Practicing the Yamas and Niyamas in the Teacher-Student Relationship
Historically, the teachings of yoga have been passed down from guru to disciple. Both parties would consider carefully whether to enter into the relationship, because it was a significant commitment of time and energy over many years. In our Western version of modern yoga, however, students often practice with numerous teachers, and their commitment may last only for the length of the class. Our teacher trainings mostly focus on leading safe asana practices, but, because of the mind-body-spirit connection that yoga creates, teachers can be expected to be guides beyond the physical. Add in the availability and exposure of social media, and an already-complicated relationship can become more nebulous. It can be difficult for both teachers and students to find their footing in the gray areas that result, and impossible to set hard and fast rules. What better to steer us than “yoga’s ethical guidelines”: the Yamas and the Niyamas?
The Yamas and the Niyamas are the first two of the eight limbs of yoga. Put simply, the Yamas are restraints to guide our behavior in our relationships (including our relationship with ourselves), and the Niyamas are personal observances or practices. All of them can be interpreted to help direct the teacher-student relationship, whether you are the teacher or the student.
Obviously, no one seeks to bring outright violence into the teacher-student relationship. But practicing nonviolence can be more subtle – for the teacher, it means administering hands-on adjustments carefully and using neutral, non-triggering language. For the student, it can be shedding hostility when they enter the classroom, so that they might embrace what their teacher offers with gentle open-mindedness.
It is important that teachers present an authentic face to their students. I remind my apprentices, “We are not doctors, we are not therapists,” and that it’s important to admit when you don’t have all the answers. Students likewise need to be honest with their teachers and themselves about where their practice is that day, so that their teachers can help keep them safe.
In the classroom one thing that can be stolen is time and energy. As a teacher, it’s important to start and finish class on time, and as a student, to be mindful that when a teacher takes time to answer questions outside of class or by email, they are not being compensated for that time and energy.
Brahmacharya (Energy Moderation)
There can be an intense exchange of energy between teachers and students. Teachers have to manage their energy to avoid becoming exhausted by constant output, and students must likewise hold their own space, learning over time to tune into and moderate themselves in their practice in addition to relying on their teacher.
Teachers may at times become wrapped up in a student “achieving” a certain pose, which can risk physical injury and emotional distress. Students can likewise have expectations on their teacher, and can be frustrated if a class does not immediately fulfill their desires. Both should remember that the job of the teacher is to give the students what they need, not what they want.
Cleanliness in this case is not only literal. Bringing a sense of purity into the teacher-student relationship means respecting the essential distance, and keeping a mutual respect in touch and words.
A complement to Aparigraha, Santosha is not a simple state of happiness that arises spontaneously. It is nurtured consciously with gratitude: for your practice, for your students (or fellow students), for your teachers. By appreciating our gifts and our challenges for the growth they both stimulate, we can practice contentment.
Tapas (Right Effort)
Also translating as “self-discipline”, Tapas is a fire that burns away impurities. The asana practice is an obvious place to practice this discipline physically, but cultivating Tapas means tolerating things that are difficult for you and continuing to stay the course. Discomfort can lead to growth, while complacency may bring stagnation. Both student and teacher can inspire each other to stay focused, and magic happens when both meet in this purifying fire.
We all can benefit from taking a look inward, to study our patterns and how we react to certain people or poses. Both students and teachers can feel triggered by each other, and usually it has very little to do with the person in front of them and more to do with an experience in their past. Any negative reaction can be an opportunity to study ourselves and operate with more consciousness.
Ishvara Pranidhana (Dedication to the Highest)
Although this is often translated as surrender to a divine power, it also means aligning yourself with your highest values. Although a teacher leads in the classroom, we are all on the same path, a personal one of progress. Remember to check in with your highest values and allow them to guide your actions, moderate your reactions, and inspire your practice.
The teacher-student relationship can be one of the most profound containers for transformation and growth. In its best forms, it is ever changing, challenging, and safe. When you feel uncertain in yours, either as teacher or student, see if you can find support and guidance in the Yamas and Niyamas.
Lainie Devina is a highly-regarded yoga teacher as well as both a lead Teacher Trainer and Mentor in the YogaWorks professional program. She is a Business of Yoga Coach and leads workshops and international retreats. Lainie’s public classes are rooted in detailing and building the foundation of each pose. No matter the experience of the practitioner or the class level itself, Lainie passionately motivates her students to build flexibility, strength and endurance, all while maintaining the integrity of each student’s individual needs. Instagram: lainiedevina