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Knowledge in the balance



Judy Ophel is an Iyengar yoga teacher in training being mentored by Deborah Lomond and Karin Rensfelt.  Judy is a retired medical doctor who lives in Goose Bay, Labrador.  She is currently working her way towards her first teacher assessment. As part of this preparation, Judy was required to undertake an assignment related to ethics in the teaching of yoga.  Her paper is presented below. Her mentors, Deborah and Karin, appreciated the honesty and struggle within the paper of coming to terms with yoga knowledge versus medical knowledge.  


Requirement: Review the Code of Ethics and pick one area to describe its relevance to you as you begin to teach Iyengar yoga.

The Code of Ethics is based on the first two stages of yoga, namely the Yamas and Niyamas. Considering this, I reviewed the Yamas and Niyamas and in particular the ones which are associated with the area that I have chosen to look at more closely.

The Yamas are universal moral commandments applied to the way that we should treat others. They are as follows:

Ahimsa (nonviolence)
Satya (truthfulness)
Brahmacharya (continence)
Aparigraha (noncoveting)

The Niyamas are rules of conduct for the individual and are as follows:

Saucha (purity)
Santosa (contentment)
Tapas (ardour)
Svadhyaya (study of self)
Isvara (dedication to the Lord)

The area which I wanted to further explore was Professional Ethics 2.4. This is based on Aparigraha and states: “Teachers and students should clearly distinguish Iyengar work from any related/associated/compatible discipline they may draw on, such as anatomy, physiology or philosophy”.

This is relevant to me as an Iyengar yoga practitioner and teacher but also a physician. B.K.S. Iyengar makes claims about the benefits of certain asanas which may or may not be true but lack evidence and may in fact be difficult to prove. That is not to say they are wrong but that there is no evidence to support them and in some cases do not make sense physiologically to me.

I reflected on Aparigraha and how this applies to my dilemma. I think of Aparigraha as nonattachment and perhaps this suggests that I could loosen my attachment to my medical knowledge to make room for the possibility that some of these benefits may in fact occur.

An example is the stated benefits of Sirsasana:

B.K.S. Iyengar states in Light on Yoga that Sirsasana is the “king of all asanas”. He states that regular practice of Sirsasana makes “healthy pure blood flow through the brain cells” and that it ensures a “proper blood supply to the pituitary and pineal glands of the brain”. While this seems to follow from inverting the body, it does not make physiological sense to me.

On the other hand, he states that it is not a good idea to start Sarvangasana or Sirsasana when one suffers from high or low blood pressure and this makes sense.

Janu Sirsasana is said to “tone the liver and spleen” and thereby “aids digestion”. It is said to “tone and activate the kidneys’. These claims seem difficult to prove to me.

Ardha Navasana and Paripurna Navasana are said to “work on the liver, gallbladder and spleen” and be “effective to the intestines” respectively. Also I feel difficult to prove. He does state however that coupled with spinal twists they “strengthen the back”: this makes sense to me.

One thing that is important to me is to “do no harm”. This is a main principle embodied by the Hippocratic Oath which all physicians take at the beginning of their training and I think it applies well to Iyengar yoga teachers too. It is essentially Ahimsa. While these some of these claims may or may not be based in evidence, they are unlikely to do harm so allowing for the possibility of these benefits occurring is unlikely to be harmful.

I am comfortable in saying that a pose is “said to” provide certain benefits but not to state that it is factual.

The second area of the Code of Ethics which I found interesting and relevant was 2.5, based on Ahimsa. It states “not to be publicly critical of another Iyengar yoga teacher’s character or of other systems of yoga”. This is an easy trap to fall into. In the past, I have found myself describing Iyengar yoga as “real” yoga. This is a fault of pride and egoism. Over time I have worked to describe Iyengar yoga to people on its own without comparing it to other systems of yoga.

This was a useful exercise in reviewing the Code of Ethics and reflecting on areas which may cause me difficulty. The Code of Ethics is referred to frequently in the rules and responsibilities which govern teacher trainees as they begin to teach.

The sources used in this assignment were:

Light on Yoga by B.K.S. Iyengar
Yoga A Gem for Women by Geeta Iyengar
The Tree of Yoga by B.K.S. Iyengar


Submitted by Judy Ophel January 26, 2022


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