. This approach often masks racist cultural attitudes and appropriation. The subtext of such an approach is often (not always) that brown Gurus are sexual predators and the Guru system is obsolete and dangerous so better let the more advanced white people take it over and do it right! And of course this comes with a power grab for exclusive certification authority and revenue generating praxis.

      The article is aware of this trend and its inherent dangers. Moreover, the article recognizes that stripping yoga from its source and diluting it through Western digestion in fact contributes and creates the conditions for these issues. Rather than a top down commitee based bureacracy, a lasting solution will result from creating the conditions for Self Actualization and Self Mastery.

      Instead of treating Yoga as exercise or changing the face of Yoga, the article is advocating a return to Yoga’s spiritual roots and providing due attention and respect for the tradition, with its emphasis on the principles of Integrity, Authenticity, and Responsibility.

  • Cybil Peril

    I’m myself an ardent Yoga practitioner and took a certificate course in Bombay University. I’m glad that I got this opportunity. Basically I’m a Senior Surgeon and Teacher in a Medical Institution teaching Gastro problems. In my experience, I have even taught it to few of my recalcitrant patients too with good relief. It works ;like magic and is addicting once it is started practicing. I wish, more such posts appear. Unfortunately Vikram Choudhary has done a great disservice to this Great Art in West. Such rogues must be eliminated to restore the great Science of Yoga.

  • Cybil Peril

    Precise practice of systematic Yoga itself starts with purification and stilling of mind. Current practice has been commercialized by West. They value everything in terms of money unlike Indian ancient concept of benevolence.

  • Cybil Peril

    Yoga of Patanjali starts with Yama, followed by Niyama. Unfortunately West of White race practice racist ideology advanced by Church that hates Hinduism. Same way as Islam. Hence finding fault in Yoga is nothing new in West despite millions practicing it. Church wud very much like to impose curbs in one or other ways but its practitioners wont. Yes, if there are some anomalies in its adherents, it can be sincerely looked into to improve instead of hampering its practice unlike NYT’s Billy Broad who criticized it to promote his Book against it. Perhaps inspired by his Western bias.

    • Gavamayanam

      What i am more worried about is the ripping of yoga away from its sanatana heritage. Even Modi says yoga doesn’t belong to any religion, while it is very much rooted in the Veda in a different form. Not the body contortions practiced. Our lay Hindu’s blurt out the same nonsense. This weakness is used by the Abrahamists to wreak havoc. This is one reason why everything wasn’t taught to everybody.

      • Cybil Peril

        I’m sure, u r aware of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra. Vedas, Shrimad Bhagwat Geeta etc contain references briefly about Yoga but Patanjali had “Codified” it in his treaties on Yoga that starts with:

        atha yoga-anushasanam ||1||
        अथ योगानुशासनम् ॥१॥

        atha yoga-anuśāsanam ॥1॥

        Yoga in the here and now: an introduction to the study and practice of yoga ||1||

        atha = (conj.) and so, now (often used to introduce explanations)
        yoga = (iic. / nom. sg. m.) yoga, unity, oneness, harmony with yourself
        anuśāsanam = (nom. sg. n./acc. sg. n. from anuśāsana) introduction to the experience; lit: instruction, discipline,…

        yogash-chitta-vritti-nirodhah ||2||
        योगश्चित्तवृत्तिनिरोधः ॥२॥

        yogaś-citta-vr̥tti-nirodhaḥ ॥2॥

        When you are in a state of yoga, all misconceptions (vrittis) that can exist in the mutable aspect of human beings (chitta) disappear. ||2||

        yogaḥ = (nom. sg. m. from yoga) yoga
        citta = (iic.) all that is mutable in human beings; thoughts
        vr̥tti = (iic.) thought-wave; mental modification; mental whirlpool; a ripple in the chitta. A vritti alters perception like a misconception, or as waves on the surface of a pond obscure or distort our view of the bottom.
        nirodhaḥ = (nom. sg. m. from nirodha) to find tranquility; to control…

