- Touch adjustments, which involve a yoga instructor using touch to move a student into correct form, are part of most yoga classes.
- The New York Times recently sparked a conversation about the role of touch adjustments and consent in yoga.
- David Emerson, director of the Centre for Trauma and Embodiment at the Justice Resource Institute, said a culture of consent can’t be built in yoga studios without completely removing touch adjustments.
- “Everything we’ve learned from people is that the problem is we can’t create a culture of consent in yoga studios. In these environments, it’s just not conducive,” Emerson said.
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Yoga enthusiasts have had to face tough conversations in the past week after a New York Times article detailed the history of consent violation and inappropriate touching by yoga instructors to their students.
One of the primary issues highlighted in the story lies in how the ambiguity of touch adjustments – or physical contact made by yoga instructors to assist students into correct form – allows for unwanted touching.
Touch adjustments and mainstream yoga are tied to one another, with large gym chains like Crunch even offering entire classes premised on touch adjustments. While many consent-positive yoga teachers feel that asking for permission before assisting is enough, with some going as far as using tools like consent cards, some experts say this is not enough.
David Emerson, director of the Centre for Trauma and Embodiment at the Justice Resource Institute, has been studying yoga and its applications for people dealing with complex trauma for nearly two decades. H believes simply asking for consent to touch will not disrupt the power dynamic between students and teachers.
“The problem is, we can’t create a culture of consent in yoga studios. In these environments, it’s just not conducive,” Emerson said.
Asking for permission to touch may not be not enough to promote a culture of consent
While he now believes touch has no place in the yoga studio, Emerson said he only reached this conclusion after years of research.
Emerson founded the Black Lotus Yoga Project, a non-profit offering yoga to people dealing with PTSD and complex trauma, in 2001. By 2002, his non-profit had partnered with the Justice Resource Institute to further develop approaches trauma-sensitive yoga, a term coined by Emerson.
During the initial years of TCTSY, touch was used to assist participants. Though instructors would ask for permission before adjusting a student, findings from surveys of the participants revealed that many people were uncomfortable with the power dynamics.
TCTSY quickly made the choice to remove physical touch altogether from the yoga studio.
“When we finally made the choice to clearly take physical assists out, it was such a relief for all of the facilitators and the participants,” Emerson said. “In our case, we’re facilitating yoga for survivors of really chronic trauma who would have to deal with, ‘What does it mean to let this person with power touch me or to say no?'”
Emerson believes we need to shift the conversation on the necessity of physical assists in yoga
Emerson thinks there is little that can be done to make yoga studios a safe space for students without completely removing touch.
“If you were to really do the due diligence necessary to make consent the centrepiece of the yoga studio, you would have to advertise with real clarity that there would be physical touch in these classes,” Emerson said. “A lot of people won’t read the material online and they will just show up at the studio. So there would need to be some kind of waiver at the front desk that’s very clear that there will be touch.”
Because of all of the additional labour this would place on yoga studios, Emerson said he doesn’t believe it would be feasible in the long run. Emerson and the Institute have been advocating for is for yoga studios to offer “no touch” classes at least once a week as a transition step.
Ultimately, he believes it’s necessary to shift the conversation on consent in yoga rather than trying to make touch adjustments feel safer.
“The basis of the conversation needs to shift fundamentally from ‘Is there a way to make physical assists safe?’ to ‘Why are we doing these in the first place and what does it actually do to the environment?'” Emerson said.
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