I am by no means an expert in yogic philosophy or much of a student, for that matter, but in studying to become a yoga teacher, I have found that the best way to understand a subject is to apply it to my own life. I am a Licensed Massage Therapist practicing CranioSacral Therapy and clinical massage therapy in Austin, Texas. Professional ethics is a subject that is very important to me as I feel that in order for the community at large to respect the modalities that we practice we have a huge responsibility to maintain high ethical standards in our field. Bodyworkers (and yoga teachers, too) are often perceived as being flakey, spacey and unprofessional, which undermines our profession as a whole. In order to continue to gain legitimacy, we need to focus on taking care of our clients to the best of our ability, while maintaining our own boundaries and honoring ourselves. In beginning my studies of the Yoga Sutra, I started to think how I could apply these ancient teachings to my contemporary massage therapy practice.
The Yoga Sutras, a text written by Patanjali, around 400-200 BCE is often described as the guidebook for hatha yoga. The Yoga Sutras is said to be compiled from previous texts as well as from Patanjali’s own experiences. In this text, Patanjali has listed an 8-limbed path toward enlightenment. The first limb, Yamas, refers to ways to live or ethics. My intention is to describe the 5 Yamas in relation to the business of massage therapy.
The first Yama, meaning the most important one is Ahimsa. Ahimsa means non-harming. Medical students are taught a similar phrase in: Primum non nocere, translated to mean “first do no harm”. Our first responsibility to our clients is not to harm them. Work within your scope of practice, refer clients to other practitioners if necessary, learn contraindications, ask questions, do research, don’t promise outcomes, etc.
Sometimes we are focusing so much on our own clients that we forget to apply Ahimsa to ourselves. Take care of yourself by using proper body mechanics, getting plenty of exercise, rest and proper nutrition. Be sure to take care of your own body by getting the work that you need. I keep asking myself, “how can I expect my clients to come back and see me regularly, if I am not willing to take the time and spend the money to do so myself?” If you don’t practice Ahimsa toward yourself, you won’t be able to take care of your clients properly.
The second Yama is Satya, roughly translated to truth or honesty. Apply Satya towards your clients by being honest about your abilities and skills. Know your limitations, both professionally and personally. When working with a new client with a seemingly familiar ailment, it is easy to fall back on your past experiences with the ailment and treat them instinctively without really making sure that this is the best course of action for this client. By all means use your knowledge and experience, but be honest with yourself why you are treating them in the way that you are.
Next is Asteya, which is translated as non-stealing, but can also be interpreted as maintaining boundaries. As a bodyworker you are well aware of the importance of boundaries in your work. Maintaining energetic boundaries is imperative for your own health and safety. Keep clear boundaries with your clients regarding what is appropriate in your practice. Don’t tolerate perpetually late clients or clients who constantly cancel at the last minute. Create clear guidelines for your business and enforce them. For example, if you have a 24-hour cancellation policy, make sure that your clients know about it and enforce it.
I also interpret Asteya as not taking the power away from your clients. I mean, allow the client to make his or her own decisions. If they want to see another therapist, that is what is right for them at that time. Who knows maybe they will be back, maybe they wont. That goes for any homework you give your client. It is your job to offer information to your client. What they chose to do with it is their own path. Don’t get frustrated with clients who refuse to do the stretch you gave them, or the ones who chose surgery for something you think doesn’t require it. Remember, you are there to support them, don’t take their choices away.
Bramacharya is the fourth Yama and is translated as moderate use of sexual energy. Obviously, sexuality is a hot button topic for bodyworkers. How many times have you heard someone make a sexual joke about the massage therapy profession? As you well know, be careful and professional about sexuality in the treatment room. I, however, also interpret Bramacharya as energy moderation and conservation. Use proper body mechanics to apply the least amount energy for maximum results. Don’t give your clients your own energy and do what you need to conserve and replenish yourself after working with your clients. You can’t treat others effectively when you are depleted yourself.
The final Yama is Aparigraha or non-grasping. Aparigraha is often discussed as being the opposite of greed. In relation to bodywork, I like to think of Aparigraha as letting go of assumptions I have of my clients and maintaining neutrality in the treatment room. Assumptions about a client’s injury or illness can lead to ineffectual treatment, and judgments about their lifestyle or personality is not fair, nor is it your place as a therapist. Maintaining neutrality in the treatment room is very difficult since we all want our client’s to get better and recommend our services. I have found that the less I know about a client, the better my session is for them. This is why treating your own spouse or family member is incredibly difficult; it is nearly impossible to be neutral with someone you care about. Take a moment before laying your hands on your client to center and ground yourself and then remember to listen. Listen to what the client says and then listen to what their body is telling you. What you hear might be completely different from what you assumed.
The topic of ethics is interesting and important to me in my practice since adhering to these 5 Yamas challenges me every day. I have found that my best sessions and the best results for the client come when I am true to the Yamas. Usually after such an experience my confidence builds, ego takes over and I begin to lose sight of my own guidelines. That’s when I know it is time to once again remember and apply the Yamas.