The issue of consent in yoga classes is a hot topic of late: and for good reason.
Should we as teachers be required to gain consent from a student before placing our hands on them? I say absolutely. Actually, I believe we should refrain from touching students completely and there are many yoga professionals who vehemently disagree with my position on this point.
Here is my big why for keeping my hands to myself: until yoga professionals are further credentialed or licensed to touch, we need to recognize the danger of offering hands-on assists to our students.
Let me clarify some of the reasons for hitting the pause on hands-on-assists, at least for the moment.
Unless you are a massage therapist, physician, chiropractor, physical therapist, priest or another of the few professions given license to touch, ethically you are not allowed to touch your students unless given explicit permission.
“But, wait”, you say. “I love receiving yoga adjustments myself and I was taught how to do so in my yoga teacher training. Why is this even an issue?”
1. A number of yoga injuries can either be exacerbated, intensified or—dare I say—caused because of well-meaning hands-on assists. Even if you are one of the above professionals, ethically, you are operating outside the boundaries of said profession when you step in front of a yoga class and don the ‘yoga teacher’ hat.
2. Even a mild amount of pressure intensifies a posture and many yoga adjustments are the opposite of mild.
3. We live in a litigious society. Even if you carry liability insurance, your risk of being sued because of a yoga-based injury increases when incurred from an adjustment.
It is not my intention to suggest that every teacher stop providing yoga adjustments.
I am merely suggesting that we approach the process of yoga instruction with more caution, care, and discernment. To that end, we may have to sacrifice some of the injurious components of our teaching in order to create a safer environment for the practice of yoga.
As hands-on assists are one of the primary ways we step outside the scope of our yoga teaching practice and into the dangerous zone of physical therapists (PTs), licensed massage therapists (LMTs) and chiropractors, by their practical definitions, I suggest we excise that aspect of our teaching until we as yoga instructors and yoga therapists are further licensed, board certified, or otherwise accredited.
So while you may choose to avoid adjusting your students with touch (for some of the reasons mentioned above), you can work to create clear cues that help your students have a broader experience of the energy within the asana.
If you do adjust with your hands, be choosy with how you approach and interact with your students.
Asking permission to touch, for example, will keep both you and your students safe from an unwanted or unsolicited approach. If, for example, a student’s upper arm looks very uncomfortable in triangle pose, rather than walking over and moving their arm for them, instead ask, “May I help your arm be more comfortable in this pose?”
By shifting to a question, you’re giving them the power to say “no”, you’re asking permission to touch them and you’re keeping their practice—literally—in their hands.
But even asking the class or a specific individual in front of the class has its challenges and drawbacks. Many students are uncomfortable voicing their preference not to be touched in front of large groups and feel pressured to allow it, even in the most compassionate of environments.
Two products in recent production are doing a good job to address the issue of students’ preference for touch: the Yoga FlipChip and The YogAccessory both address the communication and consent issue, with the latter also focusing on the ever-present problem of ego-based injury on the mat. Perhaps these sorts of tools are the best way forward.
At the very least, students choosing to use these can maintain control over their ability to consent until the industry and those charged with establishing its guidelines and best practices can ensure teachers who touch are well-prepared to do so.
What do you think about touch in the context of yoga asana?
Do you love it as a practitioner? Do you as a teacher feel comfortable providing hands on assists? Let the world know what you think in the comments below.
Kellie Adkins is a passionate yogi coach and educator who founded and directs the Wisdom Method School of Yoga, an integrative yoga therapy institute. Weaving together creative movement, cognitive neuroscience and wisdom traditions in each training and workshop, Kellie seeks to inspire others to do the work of deeply knowing themselves. Kellie is a nationally recognized yoga expert, a science geek, a writer, a proud mommy and a creative maven with a passion for all things handmade. Learn more at her website.
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Assistant ed: Catherine Monkman