Consent in Yoga

This post was inspired by the recent New York Times article, Do You Want to Be Touched?

“You should never put your hands on someone without asking them first!” The instructor snapped at me. I pulled my hands away, and stood frozen in fear and abject shock. Up until this point in the training, no one had ever uttered anything about consent during adjustments, a fact that, as a survivor, should have deeply disturbed and troubled me. It was 2012, and I was immersed in my first and only Yoga Teacher Training.

People that know me will not be surprised to hear I struggled throughout my training. When you have a history of trauma, connecting emotionally and physically to others can be a pain point. What I’d been most consumed with was the notion that; in order to be a good teacher, program leaders informed us we need to be providing as many manual adjustments as we could, to as many students as possible, in each and every class we taught. Physical touch was mandatory and necessary in order to become certified and then later hired by this same company. At no point did any instructor suggest we ask a student if we could put our hands on them.

So I was surprised then, when after having spent some weeks in the training, watching other students be called to the front to give physical adjustments for five postures previously, that this was the reaction I’d received. It was during Standing Bow-Pulling Pose, the sixth in the Bikram sequence, that I was called upon, involuntarily, to demonstrate to the other students the proper way to manually adjust someone’s hips and rear leg in the posture. If you’re not familiar with this particular adjustment, it is, in my opinion, one of the more intimate in the practice. I swallowed the lump in my throat, watched the program leader enter a beautiful Standing-Bow, and on command, attempted to adjust what was arguably a perfect posture. It was then that she abruptly exited the pose to inform me, I should have asked her permission to perform the adjustment. A flush of deep shame spread throughout my face and my body, the lump in my throat swelled. I stared up at a window, hyper-focusing on the sun until other things in my periphery faded and I heard a soft humming in my ears. Later we broke into groups to do some script work, but I was unable to concentrate and left early.

 

Looking back, I still feel dismay and shame that a concept as elementary as asking permission before touching another person escaped me before performing any adjustment. It’s a mistake I take responsibility for, regardless of being caught in my own spiral around touch and intimacy. I, of all people, should have known.

No one talked about the incident with me and the notion of needing consent before touch was never again mentioned. I watched, in the following weeks, student after student approach different program leaders and perform manual adjustments without asking permission first. Something must just be wrong with me, I thought.

I carried that thought into my demo classes and then into my paid classes when the company hired me. I avoided doing physical adjustments with students unless a company owner, manager, or senior teacher was taking my class. The studios they ran were operated by what felt like spies. Any slip up or error, any failure to adjust someone’s posture, or use enough students’ names in class, or turn the lights off at precisely the right moment, could and would result in a report being made about you, and an angry phone call or text from a superior. We were watched like hawks and we tried desperately to please those more senior to us, despite the low pay and blatant disrespect. For many, it felt as though we finally belonged somewhere, and we wanted so badly to do right by those that had led us to our new, more enlightened, way of thinking and living.

As a teacher at these studios, it was deeply frowned upon to request fellow instructors refrain from giving you hands-on adjustments in class. We were supposed to be examples to the other students, and visibly take all aspects of the practice seriously— from the way we transitioned from pose to pose, to glorifying the restriction of water intake, to contorting our bodies into deeper and deeper postures, to learning to “eat less”, as one senior teacher once told me, in order to become more enlightened. Another laughed at me when I mentioned that this philosophy had led me to stress-eat and binge. She was tall and lean, and I wanted so badly to be like her. She mostly treated me with little regard or respect. This was common.

A lot of this discomfort led to a spike in my disordered eating habits, and then a full-blown relapse with my eating disorder. In Bikram, the entire practice takes place in very little clothing, in front of a mirror— your body on display. Needless to say, for anyone struggling with body dysmorphia, this can be harrowing. I took to wearing a shirt to class and longer shorts to avoid turning my practice into a prolonged opportunity to lambast myself with negative thoughts about my appearance.

Then, something happened that I’ll never forget. I took a class in a t-shirt and positioned myself, like a “good” instructor, in the front row. Towards the end of the practice, with my hands clasped above my head before I descended into Half Tortoise, the senior, male instructor crouched behind me. “You’ll never see what’s going on with your stomach if you wear a shirt in class,” he announced to the room, and then proceeded to lift my shirt up to below the bra line, exposing my body against my will. Where was my request for consent? At what point did I give away all my bodily permissions to this studio? After class, I let the instructor know what he did was wrong, but he seemed dumbfounded that I would be upset. Is it any surprise, when consent was never something openly discussed? When we were encouraged to touch everyone, without asking? What of that lead, female instructor in my training, that had rightly informed me I needed permission before touching others? Where had she gone? Where was her voice?

I hope publications like the New York Times continue to shine a light on issues like consent in yoga, and so much more. There are a lot of very serious problems that exist right below the surface that deserve attention. This is just one of them. Seemingly small instances, like having your body exposed against your will in class, compound and can reignite the trauma response in someone’s body.

Now, before taking class at most studios, I let the instructor know I do not want physical adjustments. If this is ever an issue, I run.

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