How 5 Teachers Let Yoga's Ethics Guide Their Practice And Their Lives

The Yamas And Niyamas

This spring, YogaCity NYC held a Deeper Learning panel discussion on the yamas and niyamas of Patanjali's Yoga Sutras. During the talk, it came up that this system is rarely discussed in yoga classes. YogaCity NYC's Alex Phelan sat down with five New York City teachers to discuss how they use this system of ethics in the lives, relationships and teachings.Last month, YogaCity NYC held a panel discussion on the yamas and niyamas of Patanjali's Yoga Sutras.

Wendy Newton is an ISHTA teacher trainer and co-founder of The Table, a collaborative space for art and yoga, in Brooklyn. Nancy Preston is an Iyengar teacher who teaches in northern Manhattan. Sarah Capua began her training at Laughing Lotus and now studies in the Desikachar lineage. Rebecca Soule studied and now teaches at ISHTA. Nadiya Nottingham is an Integral teacher, in addition to being trained in shamanic healing and chi gong.

Alex Phelan: Why is it important to think and talk about the yamas and niyamas?

Sarah Capua: The importance of the yama and niyama are really connected to the role of teacher. All of this philosophy is just made up by someone, not ordained by god – so it's not that it's the rule of the universe, it's a guide. But the whole purpose of it being a guide is that it encourages you to look at yourself - the yamas and niyamas especially. If they are consistently in your mind, you are consciously looking at your actions and your relationships to others. When a teacher feels like they are beyond all this, done with the yama and niyama, that's when bad things happen. If it was taught consistently in connection to our role as teacher and responsibility to our students, it might help alleviate some of the scandals that the yoga world has seen recently.

Rebecca Soule: For me the yama and niyama is a very simple set of guidelines to live your life in a way that makes it easeful. And when you can come from that place hopefully it will make the world, planet, community, your friends more easeful as well.

Nadiya Nottingham: If you are not bringing in some teaching then yoga is exercise. Not that there's anything wrong with that. Yoga has really helped me to change my life completely. I was a heavy smoker, I came from a family where we had alcoholism. I needed something to really change my life and I did not find that in any gym class or exercise class, I found that in my yoga class. It gives you a foundation and template of how to live. They are not commandments, they are a fundamental way of living a good life and treating other people with compassion and kindness.

Nancy Preston: I remember Ramanand Patel saying “if you hurt yourself, it's not yoga.” because as soon as you start against ahimsa, no matter how beautiful that pose might look or what you think you are achieving, or how long you can practice, its not yoga if you are hurting yourself.

Wendy Newton: In tantra there is a macrocosm and a microcosm, a perspective from the avidya place and then there is the transcendent samadhi place. So for somebody who is stuck in maya or the stuff of life, you see it as a sequential practice because you can't just go to pratyahara or concentration. So you do what you can do which is you can move your body, you can breathe. So start there and the yamas and niyamas may come. But then from the macrocosmic place, where everything isn't really a timeline, all of the practices work together. Ideally you are doing them all intermingled with each other. In that context, I've really started to take on teaching and practicing with the yamas and niyamas in mind.

Alex Phelan: How do you use them in your practice?

Wendy Newton: By trying to get more of a sense beyond the physical one word or one line things that people say and sometimes don't make sense to us - how can we take it a little further and open it up? I meditate on it rather than trying to think about it. I write or journal about it. I try to bring them in as a basis for practice of the asana, a starting point. So it is very encompassing in my practice at the moment.

Nancy Preston: The first thing is ahimsa, do no harm. In my practice I'm always going back into self-study and asking “what am I doing? What am I avoiding? Why am I avoiding it?” The practice changes a great deal as you age. I've been practicing 20 plus years, so I have to constantly let my ego go and see am I pushing just because I want to be able to physically do the pose the same way I was always able to. It's also how I try to live my life.

Rebecca Soule: My personal practice is being truthful and steady with the practice. I'm not just teaching what I'm telling people to do, I'm practicing it as well. So walking through life, if I maintain purity of mind, I can make a simple purchase and not take a plastic bag because that bag would maybe end up in the trash or harm the planet in some way.

Nadiya Nottingham: When we talk about ahimsa, non-violence is not just about killing or doing physical harm, but we can be so harsh on ourselves. I start every morning of my personal practice with an intention of compassion for myself, because I am this very humble human being who's made so many mistakes. From the path of shamanism, I take my sense of connection to nature. If we really connect in the deepest way to the earth, to the fact that our bones are made of minerals, our blood is almost the same chemistry as the oceans, our breath is the air, then we connect to each other in a way that is about the natural flow of our lives.

