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This week we have a piece on consent in yoga classes, written by our very own frolicnaked! Tori / frolicnaked is a long time yoga student, high school teacher, and VP SSM. She blogs about yoga and other things over at Anytime Yoga.
"Did you sign one of the new waivers?"
"No. Do I need to?"
My yoga instructor had moved studios, and after a bit of flailing at other studios around town, I'd followed -- at least for my group class wants. Unfortunately, the old paperwork remained at the old studio.
My teacher shrugged. "I mean, just for liability purposes."
"Sure." I reached for a pen. "I mean, we both know that you're not going to ask me to do anything that's not good for me."
"And even if I do that accidentally, you're going to say no, and that's that."
At this point, I've been practicing with my current teacher for something like five years. We've built up a lot of mutual trust and respect over time.
However, the key words there are "built up." As in, respect and trust are qualities we have actively worked to establish and still actively work to sustain and deepen. A lot of that came through continued communication, which in turn came with a lot of trial and error. In addition to classes and workshops she led, we also took a number of workshops together where we were both students. In those especially, she's heard me speak about a practice that, as a student, I find deeply troubling.
I'm not sure if this is the case for other physical activities where form can be important -- and to be fair, is often important for the sake of safety rather than solely for ideas about "correctness" -- but I've known it to be reasonably common for yoga teachers to offer hands on adjustments to students. Some use this frequency as a preferred method of instruction, some do it occasionally for certain asanas or issues, some rarely if ever employ these adjustments. All in all, though, I've come to expect the possibility of hands on adjustments in every yoga class I attend. Moreover, because there is so much variation in how teachers approach this, it is difficult for me as a student to anticipate how best to respond to make my needs and boundaries known.
In fourteen years of practice, I have only ever been creepily "assisted" in yoga class one time. Well, twice -- but by the same instructor in the same class. So I sort of lump the whole class as a single experience in my mind.
It was a class in a commercial gym rather than a college or community center or yoga studio. The instructor presented as male. I cannot explain it well now -- maybe because it was only 90 minutes out of my 32 years of existence -- but something about this class struck me as Not the Same. Nothing discernible as a red flag but perhaps some subtler hints that this was not going to be the same kind of safer space I'd come to appreciate in the yoga classes I frequented. An emphasis on the "power" in the class description of Power Flow, repeated references to words like "sculpt" and "burn." An unstated assumption that bodies should conform to asana instead of poses conforming to people.
And a triangle pose.
One hands on.
I won't call it an adjustment. I will not dignify it with the term.
But a hand -- a couple of fingertips, maybe -- tracing first along the side of my hip, then following the curvature of my butt. And on the other side. Not rotating my shoulders open, but a hand along the front of my chest -- my breasts.
I shuddered and did not go back.
Don't get me wrong. I completely appreciate why some yoga teachers perform hands on adjustments.
In some cases, they serve to prevent an emergency or other imminent injury. For purposes of this post, I'm going to posit that these are a categorically separate set of circumstances. (Like, if you think I'm going to snap my neck in headstand, I'd probably spot first and ask questions later too.)
When a student is having particularly complicated or frustrating troubles with a posture, sometimes telling or even showing are not the most efficient means to the end. As a student of yoga myself, I get it. There is no substitute for muscle memory. Sometimes telling is not enough, showing is not enough. Sometimes feeling it my body is the only way to get through to me.
And I'm sure this is not only true for exceptional issues in postures. Even with common frustrations, I expect there are some students who need that physical guidance into balance in a posture. I expect there are some yoga teachers -- perhaps a significant portion, judging from the various teachers of forms of physical activity I've encountered in my lifetime -- for whom hands on adjustment is the most natural method of communicating the point.
As a teacher myself -- though mostly not of yoga or of physical activity -- it is not my intention advocate limiting channels to reach students. But as a teacher myself, I also grasp that the right methods for teaching are the ones that work for my students.
Years ago, at my regular studio but without my regular teacher, the class was in side angle pose. I'm knowledgeable about and familiar with this pose. I'm comfortable here. The way I perform it is therapeutic for my body and mind.
Except my bottom hand placement is not quite textbook, for whatever modern yoga texts even mention bottom hand placement in this pose. My instructor notices and gasps.
“Not like that,” she says, softly enough that the rest of the class can't hear. “You’re going to torque your wrist out of joint.”
Then she lifts my wrist and rotates it so that my fingers face the way she thinks they should face.
Except -- hey, this actually hurts me.
She smiles and goes to help someone else. I wait for her to leave.
As a person with chronic pain, it is important that teachers respect my right not to be touched. Sometimes, the part they're wanting to touch -- even for a well intentioned, educational, or would-be therapeutic adjustment -- is the part directly in pain, the part that cannot bear any more direct stimulation at this point. Sometimes, the part they're wanting to adjust is the part of my body that is compensating -- deliberately becoming stronger, sturdier, maybe even stiffer -- to handle what the more sensitive part of my body cannot. It's a delicate balance, and if it's going to break... well, I need to be the one to make that call.
As a person with post traumatic stress disorder, it's important that teachers respect my right not to be touched. Nothing good comes of surprise touches: they're rarely helpful and often triggering. And even if I know a touch is coming, even if I know it's theoretically good for me -- sometimes, I just need it not to be there. Parts of my body are emotionally charged, and that is just a real thing in this world.
My exact circumstances may unique, but in general principle, I'm far from alone. For a variety of reasons, lots of folks have physical touching as a standing boundary or a sometimes boundary. Unfortunately, in mainstream yoga classes in the United States, at least, a lot of teachers assume permission for hands on adjustments is implied by the student's participation in the class.
At times, this is true even when the student has specified otherwise.
A few months ago, I tried out a newer studio. Part of my instructor-separation flailing. Plus, the owner was a friend of a friend.
A new release form. By now, I knew the drill. I jotted down my issues and summarized them to the teacher as I passed the clipboard back. By now, studio-shopping trial-and-error had rehearsed this to a standard speech.
"I have chronic pain, pelvic nerve damage, and PTSD. I can be a little twitchy with certain poses and need to modify for safety. Also, I really need teachers to ask before physically assisting or adjusting."
During class, in warrior one, a hand down my ankle and the back of my calf. In downward facing dog fingertips sliding through my shoulder blades and along my neck.
Typically, these are not emotionally charged areas of my body.
But overstepped boundaries -- overstepped for almost any reason -- almost always are.
Here's the thing I don't get: I also teach yoga. In a small, after school program, but I teach yoga. And I alternate weeks with another teacher.
Neither of us have had a problem establishing a climate where the protocol was to seek consent first. To ask, "Can I tilt your hips?" Or press on your back. Or rotate your shoulders or whatever. To ask, "Want to try an adjustment?"
It takes additional time, yes -- perhaps a second or two. But it is worth it to build a climate of trust that respects others' physical boundaries.
Superstars - what are your experiences with consent in yoga classes, or other guided physical activities? What could/do yoga instructors do that would make you feel most comfortable in class in terms of boundaries? Let's talk in comments!