I want to dip into the subject of consent and touching in yoga classes.
For many years I experienced yoga styles or lineages from India that are authoritarian in structure. The teachers would physically adjust poses in ways that were sometimes gentle, sometimes forceful, and sometimes really intimate. There was a sense or perhaps it was communicated that the teacher was teaching in line with a guru’s style, and a guru doesn’t ask permission. A pupil or disciple in yoga is taught to surrender to the teaching to gain a benefit of what the supposedly more enlightened person knows.
Legally, according to this article from Yoga Journal online, there is implied consent for touch unless a student makes a specific request not to be touched:
…unless the student expressly tells the yoga teacher not to make physical contact, the yoga teacher generally has the student’s implied consent to touch within socially accepted limits…
~Michael H. Cohen, JD, MBA, The Ethics and Liabilities of Touch
This legal guideline lacks humanity, in the way that legal codes can. It reminds me of that aspect of rape culture thinking that includes believing that a woman wanted sex unless she is really fighting for her life or screaming. I guess what I’m outing about myself is that there were times when I was internally squirming, and telling myself at the same time to go with a physical adjustment because I thought I was supposed to, or I might benefit from the teaching.
This is similar to the way I’ve had sex with partners because I thought I was supposed to or because I was afraid to stop something that seemed to be already in motion. Assuming a woman is there to pleasure men damages women. Assuming a yoga student wants to be touched is potentially damaging, too.
It could be that some readers do not think that this sexual piece relates. But it does for me because it’s only relatively recently that I’ve started to understand there are things I can do to experience ownership of my own body. And for me this is everything. I wasn’t raised in a culture that taught me this, but somehow my instincts have led me into a place where I can start to feel this and to heal, and connect to others who are exploring this, too (Here is an article about my burlesque debut.).
When someone touches me without permission they could easily hurt me, trigger me or push me past a boundary I’m not ready to cross.
~Andrea MacDonald, With Your Permission: Yoga, Consent and Authentic Embodiment
I love the simple beauty and honesty of the above quote by Andrea MacDonald (Her whole post on consent based yoga is so awesome.). This is true. Touch can access vast tracts of information in our bodies. If someone wants it and is prepared with information and support, amazing healing work can be done. If someone is not ready for that/didn’t want it/doesn’t know what is happening then they can be harmfully reliving a trauma triggered by a touch that very likely did not have a harmful intention behind it. It’s happened to me, and to other people I know, too.
(People can also be physically harmed by yoga assists: an important concern, but this is not the aspect of touch that I’m focusing on for this article.)
I’m interested in cultivating an atmosphere in my classes that can support the kind of healing I really believe in. Important aspects of this are the concepts of consent, self-determination and respect.
I offer years of consistent training and practice in yoga (and teaching) in my teaching, and I believe that yoga technique is extremely beneficial for people’s bodies. I also believe that how teachers regard students in classes is extremely important, too.
In my classes I give students the choice to opt out of touch that day, if they would prefer. It’s an honor to me when a yoga student takes this option because there have been times when I wish I had had that choice, or when I was criticized for refusing an adjustment, or I just didn’t feel that I had a choice in the matter. So I’m glad if someone chooses that for them self at any point in class. It gives people more flexibility in choosing what kind of experience they would like to have in class on a given day. They can determine certain aspects for themselves.
Also when I am close to an individual in class (who has not already opted out of being touched), I will usually ask them if it is okay to assist their yoga with my hands to move the body in a certain way to try to help them connect with the pose in a deeper way and build awareness, or to be safer. When someone says “yes” or “yes please(!)” and smiles, I know that I have their permission or consent to proceed. If I see that someone stops breathing when I get close to their yoga mat, then I will probably just try another verbal cue, perhaps a demo with my body, or move on so they can have the space to be more comfortable.
I find it respectful to allow people their space in yoga class to experience themselves in a way that is encouraged rather than coerced. And I know that a lot of people appreciate my hands on them, so I have built-up confidence there, but I don’t want to assume that everybody wants that all of the time.
And I want to share that I have received so much benefit from physical adjustments or assists in yoga, so I do think it is an important tool in teaching when it is used with respect and care for the person receiving the assist.
I also feel that offering the concept of consent and even using the word “consent” in class can be helpful. Right now it seems like the eyes of our culture are opening on this subject, and yoga teachers can help by teaching about it in class. It is a safe place where we are relating closely with other bodies. It is so empowering to discover that you can say no and yes to being touched if someone (like me) didn’t get the chance to learn it growing up. This is a big healing opportunity.
As people start or continue the journey to determine their selves, from taking responsibility for their wellness and safety in yoga class, I believe that this offers a metaphor and vast potential for healing and self-pride beyond the yoga room.