To Touch or Not to Touch?

Full disclosure, I really wanted to title this post: Can't Touch This... I figured it would just date me...

In all seriousness, there's something big going on in the world. I don't just mean the yoga world. I mean the entire world. The #MeToo Movement is exposing stories of sexual abuse and violence and shining light on those who have been harrassed and belittled by those in power. I could go on and on about how this movement has affected me and those around me, but I want to keep this post focused on yoga and the unfortunate issues that have popped up over and over again in the community I admire and love. 

When I started to dip my toes into what yoga had to offer I was in transition from a world rampant with body image issues, emotional abuse, and constant power struggles: the dance world. The yoga world offered a new space full of non-attachment and a lack of competition which I desperately needed in my early 20s. When I started to practice yoga I never thought much about sexual abuse or harassment and I never questioned my relationship with my teacher. Even if I didn't know my teacher I trusted them. I even regularly put my teachers on a pedestal.  

As I got deeper into my practice and my teaching my eyes and ears became open to stories of abuse and scandal. Stories of emotional and sexual abuse started pouring out of the Bikram and Anusara communities. I was shocked and saddened. How could a teacher prey on their students in such a horrendous manner? The stories that have come out of the yoga communities rocked by scandal seem, to me, to be all about power. Teachers abusing their power as teachers and educators. This abuse of power, of course, isn't unique to the yoga community. It's clearly abundant in politics, entertainment, work relationships, romantic relationships, athletics, etc. too. 

As I became exposed to the dark side of the yoga community I started to do some reflecting. I want to be clear, I have never been sexually abused or harassed by a yoga teacher. I have, however, experienced what I see as a manipulation of power in the yoga room. On countless occasions I have been physically assisted beyond my physical abilities. I have left yoga classes hobbling because a teacher muscled me into a shape. When I reflect upon these heavy-handed assists there's one thing in common: they were done by teachers who identify as heterosexual men. For a while I thought I was being overly sensitive. That was until I started to hear stories from other female identifying teachers and students who had experienced the same, uncomfortable, forceful assists from these same teachers. I absolutely do not mean to shame male hetereosexual yoga teachers. I know there's countless students who have been injured in the same manner by female yoga teachers. There's a very good chance these male teachers were simply using their strength a little too much and that was it. However, as a female who sees herself as an equal, I question those specific teachers' motives. I didn't feel empowered to speak up or ask questions and could only make judgements based on my gut feeling. 


Situations like this have made me question my own intentions when giving physical assists in classes. There was a period of time when I thought physical assists were unnecessary and probably shouldn't be done due to the terrible physical and mental harm that had been done to yoga students receiving touch from their teacher. I now have a different perspective. I see manual assists as an important aspect of an asana practice as long as the student wants to receive touch. As detailed as my verbal cues are, there's a lot of information I cannot convey through my words. The tiniest hands-on assist gives so much information to my students. But I absolutely, 1000% think students have the right to waive me off of an assist or straight up opt out of any physical contact with me. All yoga students have the right to feel safe and respected at all times. Period. 

Action is desperately required in the yoga world. Although there's steps being made in the right direction, the Yoga Alliance needs to step up their ethics game. There needs to be more rigorous curriculum required in all teacher trainings around the topic of ethics and professional conduct. The Yoga Alliance needs to actually follow up on and check in with trainings that have their accreditation to make certain that curriculum is implemented. The Yoga Alliance has a stated code of conduct, however, registration with the Yoga Alliance is only voluntary and failure to uphold the code amounts in simply being removed from the registry. It's not enough considering countless other professions have a clear ethical code and face huge repercussions if there's allegations of sexual misconduct. A lot of yoga teachers don't like the idea of regulation, but this is an area where we, as a community, clearly need some definitive standards. 

On a more proactive level there is something that is happening via the #MeToo Movement and I hope it continues in the yoga world. People are talking. Students and teachers are sharing their stories and they are being heard. Andrea Ferretti, the producer and badass mastermind behind the Yogaland Podcast, recently interviewed Judith Hanson Lasater and Mary Taylor on sexual misconduct in the yoga community. Their stories and thoughts on the subject are important and should be heard. We as a community need to talk to each other in order to see change.

Through the conversations we have with our fellow teachers and students we need to do some deep self reflecting as individuals. Since we don't actually have a true regulatory power, we, as yoga teachers, need to set our own personal and professional code of conduct. Here's some of topics I regularly consider in my own teaching:

  • Are you open to feedback from your students? If the answer is no then I truly think you should not be giving physical assists in classes. Yoga teachers should be open to feedback in the moment and after class. I'm slowly realizing the fourth wall that exists in the yoga room needs to be broken down. Conversations can and should happen between the teacher and student in the moment. Yoga teachers need to ask their students about the pressure, placement, and comfort of their assists. Yoga students are absolutely empowered to verbally and physically react to the assist they are receiving. 
  • Be clear as to what areas of the body you will and will not touch. Seems like a no-brainer, right? Well, it's not. Teachers, set clear boundaries for yourself and stick with them. There should be no exceptions to your rules. I'm also challenging myself, and others, to keep the rules consistent between my female and male identifying students. 
  • Be clear as to what areas of your body will and will not touch your students' bodies. There's skillful ways to use body parts that aren't your hands when assisting, but you have to be mindful of which ones. Again, set clear boundaries and stick with them. 
  • Who are your assists serving? The time in the yoga room isn't about you as the yoga teacher. Your assists are there to deepen the students' understanding of the practice and keep them safe. You are simply the vessel in which the offerings of yoga are conducted through. The moment you find yourself trying to prove something through your touch it is time to step away from the student. 

I have faith our community is moving in the right direction. We need to continue to have dialogue with our students and peers. I can only imagine it isn't easy, but I am eternally grateful for the many students who have been open with me about their experiences on and off their yoga mats with sexual misconduct. I know too many people who have suffered abuse. It is deeply saddening. But these survivors have voices and deserve to be heard. Empower your students to speak up in class. Yoga teachers, you have to listen, reflect, and make choices based on the stories you've been told. For so many of us yoga has been a powerful practice for coping and healing. Let's continue on that path.