- Last week, the New York Times published a story describing yoga gurus with long histories of giving students overtly sexual and non-consensual adjustments and getting away with it.
- I’ve been teaching yoga for 12 years and the story’s disturbing accounts reaffirmed my belief that such an abuse of power is built right into classical yoga philosophy.
- Here’s how I do my best to make students as comfortable and safe as possible without rejecting hands-on adjustments altogether.
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Last week the New York Times published a story about the yoga community finally beginning to discuss consent and touch issues.
The story described some self-proclaimed yoga “gurus” who were given ultimate power and then repeatedly abused it by giving students overtly sexual, nonconsensual adjustments – and, in some cases, alleged sexual abuse – in class.
As a male yoga teacher who’s been teaching for 12 years, the story reaffirmed my belief that such an abuse of power is, unfortunately, built right into the classical yoga philosophy.
An underlying concept in yoga suggests a person can obtain an “enlightened,” or perfect, state of being, which leads to students viewing their teachers as greater-than-human. This delusional teaching is, I believe, the root principle that most yoga studios operate under – many unknowingly.
That in no way justifies any of the reported abhorrent behaviours. But it does allow us, the yoga community, to consider ways to head off the kinds of environments that may enable them.
Here’s how I, as a male yoga teacher in a female-dominated yoga community, do my best to make students as comfortable and safe as possible, without necessarily rejecting hands-on adjustments altogether.
I teach a style of yoga that embraces imperfection
I teach yoga based on a philosophy called Rajanaka that I learned from Dr. Douglas Brooks, a professor at Rochester University in New York, and his senior students. This method focuses on loving your life with all its imperfections, since those characteristics give us personality and creativity.
The method acknowledges a sacred beauty in our seemingly mundane, day-to-day lives. Rajanaka focuses on seeking the truth, and not something perfect or transcendent, like guru models do.
I build trust before considering a physical assist
I wait a minimum of three classes before I consider giving a student a hands-on assist in order to build trust and familiarity first.
During those initial classes, I pay attention to how a student listens to my instruction, and don’t take it personally if he or she is hesitant or resistant to my style.
Only if and when a student embraces what I have to offer do I consider using physical touch to help them progress.
I consider touch a last resort
I follow a hierarchy of instruction that I believe every teacher should adopt.
First, I give a concise verbal cue. If any students are still misaligned, I restate the verbal instruction differently, and see if it worked. If a student still doesn’t understand, I demonstrate the pose.
Finally, if a student remains misaligned and has acknowledged that they’re comfortable with touch, I give a physical adjustment.
I’m careful where and how I touch
In some cases, thoughtful assists to fundamental poses can go a long way in helping students progress. For instance, placing my hands on top of theirs in down dog can help alignment, and placing my foot behind a student’s back foot in warrior two can help them feel what keeping their foot parallel with the back edge of the mat feels like.
I’m conscious of using my entire hand flatly, rather than gripping a student’s body with my fingertips. I never stand over a student or otherwise position myself in a way that could be interpreted as inappropriate.
I encourage consent cards, and still ask for consent when in doubt
I strongly encourage students to use the consent cards the studio provides. Placing a pink, laminated, index-like card alongside the mat signals permission for hands-on assists. Opting against it indicates they would prefer not to be touched.
And, if I’m still in doubt, I simply ask a student, “Is it OK if I give you a hands-on assist?” before placing my hands on them. I’ve gotten used to being upfront, and I almost never receive an awkward response.
I use my intuition
Finally, if it doesn’t feel right, I don’t do it. I aim to become masterful at verbally instructing students so that my physical adjustments are refinements.
I still believe hands-on assists have a place in yoga. They can be a very powerful tool, but every adjustment should be handled with respect. If there is any doubt about how my adjustments could be received, I do not give them.