Sarah Capua: The philosophy in general is a guide for whatever I need to move towards in my life through my practice. In my training there was a strong physical element, but I would say equal, if not more, attention was paid to the philosophy. I have an experience in my practice and then I go back to the philosophy and the foundation for dealing with the things that I find in my personal practice is in the philosophy. And the yamas and niyamas are a key part of that.

Alex Phelan: How do you bring them into your teaching?

Nancy Preston: What is quite beautiful is that on the physical plane - in the asana - it is a very safe place to make these things real. So they are not these platitudes. Ahimsa becomes, I'm not going to hyper-extend my knee in uttanasana. Asteya is that I'm going to balance both knees and the whole body is involved, so I'm not stealing.

Rebecca Soule: First you practice it in your own living, then you see the benefits of it in your own life and you want to help bring it to students who aren't necessarily from your same background, religious approach or whatever. Either way the same rules apply, be kind to your neighbor, don't steal from your neighbor, don't harm yourself. I like to teach it less esoterically. So I'll use a focus and concentration on an object, And then eventually, through that process on the mat, you take that process off the mat.

Sarah Capua: My classes are very simple, and the purpose of the postures is not just to fix physical stuff to help you be more healthy, but also to help you get to a certain level of awareness. I think even just straight physical practice can really serve in preparing people for the philosophy, which is I think what the original timeline was. First you deal with the body and then you start to deal with more and more subtle things. My goal is to let people have an experience with themselves that feels connected to the spirit of whatever these concepts are. Even if those concepts are never actually introduced in the asana practice, it is preparing you for that looking inward, when the student is ready. Let people have an experience of being kind to yourself and within that recognizing that that can be extended to everyone in your life.

Nadiya Nottingham: I use a style of teaching that's very poetic. I ask my students to connect to the bones as the rock and to feel that sense of standing and real steadiness. And to bring that steadiness of the earth itself into tadasana, into your warrior pose, whatever poses we are practicing. I think it's important to reinforce to one's students that nothing that we are saying is written in stone. Take what works best for you.

Wendy Newton: I really teach the philosophy in my asana classes as well as in lectures. I consider it not just a really important part of the practice but actually the practice, of which asana is a part.

Alex Phelan: Why do you think that the yamas and niyamas aren't taught or are less emphasized than asana?

Nadiya Nottingham: I don't know why it is, but I feel that yoga has gotten away from the core teachings. I think its like what happens with many things, it's become diluted, it's being taught in gyms and health clubs and there's all kinds of different types of yoga that are not really yoga, but more like exercise. I'm not devaluing that, because I think if you are doing yoga in some way, that's a good thing. I feel that people perhaps are afraid of the yamas and niyamas because they don't want to feel like they are preaching anything.

Rebecca Soule: My experience has been that I've been very fortunate because my teachers have always incorporated the yama and niyama into the asana practice. I think one of the things that happens in a lot of yoga classes is that people are coming to the yoga for the physical benefits and there is always a fear for teachers that they need students, so they just keep giving them a workout.

Nancy Preston: These principles are the ones that my mother taught me - they are universal. There is the honesty of “are my feet lined up properly” and then there's the honesty of have you ever taken home a pen from work, which also gets into asteya. Even these little things that we do start to break us up because we do know in our hearts whether these things are right or wrong. But people have to be ready to face those things, those are the hard things. Sometimes presenting them in this way can turn people off, but they are not so far from us. And it is always about what degree you want to take the practice of something like honesty.

Sarah Capua: I have this sense that ethics is a really big challenge for the yoga community. That it's a gossipy thing to talk about ethics, but there's not that much actual action to address it. It's so important to at least have the discussion about what your relationship should be to your students. And it's OK if people have different answers, people should make their own decisions, but if that conversation isn't even presented then you are not only doing a disservice to the students in front of you, but also the entire community of yoga in America. Every teacher should train students to ask themselves the question: “how do I feel about how teachers should relate to students? What is their personal relationship?” and at least answer that for themselves and be clear. Because when it's roundabout and there are all these other esoteric explanations for a very clear question, things get very blurry and a lot of knowledge becomes power. But at the very least the question should be asked and should be on the mind of every studio owner and every teacher who teaches teacher training.

Wendy Newton: I think that newer teachers would have a harder time. I see a lot in my trainees that they are searching around for ways to do it. It has taken me a long time to get to the place where I can gauge the energy of the class and still give some conceptual background without getting completely stuck in my head or my words.

- The teacher's photos appear in the order that they were first introduced in the story.

- Alex Phelan teaches anatomically influenced and alignment conscious yoga in New York City.

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