Integrity Matters: Who is Your Yoga Teacher—Really?

This entry was posted on May 15, 2013 by Charlotte Bell.
Integrity Matters:  Who is Your Yoga Teacher—Really?

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.