A conversation about the art of touch and consent
There have been several articles written of late asking students if they ever have experienced touch that felt inappropriate in yoga. Other professionals whose work can involve touching people are usually regulated by the government but yoga teachers are not, so how can we as a community make sure that students feel respected and safe under our guidance?
Recently I watched “Bikram: Yogi, Guru, Predator” when it arrived on Netflix. The documentary delves into Bikram Choudhury’s hot-yoga empire, made popular in the ’70s in Beverly Hills before exploding into the mainstream and more importantly, the sexual misconduct made against several of his students.
It is quite shocking to say the least.
Bikram is not the only well known yoga teacher to be accused. If you have taken classes of vinyasa, power yoga or flow yoga, you have practiced a version of Ashtanga yoga. Ashtanga was popularised and named by a man named Krishna Pattabhi Jois, who died in 2009, when he was 93 years old. Ashtanga attracted celebrity practitioners, like Gwyneth Paltrow, Madonna and Willem Dafoe. They helped introduce Mr. Jois and Ashtanga to the “western world”. Mr. Jois also helped to popularise yoga adjustments, (how yoga teachers physically manipulate a student’s body). Although seeing some of the photos of him adjusting students is quite shocking and reading the accusations against him are similar to the Bikram case. When I heard the allegations against him I was very disappointed, my “yoga bubble” of peace and love was definitely blown.
As a teacher that teaches with hands on assists and also runs a 50 hour training course on how to adjust in yoga, it’s important that we have this conversation. We must not lose this beautiful art form because of a few teachers that have abused their position, or because of a population of people that are hyper sensitive to the latest ‘politically correct” # trend.
In the average studio today, adjustments can range from forceful maneuvering to get into certain poses (steer clear of them) to gentle alignments that help avoid injury or show students support during a challenging posture. Some teachers rely almost entirely on verbal cues, and I am one of those that teaches verbally first, then physically after. Some students are able to listen to the cues, and apply them directly, which also helps them dive deeper into their practice with focus and concentration. This is a type of awareness that some people naturally have and others build over time.
The decision about when to physically adjust a student is not one that should be made lightly. Teachers must make conscious choices about which students to adjust and how to adjust them. Careful not to ‘over adjust’ beginners, because you’re still forming a relationship and establishing trust with them; also, new students may get discouraged if they think that their poses are always incorrect. Adjust beginners if you think they’re at risk of harming themselves or you can help them find more ease in a pose. I think for the most part people appreciate that you care enough to want to help, but my intentions are always clear.
Before giving any kind of physical adjustment in a public class, make sure you have an intimate understanding of both the pose and the adjustment. Bringing a student into an expression of the pose that they are not able to do themselves allows the student to achieve new sensations. Oftentimes, with a little bit of support, a person can have a different experience of the pose and see where they may be fighting or forcing. With the support of a skilled teacher the student can find transformation in their practice. Support is the key word here. If the student is not feeling comfortable I would hope that they speak up. I would hope that my students trust me enough and know me well enough to tell me. We are all students of yoga.
The #MeToo movement may have helped to provide clarity about certain interactions between boss and employee, student and teacher, actor and agent, clergy and believer, doctor and patient etc, yet yoga students and studios are grappling with inappropriate, manipulative and exploitative teachers and teachings.
Not acceptable, anywhere or anytime.
I also recently saw a video and article about a yoga teacher named Jonny Kest and I was again shocked with what I heard. The teacher was performing very intimate adjustments without consent and some students shared concerns with the whole class. This sparked a conversation and the class mentioned they preferred being asked for consent before being adjusted in yoga classes. “I don’t do any of that,” Mr. Kest told them in an arrogant manner. The assist he was doing was extremely intimate and would cross a line for many people. As teachers we are looked up to by our students and this relationship must not be abused. What are we going to do about this?
Yoga is one of the most accessible and popular forms of exercise worldwide, and the centerpiece of a multibillion-dollar apparel-equipment-real-estate industry and also big business for yoga studio owners. It has exploded onto instagram with people doing naked yoga poses, wearing bikinis and sexualising the spiritual practice much like everything in popular culture becomes sexualised in order to get more attention. What do you think?
One of the most intimate aspects of teaching yoga asana is physically adjusting students. Offering hands-on adjustments as a teacher when done with compassion and skill is a powerful and integral part of helping students deepen their yoga practice, especially at a more advanced level.
Touching, feeling, aligning and adjusting places us on the path of becoming a more effective yoga student and instructor. It takes a certain skill and a lot of practice to lead a yoga class with visual and verbal cues, and it is a completely different art however, to teach, connect and communicate with your students through touch as well as leading the verbal and visual cues. Like any skill, this will develop with patience and practice, and I don’t want this skill to be lost because of the mistakes of men that only think with their dicks.
Yoga principles of physicality, possibility and empowerment give us all the opportunity to discover what is attainable within our yoga practice. Searching our boundaries and gently exploring them.
Learning the art of giving adjustments is an important journey as a teacher and not to be underestimated. The act of sharing touch has tremendous power to heal both physically and emotionally (as well as harm if we don’t practice with care and consent). We are social creatures by nature and touch is a fundamental part of development from the first moment of life when we have skin-on-skin contact with a loved one.
Students may sometimes be tentative or resistant to being physically assisted, but hopefully with space, time and a building of trust, those students will open up to the gifts that yoga assists can offer.
Yoga is about evolution, and sometimes touch is a way to progress on your path. When touch is healing and caring it can help release years of trauma and re-awaken personal power.
So Why Assist?
Manual adjustments are a form of transferring energy and information from one place to another and are a direct personal form of communication. The teacher is transmitting information with intention through their hands directly to the student in order to help the student explore new experiences they might not have thought possible on their own. The transmission of energy that takes place with the hands-on assist is truly an art in communication and a beautiful journey of trust and compassion.
The majority of practitioners come to the mat for the undisputed therapeutic benefits yoga offers. If they are in the hands of a skilled adjuster these benefits will often be greatly enhanced. A good adjustment can help a student safely access a deeper posture, set correct alignment which allows the energy to flow more freely and explore energetic movement between more complex postures. It may also release deep physical restrictions, as well as emotional blockages in a safe environment. As one of my teachers Maty Ezraty would say ” our students are a gift, never to be taken for granted”.
This understanding is crucial for creating a community of students and teachers with compassion as the first basis for any relationship.
My next course in Sydney is February 28, 2020 – March 8, 2020