        These above two sentences of Patanjali gives enough indication about the discipline for practicing Yoga. Unfortunately White West doesn’t want to give respect for what they consider “other” and try to distort it or else first hideously learn it from its originator and then make a White cocktail to appear ir as if it was discovered by Them and exported with an aim to blur its origin. Church wouldn’t like to lend it a non White colour lest they feel inferior. This has caused a lot of historical as well as scientific distortions but they just ignore or falsify. Their discovery of “Aryan Invasion Theory” has been completely debunked. lot more such examples are there but they have been successful at places in dividing the societies globally and created rifts and internecine wars, like Sinhalese-Tamil War.

        • Gavamayanam

          Yes your are right these things aren’t considered. Whatever said and done, true Vedic and Yogic traditions without getting corrupted are still maintained in India’s remote villages and mountain forests. I know a few them in the forested hills of Ahobilam in Andhra near cudappah. I do not see them doing so much twisting and turning. Also many of them even don’t know what is “Hanuman Aasana” and other asanas. But no use of criticizing the west when most of our own folk don’t know anything about it. They follow “Neo Advaita Vedanta” and they think they are fit for the highest truth. And they ridicule traditional Hindus following rituals. They imagine themselves to be outside the pale of all “Meaningless rituals”.. But many people who have undergone traditional Vedic training for years and perform their anushtanas without fail, never dare to claim they are yet fit for the highest truth. They continue to plod on sincerely on the path. What a difference!!!

          • Cybil Peril

            Are u truly interested in historical impact on Hindu tradition following European Colonisation? If yes, kindly study some literature on it. I’m sure, u have heard the “Macaulay’s Children”. What it means? There is a very good read recently marketed – “Breaking India” by Rajiv Malhotra and Aravindan Neelakandan. It will give you a wealth of information.

          • Gavamayanam

            Yeah i have read the last one by RM. There is one more way of discrimination i see. I am learning and teaching the krishna yajur veda taittiriya shaka. A student of mine asked me to translate one verse and i translated. He came back saying it was wrong and showed me Arthur Keith Berrierdale’s translation for the same. I had translated based on the pada paata, Paanini’s grammar and the shrauta tradition and closely followed sayanacharya’s translation. So see how traditional knowledge sources are thrown out.. But this person was insisting i was patriarchal and dogmatic. You were talking about “Macaulay’s Children”. I already have seen an example here.

          • Cybil Peril

            Twisted or wicked diversion…

          • Gavamayanam

            Sorry did not get you. You mean i am diverting, i assure you i am not. It is a true incident. Not sure what you mean. Can you clarify?

          • Cybil Peril

            You were talking about “Macaulay’s Children”. I already have seen an example here.

            What exactly do u mean??? Thanks. …sayanacharya’s translation, explain it please…

            Rest of it is gossiping…

          • Gavamayanam

            “Macaulay’s Children”.
            What i meant here is that instead of relying on authoritative works based on Grammar and teachers who practice the Vedic way of living, my student choose to rely on Arthur Berrierdale Keith a colonial period Indological scholar who translated the Krishna Yajur Veda, without having any idea of the nuances of Mantra shastra. Now Macualay would be proud of this won’t he because this was after his intent. To make “Indians English in taste and Indian in color”. So this is what i mean by “I already have seen an example here.”. Is this not the effect felt due to colonization?

            “sayanacharya’s translation”
            If you did not know Sayana was a a Vedic Brahmin who lived in Medieval times. He wrote commentaries on the Vedas based on the tenets of Mimamsa and it is considered t be an authoritative text. This is what traditional Vedic scholars use in their rituals and chanting. Again my student did not consider this translation great enough and choose a colonial Indologists translation.

