“There might be no grayer gray zone than a yoga studio, where physical intimacy, spirituality and power dynamics all come together in a sweaty little room,” Katherine Rosman, a New York Times reporter, said on the latest episode of “The Weekly,” our new TV show.
In her investigation of touch in yoga, Ms. Rosman found that explicit conversations about consent to be touched can be lacking: Not all teachers ask permission before touching a student. And some students are uncomfortable being touched, and are reluctant to speak up.
We asked instructors to share how they approach hands-on adjustments in their studios, and asked yogis how they communicate consent. We received more than 270 responses. Some teachers said they never touch students; others described touch as a cherished part of yoga. Many said they employed techniques to opt in, or opt out, of hands-on adjustments. Here are some of their suggestions, lightly edited for length and clarity.
Choose not to perform hands-on adjustments
I am a yoga instructor and choose, very intentionally, not to perform hands-on adjustments on students. While I know that there are many respectful and well-meaning teachers who do choose to correct students’ alignment in the yoga postures, I don’t feel it is the strongest way of teaching a student how to communicate with their own body. On top of that, you never know which students are healing from trauma and would prefer not to be touched. My personal teaching philosophy has led me to give very detailed verbal cues and to demonstrate the postures with my own body.
I am a yoga instructor and never adjust people. There’s no reason for it. The practice of doing so assumes that the teacher knows more about a person’s body than the student themselves, which is frankly arrogant. People have their own wisdom about their bodies, and release will happen in its own time. If and when students need support or spotting to try a new posture, I always explain exactly what I’m going to do and then ask for permission and get it before I place my hands on them.
Ask before you touch (and use it as a last resort)
It’s really very simple: Yoga teachers at the studio in which I teach are taught to use touch only as a last resort. We are trained to use voice instruction first, then demonstration and finally touch, applied very sparingly and with permission. My belief is that if I must use touch, especially to the extent that some yoga teachers do, I have failed as a teacher.
Consent to touch in yoga class is a high priority in my studio. Adjustments are not made physically unless the instructor asks specifically, “Is it O.K. to put my hands on … (your hips, leg, etc.)?” Alternatively, the teacher must make it clear as he or she walks among students, “If you would rather I not touch you to adjust your asana, feel free to tell me as I approach you.” A good teacher will have no problem offering clearly worded instruction to correct a posture.
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The hands-on teaching practices of some of yoga’s most celebrated gurus raise questions about consent.
Use consent cards as a tool
Toward the beginning of class, when students are seated with our eyes closed or lying on our backs, so we can’t see each other, the teacher will say, “Please raise your hand if you prefer not to be adjusted.” Sometimes the teacher will add something allowing, like, “It doesn’t matter the reason. Some days it just doesn’t feel right to be adjusted.” The words and tone convey there is no shame in passing on touch. I’ve never looked to see how many people raise their hands.
Our yoga instructor designed consent cards that you flip to indicate whether you are open to hands-on assist or not. She also offers that you can change at any time during class.
My yoga instructor uses a small token called the FlipChip. At the beginning of each class she places the chip in front of each yoga mat and reminds participants to flip the chip to “no” if they do not want hands-on assistance. It is a simple and very effective method, which allows each individual to express their personal preference.
Establish a relationship with your students or teacher
My instructor does two things. First, she will give verbal instruction and, if that doesn’t help, then she will ask permission to help correct the pose. She knows who doesn’t mind hands-on corrections after being with her for a while, but still asks.
As a yoga teacher I only touch people I know and have asked; I will usually kneel down and point if a knee or foot needs adjustment if it’s someone I don’t know. I will also get in front of them and mirror the posture for them as a way to assist. We are getting consent cards at Life Time, where I teach, to flip to yes or no and I’m so excited for this. It will really help. Even a normal touch of a shoulder or knee can be stressful for people — you’re in their personal space.
West Des Moines, Iowa
My local studio mentions touch at the beginning of class and asks students to speak up if they do not want to be touched when the teacher approaches. I love touch, but the approach seems to put the responsibility of consent into the person who may be uncomfortable publicly rejecting someone else — especially when “everyone else lets her touch them.”
Set boundaries at the beginning of class
In my teaching, I use hands-on adjustments, but I’m selective about when, where and who I touch, and I only touch when I think it would provide useful information to a student about their practice or body. At the beginning of class, I mention I use physical touch and invite students to let me know at any point if they do not want to be touched. In an era where people tend to be deeply disembodied, welcomed and appropriate touch is super-absent and controversial. Used well, I believe touch can be really meaningful.
I am an assistant in a restorative class. The teacher I assist, who is also my husband, has a clear, authentic approach. When students are in downward dog at the start of the class, he states, “Heidi and I will be offering gentle, hands-on assists during the class. If for any reason that is not what you need today, please raise a leg so we know to respect your space. [pause] Thank you.”
Other teachers will ask you to wave them off if you don’t want an assist. Some teachers never provide hands on assists. I believe more people need and want healthy touch than they are getting. I believe a yoga studio is an inherently healing environment. By empowering students to ask for what they need, in clear language, we are changing our culture, one class at a time.