September 18, 2014

Can’t Touch This—Without Asking. ~ Alexis Marbach

woman yoga child's pose

In my ongoing quest to find peace and calm in the big city, I ventured to a restoratives class at a local studio.

Lately I’ve been gravitating towards my own home practice, coming to the mat with a very specific pose or sequence in mind and wanting the option to drop into restoratives at any given moment. Going to group classes can be a chance to pick up some new ideas and change it up.

We started in child’s pose, and I was almost too excited for restoratives to rest. Excitement quickly morphed into a triggered panic.

Thanks to a tight low back and hip flexors, it took me a few moments to settle in. I heard footsteps close to my mat and then the teacher pushed on my hips and thoracic spine.

Wait a second—did you ask if you could touch me? And what was that adjustment? It felt like a hyper-aggressive drive-by! I was totally caught off guard with my face down and back-body exposed.

I felt instantly triggered.

My breath quickened, my heart raced, I started to sweat, and I started to cry. I thought the feeling would pass but every time we came into a new pose, the teacher came up trying to assist me. I felt so uncomfortable and felt like I couldn’t say anything. I kept saying “I’m okay,” but couldn’t muster the words “stop,” “no,” or “don’t.”

I couldn’t imagine ever needing to use those words in a yoga class. In my mind, those were reserved for truly threatening situations.

How had this yoga class become a dangerous situation for me?

I felt compelled to stay in the class. As soon as it was over I ran out, and cried the whole way home.

When trying to process the experience, I realized those adjustments were not about me. That adjustment held the teacher’s expectations and goals, his perception of the student-teacher power dynamic in class, and his desire to provide that as the teacher, he knew best.

Just what I needed in my yoga class—a power struggle.

As a student, I dropped into my commitment of practicing ahimsa in that moment. My body (and heart!) were screaming “Go! Go! This is not good for you!” yet I still let my fear of being judged win. The voice saying, “you’re being too sensitive, stop complaining, you can do this, it’s just different” took over.

The fear of conceptualizing what it would mean to stand up for myself in that moment set in, and I was paralyzed. As the teacher, he lost sight of his commitment to ahimsa by putting his goals in front of the needs of the students in front of him.

I can’t be the only one who has ever had this experience—in fact I know that I’m not. I’m part of an ongoing dialogue with yoga therapists and students across the country about when and how to assist.

So what’s will all the touching?

What do we risk, as teachers, by never physically assisting or adjusting?

We risk losing control. We lose control over where and how people move, about whether or not they get into the right spot to get the full benefit of the external rotation we were describing. We risk having to deal with our own discomfort around students being uncomfortable in their own bodies as they learn how to translate a cue such as “drop your shoulder tips away from the ears” into physical movement. All of the risk seems to be focused on us—on our attachment to our ego as teachers.

What do we gain?

We create spaces where freedom and personal embodiment are valued and cherished. We can create a deeper connection with students as we verbally assist them in the process of navigating and reclaiming their bodies. We give space to be who they are and where they are, without a right or a wrong. Our society already has so many binary responses, times where we are absolutely right or absolutely wrong.

By creating a class without physical assists, we model for students that there is no one way, no one path for befriending and moving the body.

We also gain freedom from fixing. If you consider yourself to be an empath or someone with a helper mentality, it can be hard to bear witness to a student who has a hard time being in his/her own skin with no sense of proprioception.

When we release attachment to the need or desire to physically correct and adjust, we are able to stay in the present moment with the whole class (not just the one student we are touching).

Physical touch can be incredibly healing, when it is invited and purposeful.

There are so many times we just want to be touched and held—when a loved one hugs us in a moment of sadness, when a massage therapist tackles that knot at the base of our spine and releases weeks of pain and tension. But in order to have a healthy and healing physical interaction, it is important to check our motives and assess the moment. Even if our motives our pure and we bring love and healing to the situation, the person we are assisting or adjusting has a right to their own space (physically and emotionally).

The power dynamic that exists between teachers and their students is real—it can be a huge divide, regardless of how you try to take down that wall. No matter how friendly and welcoming you are, it can be hard for a student to raise a hand and ask for help, not to mention asserting his/her physical boundary. Asserting boundaries is terribly complicated for most of us.

It can be hard to do with loved ones—how can we expect our students to do it with us?

Yoga is a way for us to get back into ourselves, to listen in and not only acknowledge, but respond to the needs of the physical and emotional bodies. Physical assists can send a signal that we need an external person to help us figure out our own bodies. There are already too many messages that we need to go outside to find our way in.

So, what to do if you are torn between physically assisting and leaving students alone on their mats?

Ask in the least invasive way possible.

Try starting all of the students in one shape like on the back, in child’s pose, or seated with the eyes closed or settled at a soft gaze in front of them. If seated or on the back, have students place one hand on the belly if they would prefer to have no physical assists for the class. If they are in child’s pose, have them turn their palms up if they would prefer to have no physical assists.

Try to refine your verbal cues. My first formal teachers, Nikki and Lakshmi, instilled a belief that when describing a pose, your verbal cues should be so clear that you’d never need to give a physical assist. I’ve carried that into my teaching, and when I have the instinct to teach something that can be physically complex with multiple contraindications, I learn it in my body first, then practice the instruction. If I need to use my hands to help get someone into the shape, I know to wait.

You could also consider having Yoga Flip Chips available in the room. Flip Chips are an incredible tool—a small chip (about the size of a coaster) with “assist” on one side and “do not assist” on the other. Students can flip throughout class, allowing them to use their voice without feeling the need to get your attention, verbalize their concerns, or worry about being confronted about why they don’t want to be touched.

When you have the desire to adjust or assist, bring your hands to your own heart center and belly and move along. Repeat the mantra: there is no path to an individual’s embodied healing through yoga that originates with my touch.

And remember to continue the dialogue—a simple conversation between two yoga teachers or students can lead to increased safety for current students and an increase in new students seeking out classes.


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Photo:  Anne Wu via Flickr

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Alexis Marbach