Integrity Matters: Who is Your Yoga Teacher—Really?

This entry was posted on May 15, 2013 by Charlotte Bell.

Last week I went to a funky roadhouse called The Garage on Beck to listen to some friends who play jazz there on Thursday nights. I happened to join a table that included a friend I hadn’t seen in years. This friend is a longtime Zen practitioner of 20 years, until the center where he practiced imploded in early 2011 due to sexual impropriety on the part of its leader.

My friend told me how after 20 years of committed practice, his teacher’s lapse in integrity has soured him on the practice. He hasn’t practiced meditation since he left the center. While I might not abandon meditation because of the damaging actions of a teacher, I don’t blame him for questioning the practice. When someone with as committed and profound a practice as his teacher’s is shown to be capable of behaving in ways that are in direct conflict with the precepts all Buddhist practitioners vow to integrate into their lives, it’s easy to question the validity of the practice.

Of course, this particular teacher is not the only, or even the most recent, spiritual teacher to have slid off his pedestal. Since the Anusara implosion in February of 2012, two more high-profile teachers have been exposed—no pun intended—for unethical and exploitative behavior.

As my friend and I were bemoaning the pervasiveness of misconduct among high-profile teachers, he suddenly said, “You know, [BKS] Iyengar has never done anything like that. It’s good to know that somebody with that level of fame hasn’t wavered from his integrity.” I quickly added Thich Nhat Hanh and the Dalai Lama to that list.

Integrity Matters

I thought about my own most influential teachers, starting with BKS Iyengar. From there, I’ve gravitated to teachers who all claim Iyengar’s work as a foundation:  Pujari and Abhilasha (Never heard of them? They eschewed high-profile opportunities in favor of holding profound, high-quality retreats for groups of 10 people. Their work quietly transformed a lot of lives, including my own.). Then there are Donna Farhi, Judith Hanson Lasater, Elise Miller and the late Mary Dunn, all teachers of deep knowledge and high integrity.

Suddenly I felt more grateful than ever for my teachers. I’ve never once questioned that these teachers were behaving fairly and with everyone’s best interests in mind—not just acting out to feed their own self-aggrandizing desires. Their behaviors have never called the practice into question, as my friend’s teacher did for him. I’ve questioned the practice plenty on my own in the past 31 years, but only because it is sometimes just so difficult, not because my teachers have violated their students’ trust.

The Honor—and Responsibility—of Teaching

While a charismatic, high-profile teacher can bring a whole lot of people into yoga practice, when that same teacher’s behavior is out of integrity, he/she can also turn a whole lot of people away from practice. Famous teachers’ misdeeds damage yoga, or at least the perception of it, in a big way. Because their reach is so vast, they drag a whole lot of well-meaning and committed people down with them when they fall.

As teachers, all of us—even those with only a handful of students—have a responsibility to represent the practice we love in the light it is intended, from the framework of the yamas. I feel fortunate that I’ve managed to choose wisely in settling on the teachers whose work would most deeply influence my own. While I have no doubt that many famous, charismatic teachers—including those who have fallen—have offered a lot of useful teachings to yoga practice in general, for me, integrity matters most.

Practicing the yamas evolves over time. There are choices I made in my teaching 10 years ago that I would handle differently now. I’m certain that in another 10 years I’ll understand some of my current choices differently. That yama practice evolves over time is a positive thing. It means we’re actually thinking about the yamas and taking the practice to heart, not just simply following prescribed rules.

Have my choices of yoga teachers been conscious, subconscious or just plain lucky? Who knows? I’m just grateful that my teachers’ ways of living their yoga have inspired my faith in the practice over the years, even when my practice was impossibly difficult.

How does your yoga teacher inspire you?

About Charlotte Bell
Charlotte Bell discovered yoga in 1982 and began teaching in 1986. Charlotte is the author of Mindful Yoga, Mindful Life: A Guide for Everyday Practice and Yoga for Meditators, both published by Rodmell Press. Her third book is titled Hip-Healthy Asana: The Yoga Practitioner’s Guide to Protecting the Hips and Avoiding SI Joint Pain (Shambhala Publications). She writes a monthly column for CATALYST Magazine and serves as editor for Yoga U Online. Charlotte is a founding board member for GreenTREE Yoga, a non-profit that brings yoga to underserved populations. A lifelong musician, Charlotte plays oboe and English horn in the Salt Lake Symphony and folk sextet Red Rock Rondo, whose DVD won two Emmy awards in 2010.

10 responses to “Integrity Matters: Who is Your Yoga Teacher—Really?”

  1. Avatar Yael Calhoun says:

    Charlotte, You were my very first yoga teacher and the reason I fell in love with yoga …
    I think what the lapses in integrity of these high profile teachers offers us is an important lesson: we are all human, no one is outside of that definition, with all that brings. When teachers or leaders fail to live up to a standard, it provides us with the opportunity to reevaluate our definition of and commitment to standards of excellence in behavior. We can be reminded that while we initially choose to learn from or to follow someone, our responsibility for choice does not end there. It’s a continual process of evaluation.
    So perhaps these lapses offer us the opportunity to reaffirm one of the qualities that makes us human — choice and informed action.

    And of course, as we reevaluate our allegiance to a teacher, we can also check in with our own intentions and actions, satya.
    Thank you for a thoughtful blog, Charlotte! I continue to learn from you after 20 years! Yael

    • Avatar Charlotte Bell says:

      Thanks so much, Yael, for your insights. I agree that lapses from respected teachers serve as a reminder. I am always acutely aware of the fact that I am very much a human, muddling along, but trying very hard to make wise choices. I’m not always successful, but I do put a whole lot of energy into it!

