We all have choices to make in our lives about how we treat others as people but, if you follow the path of yoga as defined by Patajali in his Yoga Sutras, the first step is to cause no harm to others (in words, actions, speech, thought). This comes before how you take care of yourself or practice poses, breathing and meditation.
These ethical rules are the yamas (right living) and include: ahimsa (अहिंसा) – nonviolence or non-harming; satya (सत्य) – truthfulness; asteya (अस्तेय) – non-stealing; bramacharya (ब्रह्मचर्य) – sexual restraint; and aparigraha (अपरिग्रहः) – non-avarice. In every teacher training I’ve done, these ethical codes have been presented, dissected, and debated, particularly how it relates to teachers’ actions with their students. In our teacher training program, I also discuss the role that any business which offers yoga and meditation has in maintaining a code of conduct, including a serious and thorough investigation of all issues raised by staff (including teachers and interns) or students about questionable conduct.
Further, we include in every manual the Ethical Guidelines for Yoga Teachers written by Georg Feuerstein (with permission from his widow). Every trainee has to sign this, as does every one of our teachers. I advise my trainees that even if they have the tiniest doubt about whether an action or statement feels inappropriate, they should bring it to the attention of those in charge and not let it rest.
This hasn’t always been the case – unfortunately there are numerous examples of yoga teachers and gurus behaving badly. But I disagree with Sarah Herrington’s view in todays New York Times Op Ed piece that few yoga teachers know these ethical guidelines exist and only seek them out when there is trouble. There are numerous teachers out there who see their teaching as service and seek to help and support each and every student in the spirit of “Lokah Samastah Sukhino Bhavantu” (may all beings everyone be happy and free and may the thoughts, words and actions of my own life contribute in some way to the happiness and freedom for all).