A hands-on adjustment
On yoga and touch
Last week, the New York Times published an important story about yoga teachers and touch — and specifically, students who felt uncomfortable with how they were touched by teachers, and teachers who exploited their positions of trust and authority to grope and even sexually assault their students. If you haven’t read it yet, you should. A warning: Many of the details are disturbing, including several accounts of Krishna Patthabi Jois, the father of Ashtanga yoga — if you’ve ever taken a “vinyassa flow” or “power yoga” class, you’ve done something similar to Ashtanga — grinding his pelvis into women’s genitals, grabbing women by the crotch, and even putting his fingers inside one woman’s vagina.
This, obviously, is not what yoga adjustments should be like.
I’m not teaching yoga these days outside of retreats, but I am working on finding a home studio here in Brooklyn, and hopefully starting to teach again. In the aftermath of the initial piece, the Times published an article about what yoga teachers are doing to make sure that they have consent in the studio. There are some interesting ideas, including many I’ve seen in action: Asking students at the beginning of class to raise an arm or a leg if they would rather not be touched; having consent cards at the top of students’ mats; asking each person before you touch them; just not offering hands-on adjustments at all.
I can see the temptation in just not touching people. But I think something important is lost when teachers are entirely hands-off.
Yoga is fundamentally about reembodying. It’s about connecting with the subtleties of how your body works, what it feels like to align your joints and your bones, where muscles have room to open, how you can make space within your own skin. What makes it so unlike exercise is that you’re encouraged not to just push through for a result, but to really feel every inch of what’s happening inside and out. For a lot of people — certainly for me — that’s radical. We live in our bodies every day, but we don’t really know what it means to listen to them; instead, we use our bodies to push forward. Yoga encourages the opposite.
Part of that process involves touch. We are a touch-starved people. For most people in developed hard-working capitalist economies, we have too few opportunities for restorative, connective, healing touch; it’s valuable for the yoga studio to offer that. It’s also hard to just intuitively know what a pose is supposed to feel like — the asana practice asks us to put our bodies into new and challenging shapes, and to answer questions about our bones and physical structure that we’ve likely never considered (are my hips even or are they stacked? Is my tailbone tucked or extended? What is my pelvis doing?) A thoughtful adjustment can help connect the dots and give the student the tools to better find alignment on her own. A thoughtful adjustment also just feels good. It can encourage a deeper stretch, relieve tension, and make practice safer.
I’ve also witnessed teachers using adjustments as a way to force a student’s body into a pose they were not ready for. In one class, the teacher pushed a student’s body into king dancer so intensely that she was in tears and he didn’t stop — the goal wasn’t to help her go deeper in a safe way that she could replicate later, or to make her feel better, or to demonstrate what alignment feels like; it was just to force her into a shape. It wasn’t the kind of sexualized touch described in the Times piece, but it was a shocking abuse of the teacher’s authority in that room.
There is always a power dynamic in the yoga studio — when you’re teaching, students want to please you. There’s also a gender dynamic in yoga: Most practitioners and regular teachers are women, but men dominate the ranks of “gurus” and famous leaders. Some of those men have very much fostered a model of “I lead, you follow,” which is easier to establish over the top of existing gender inequities and assumptions about male leadership and female subservience. I don’t doubt that this plays into sexualized touch (and sexual assault) in the yoga studio. While in theory yogis are practicing tamping down their egos, in practice a whole lot of people — a disproportionate number of them men — use yoga as an exercise in egoism and power.
When I was training to be a yoga teacher, we spent a lot of time talking about touch. It was something I thought I wouldn’t like about teaching — I can be a bit of a germophobe, and the idea of touching strangers’ sweaty bodies sounded… unappealing. But as a teacher, it’s one of my favorite things. It feels good to make other people feel good. When you offer healing touch, you also receive. When people offer you the trust of touching and manipulating their bodies, it feels nothing short of sacred.
And so I am careful. If I touch someone and they stop breathing, or they tense up, I move on. I take care with where I place my hands, and if I’m touching someone in a place that is more intimate — someone’s thighs or hips — I quietly ask, “is that ok?” If I’m feeling depleted and like I don’t have energy to give, I don’t force myself to offer touch or adjustments. When I was teaching in Nairobi, I tended to have the same students week after week, and would ease in to touch to gauge their comfort — if it was their first class with me, I would limit touch to offering a neck message during savasana at the end of class; if they were receptive, then the next class I would offer a deeper adjustment, and so on. That’s a little more difficult, of course, when your yoga class is made up of Class Passers who may not have any relationship with you. And as a female teacher, I honestly worry less that my touch will be felt as potentially sexual by my mostly female students. But how, when and why I’m touching people in a yoga class is something I give a lot of thought.
We lose a lot when we remove touch from our teaching. But of course we lose more when teachers exploit their positions and touch students inappropriately or even thoughtlessly. Yoga students give their teachers the gift of their presence and their practice; they trust us as guides. We owe them, at the very least, considered choices in how we put our hands on their bodies.
p.s. If you’re in to yoga, there are still a few spots left in my yoga + writing retreat in Costa Rica this February. Email me for more.