      I think that it is easy for well-known teachers to feel that their behavior is above reproach. The pedestal is a precarious place to sit. The more people put you on a pedestal, the easier it is to begin to believe what people are saying about you. It feels good, right? But when you start to believe in the pedestal it becomes much easier to feel empowered–entitled–to act selfishly. That’s why I believe that famous yoga teachers need to be extra vigilant of their own behavior, because it’s so much easier to slide into abusing your power.

      I’m happy that this post has really made the rounds. I think it’s a conversation that needs to happen in the yoga community so that teachers can understand the potential hazards of the pedestal, but also so that students can recognize the humanity of their teachers and stop enabling inappropriate behavior.

  2. Avatar Julia McD says:

    I got lucky. It was 1994 and yoga had not yet begun its tumultuous affair with marketing. Terms like “brand” and “product line” didn’t co-mingle with “namaste”. The practice was humble, a community meeting room in a local church where the noise of other groups could be heard. Forget incense, chimes and natural flooring. I recall a shivasana with the background chorus of yiddish tunes, the smell of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and a yoga instructor gently telling us that it was all part of the practice.

    There was no snake oil. No one was promising that life was going to be bliss, that I could magically manifest any destiny I desired. Life was still going to be hard. But then those prompts- pay attention, notice, don’t force, soften your breathe. Life was still going to be hard and yoga was stealthy offering few tools to help along the way.

    Things started changing. I’d get in the car after class, turn the ignition and immediately need to turn off the radio. It was disrupting my calm. And that knot in my stomach that wouldn’t go away? I could no longer wish it away. It was telling me something, like ditch the boyfriend and accompanying unhealthy relationship. Curious stuff. Stuff that made me want to learn more, know more, practice more.

    I had an impressive backbend back in the day. It’s never helped through life’s rough patches. But once, a few years ago, I had to give birth to a dead baby. Somewhere between shock, labor pains, and the desire to be anywhere but there, another thought appeared. “Pay attention,” it said. I complied. One of my most cherished memories is the feel of my little girl, her eight pound weight against my chest. And a year later, managing constant near-panic in a second pregnancy, the backbend was also useless. Instead the wisdom, “just breathe,” got me through.

    I haven’t been to public yoga class in over a year. I roll my mat out a few times a week, mostly to work out the kinks induced from shlepping young children and too much time at a computer. I don’t have much time for meditation either. I podcast Audio Dharma on my work commutes instead. But I still practice yoga. Sometimes it’s at 3AM with a coughing febrile toddler, or maybe it’s on a harried I-91 commute in winter weather, or plucking weeds from my garden, or sipping wine on the front porch. Everything is an opportunity for practice, no? My inspiring teacher taught me that. That teacher, of course, is you, Charlotte. Thank you.

    • Avatar Charlotte Bell says:

      Wow, Julia. You just made my day, and probably my week or even my year. Thank you SO much for sharing your story. What you’ve written is what the essence of practice is about. That essence has certainly been buried underneath a whole bunch of marketing and hype, but I know it will always be there. Yoga is still Yoga if you care to find it.

      Thanks for the reminder of the off-key Hebrew chants and sandwich-making. One of my favorite distractions from back in those days was when the contestants for the Gina Bachauer piano competition would practice in the room next door. It was hard to teach–and I imagine to practice–without being swept away in the beauty of it.

      I will always treasure your presence in my classes all those years. Thank you for reaching out and helping me remember why I love teaching so much.

  3. Avatar Angela Ryals says:

    Great post, Charlotte! I’m planning to share this on a couple of the yoga FB pages I manage. Hope that’s ok.
    I’m so glad we’ve connected here on FB, my kitty loving, oboe playing, Iyengar teaching friend. Hope we get to meet in person someday soon!

    • Avatar Charlotte Bell says:

      Thanks, Angela! I would love to meet you in person someday too. We do seem to have a whole lot in common, although you forgot to mention one of the most important ones–our mutual obsession with good grammar.

  4. Avatar Pam Molen says:

    Your integrity, mindfulness, and acceptance have brought me back to yoga, not just in class but in life. The last time I regularly went to classes, it felt very competitive. After a year of attending, the teacher commented to me that when she gave the class an instruction or correction, it was almost always directed at me.
    I felt so discourged, I dropped yoga for years, then decided I’d take another chance–being drawn to your Catalyst columns. From the first lclass, I thought “this is what yoga is about and this is a teacher with integrity.”.
    Thank you for your thoughtful article and for bringing yoga back into my life.

    • Avatar Charlotte Bell says:

      Thanks, Pam. I so appreciate your calm presence in my classes. I feel that one of the main things that makes my classes special is the community of people that, after years of practice, are over being competitive about it. They set a welcoming tone for new people to join in. I’m so grateful for the little yoga community that attends my classes, and you are a part of that!

  5. Avatar Margaret Dubay Mikus says:

    My first yoga teacher from years ago put Julia McD’s comment in an email today and so I found you all. To Julia: Wonderful, real-life depth of writing. So true and honest. Moves me to tears. Just what I needed to read today as I am going through one of those times you can’t see how to manage. My mother died last summer and my youngest brother this January and others close to me. And now my dear youngest sister is struggling with stage 4 breast cancer. But to notice my inner voice, to learn what we can, to breathe as we go through each day we have…that is the perfect reminder. And writing is also an antidote to overwhelming grief. Although I have not attended yoga class in a while, I continue to practice yoga most everyday and to consciously breathe. Thanks to Bruce Symonds for bring me this healing writing. Thank you to Julia for your willing honesty–you are a healer.
    Love, Margaret

  6. Avatar Flying Yogini says:

    great post!

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