Oneika Mays is a member of the Governing Council for Consequential Ethics. She teaches meditation full-time at Riker’s Island in New York City, and has been teaching yoga for over a decade.
By Lisette Cheresson
What makes yoga ethical? As our community faces the fallout from the widely-publicized exploitative behavior of several senior teachers—Yogi Bhajan, Kausthub Desikachar, K. Pattabhi Jois, Bikram Choudhury, and John Friend among them—there has been new and renewed conversation about how to ensure that student–teacher relationships remain safe and honorable. But yoga ethics extend beyond the horror of sexual abuse. According to Yoga Unify Governing Council on Consequential Ethics councilor Oneika Mays, ethical yoga is “a space where people are allowed to explore themselves in a practice, in ways that feel supportive for them, and with teachers who support that exploration.”
Feeling supported in practice of course means that teachers are committed to non-harming — that they not perpetuate behaviors such as those which have recently come to light. But Mays says it’s more than that. It’s also about ensuring that traditional social and power dynamics have no place in the studio. It’s about ensuring accessibility for all, and creating a culture of self-responsibility and determination.
“When you talk about something being ethical,” says Mays, “you have to talk about integrity, and people being accountable to themselves. If you’re showing up for yourself, then you’re going to be a strong, solid student or teacher showing up in an honest way. And that doesn’t mean that you won’t, you know, screw up. That’s a part of it.”
How Yoga Unify is Changing the Game
Yoga Unify is an organization being built by the yoga community, to serve the yoga community. Its participatory creation and evolving purpose sets it apart from any other organization, and speaks to its mission.
For Mays, the mission of Yoga Unify is to create an organization that embraces yoga, and that helps make yoga more equitable, accountable, and accessible. One of the major ways that the Governing Council on Consequential Ethics is working toward this is to reconsider what it means to be a yoga student — and how to talk about yoga. It’s a path of lifelong studentship, not a simple box to check or a certificate to hang on the wall.
But why hasn’t this been addressed yet? The world and the yoga community aren’t separate, Mays points out. She thinks that the world just wasn’t ready for an organization like Yoga Unify. “There is a shift happening in the world, a shift in the way we see each other,” she says. “When shifts happen, all sorts of facets of society begin to change.” The time was simply right for Yoga Unify — and its mission — to hit the scene.
Creating an Ethical Student–Teacher Relationship
The other crucial — and more difficult — part of creating an ethical yoga culture does, of course, regard student–teacher relationships. “I think power dynamics in this community are very problematic,” says Mays. “We talk a lot about the guru–student relationship, that comes from a tradition that’s millennia old. I don’t think here, in the West, we have any real business messing with it, because it’s not in our DNA. It’s not part of who we are.”
Mays believes that this appropriation of emphasis on a guru may be the reason that abusive relationships arise. “If you don’t know the answer but you start to pretend that you do because that’s the way you were taught, because that’s the validation of being a teacher, it becomes all of this ego rather than understanding that ‘I’m here to serve,’” she says. “Serving means listening more. Some of the best teachers I’ve ever had didn’t do a whole lot of talking.” Listening is essential to create a space that’s supportive of everyone, to meet people where they are.
Yoga Unify is an apt organization to help cultivate these kinds of teachers, says Mays, because, again, it’s a bottom-up organization made up of community members. “People who are on the Councils and Boards are constantly making sure that they’re showing up with honesty and integrity, and are brave enough to perhaps even call out their peers,” says Mays.
Mutual accountability is a key effort of Yoga Unify, in that all teachers should be held accountable not only to their students, but to each other. It’s one way to steward the forward evolution of the practice in a way that’s more equitable and accessible for all.
Owning Your Mistakes
As a queer Black woman, Mays says that when she first started teaching, forcefully guiding her students, as in adjustments, felt uncomfortable for its unfamiliarity. She now realizes that neither she nor any teacher has license to “dominate” students. She had to surrender the ego that had arisen with this unfamiliar power in order to recalibrate back to behavior consistent with yogic principles.
“When I was specifically working on ‘fixing’ people in a pose…. It was about perfectionism, and it was about me wanting to say that I helped that student. It wasn’t about them achieving something deeper,” says Mays.
To be an ethical teacher, she says, is to be able to “really own the cringy parts of when we first start teaching, and to recognize how we’ve evolved.” Mays says a good check is for teachers to constantly ask themselves, ‘Is this helping or hurting?’ and if the answer isn’t immediately obvious, to “stop and really think about what you’re doing.”
That’s not to say that the Governing Council on Consequential Ethics in any way supports shaming teachers for mistakes. “If there’s a teacher struggling and we figure out what this process looks like, [it’s important] that it’s not punitive, but it’s restorative and transformative; where a teacher maybe who did cause harm isn’t seen as a pariah,” says Mays. “That has to be a part of the equation. And that’s where I think the Governing Council becomes really important—to power how that looks.”
Overall, Mays admits that Yoga Unify has significant work to do to figure out how to implement these ideas. “It’s a new frontier, so there’s a lot to talk about, and it may not be perfect at first. But,” says Mays, “I would be hesitant to participate if it did, to be perfectly honest with you. If somebody had it all figured out, I wouldn’t be interested.”
To join Mays in the Founding Circle and share your concerns, ideas, and solutions with the Governing Council for Consequential Ethics, click here.