            “Rest of it is gossiping…”
            Shows your palpable ignorance in Vedic matters. Let me explain point by point
            1. Pada paata. A mode of reciting the Veda splitting it into it’s constituent words. Very important to know it before translation
            2. Paninis rules. Surely you must know the Ashtadhyayi of panini. This book gives the know how of how words are formed, how accents affect word meanng and so on. Again needed for a proper translation. Essential for proper translation
            3. Shrauta tradition: Knowledge of how to apply Vedic mantras in rituals the code of conduct called aachara etc. Without knowing this many parts of the Veda make no sense. This is the application of mantra yoga.
            4. Sayanacharias translation: Already explained above.

            Which one is gossip as per you? All are highly technical and deep and needed for a complete translation. Hope this clarifies

      • Cybil Peril

        u can check this url for Patanjali:
        https://www.ashtangayoga.in

  • Arun

    Sexual Harassment is bad any which way. Why do you want a separate code of ethics for Yoga teachers for that ?

    • Cybil Peril

      Because Yoga per se is code of conduct in itself. This is what must be understood in first place. Those who have no idea, forget its details, are preaching or trolling here. Please respect the ethics of Yoga.

  • Rashmi Tantra

    You hit the Bull’s eye Ayush Garg. 🙂 Very well written article. More voices need to come from truth & authenticity. My pranaam.

  • Gavamayanam

    The author is right. When Yama and Niyama is practiced in the proper spirit, that by itself should help the aspirant to transcend the realm of ethics. There is a total dilution of Yamas and Niyamas. For example Tapas a Niyama is translated as self discipline. But it does actually involve physical penances, a fact left out it due to the secularization of yoga. That is why in India we had an “Adhikari Bedha” or sort of initial qualifications. If you read the Upanishads even gods like Indra had to maintain a vow of Brahmacharya to learn from Prajapati. He was not taught as soon as he came and asked. If you see Advaita Vedanta, there are some prescribed qualifications for an aspirant and a guru only takes in such candidates as proper “Adhikaris” for study. This “Free for all” approach is what screws and dilutes things up.

    Over emphasis of Asana also is one of the reasons(Slowly catching up in india too). It has become so bad in the west that one who practices other forms of yoga like mantra yoga, performing vedic sacrifces(Karma yoga) etc are not even recognized. You see instagram pictures of westerners contorting their bodies into head stands and hand stands whereas Patanjali used the word Asana in a most generic sense. Most importantly Yoga is taught divorced from the true tangible aim of a school. For example Patanjali ashtanga yoga is purely Sankhya in background. But students are never taught the sankhya darshana. Instead people simply conflate it with advaita and believed Patanjali taught it. He said in Samadhi one attains “Kaivalya” an experience were one experiences his own “Purusha only!!!” without the entrapment of the body. This is radically different from Advaita as Sankhya does not accept a universal self equivalent to the Upanishadic Brahman. Though Patanjali accepts Ishvara, it is hardly in the advaitic sense. So this kind of mindless parroting of “Getting in touch with the Universe” through ashtanga yoga is nonsense. For attaining the advaitic experience Yajnavalkya clearly mentions in the Brihadaranyaka that one should do “Shravana, manana and nididhyasana”. So one needs to understand adhikara beedha and prayojana of a school and it is important.

    So many issues at hand but I have the feeling that we are diluting yoga ourselves by again stupidly parroting “Yoga is not religion”, when it is part and parcel of Sanatana dharma. Sad

  • Ananth Sethuraman

    Thank you for this article.

    This “code of ethics” is not a satisfactory solution at all. Far better would be to teach yoga instructors that yoga students bring some psychological needs to the yoga instructor, e.g., they might be going through a crisis; they might be looking for a significant other; it is a lonely culture, so they are not keeping in touch with relatives; etc.

    Automatically all yoga instructors will know to take common sense precautions, such as meeting yoga students only in public spaces, encouraging yoga students to socialize more; etc.

    • Rama

      Yoga is not mere Asanas. First all students must be made aware of this fact.