Like most yoga students, I started out interested in just the physical practice of hatha yoga: poses and maybe some breathing. After a few years of study, it became apparent to me that an enormous part of yoga was ethical and behavioral in nature. My teachers taught me the yamas and niyamas of Patanjali's classical yoga, and although I wasn't always sure how they applied to my life, they made it very clear that a substantial part of this “yoga thing” had more to do with society and healthy relationships than making gymnastic shapes.
In the subsequent years, ethics and morality seem to come up less and less in the classroom, and in post-class conversation. I expect this has to do with the casual relationship most students have with their drop-in class teacher; we are neither expected nor wanted to provide counsel in this way. Forcing the issue is too imposing, and can even turn the student away from the practice in general. Most adults don't want a lecture on right and wrong, especially from somebody they have just met, so most teachers simply stay silent on the subject.
In the absence of guidance, students will make their own meaning, and the practice of yoga will be as significant or insignificant as the student wishes. I do want profound freedom for everybody, but I also miss the peerless idealism of the yamas and niyamas, and feel a separation in modern yoga from the closely held values of consideration, patience, and compassion.
If “we are the meaning makers” [Lee Lozowick via Christina Sell], I want to create a significant meaning for my practice. I want it to stand for the best of humankind, even though I often fall short of this mark. I want to make a meaning that incorporates the central values I learned years ago, of being greedless, contented and disciplined. Most of all, I want to return to the part of yoga that is not practiced in solitude, but instead refers to the way we treat one another.