I’m about 20 minutes into a yoga class. The large male teacher appears from nowhere and puts his hands on me while I'm in three legged dog. He hasn't asked for consent. He hasn't asked about injuries. He hasn't even made eye contact during the class. I flinch involuntarily. He says "Whoa". I say " please don't adjust me" he says, "What?", still with his hands on me. "Don't adjust me please" I repeat more loudly.
He leaves the room right away at the end of the class. I follow him out. I tell him how it felt for me when he touched me without warning. I say that he should consider asking students if they want to be adjusted. He tells me that’s not how he likes to teach. Over the years, I’ve ignored too many unwanted adjustments, brushed them off, didn’t want to make a fuss. I’m not giving up now I’ve started this conversation.
I tell him some teachers use consent cards so that students can indicate if they want to be touched or not. He tells me that adjustments are necessary. I tell him that they're not ok for everybody and students should be able to choose whether they get them or not. He says that he's running the class and he gets to choose how things go down. I suggest that he can't control how students interpret and experience his teaching. He asserts again that he's running the class and that's not how he likes to teach. I tell him it's not about him, it's about his students.
I know I’ve crossed a line, but by now I’m in a state of utter disbelief. Here’s a yoga teacher telling me that the way he likes to teach is more important than the experience and safety of his students.
It’s not ok for teachers of any gender to give unwanted adjustments. But for a male teacher to put his hands on a female student’s body without consent – whatever his intention – is especially problematic. 1 in 5 women in Australia experience sexual assault. 93% of offenders are male (Statistics from ABS). In many cases, sexual assault leaves an imprint of trauma. Trauma is not a psychological construct. It’s not something that people ‘get over’. Trauma is a physiological experience – the trauma response is embedded deep in the body itself. With time and care, many people who have experienced trauma can and do heal and there is significant evidence to show that yoga can support the healing process. But it also has the potential to re-traumatise.
Unwanted adjustments are not just a problem for people recovering from trauma. Nearly a third of adult women suffer from lower back pain. 20% of people under the age of 60 have at least one bulging disc. One in three women over 50 will experience a fracture from osteoporosis (the class I was in was predominantly middle aged women). If you’re considering adjusting a student, wouldn’t you want to know if they are in pain or at risk of injury?
As a yoga teacher, my job is to serve my students. I cannot heal them. I cannot control how they feel. I cannot assume that what I teach is ‘best; for them. My role is to facilitate an experience in which students can find their own path. Only they can do the healing. That means being respectful of, and responsive to, their needs. The tricky thing is that students often don’t fully communicate those needs to the teacher. This is part of the power dynamic that plays out in yoga classes – a power dynamic that many yoga teachers are oblivious to.
Like it or not, teachers are placed in a position of power by their students. This is why so many students will acquiesce to the teacher’s ‘wisdom’, even if that means ignoring the messages coming from their own body. They’ll allow a teacher to touch them, even if it feels uncomfortable. They’ll submit to an adjustment, even when it hurts. They’ll hold a posture that is causing pain until the teacher gives them permission to stop. They consider the teacher to be the expert and want to please them, so they hand their personal power over to him/her.
Teachers who argue that it’s the student’s responsibility to take care of themselves have failed to grasp the basic psychological principles at play in the teacher-student relationship. These fundamental principles are part of the standard training for psychologists and many medical professionals, but learning about the use and abuse of power (even if you didn't ask for it or want it) is not yet a mandatory part of yoga teacher training.
If yoga teachers want students to take responsibility for their own safety during the class (which is an important part of their learning and development), they must empower students to do so by explicitly (and consistently) giving students permission to practice in ways that serve them best.
When teachers adjust without permission, they run the risk of causing emotional, psychological and physical harm. Why would a teacher argue with the concept of consent? Has the #metoo movement yet to reach the Australian yoga community?
The issue of consent isn’t just the responsibility of individual teachers. Yoga teacher training courses, teachers who offer training in yoga adjustments, peak bodies and organisations that employ yoga teachers all have a responsibility to educate teachers about consent and uphold clearly explained guidelines about consent and safety. Over and over again. It’s time to raise community expectations – educators, peak bodies and students should all expect yoga teachers to ask for consent before touching, ask for disclosure about injuries and to do so in constructive, safe and considerate ways. Teaching yoga is a privilege and all students have the right to stay safe and be respected. Let's keep the conversation going.