For most of us, yoga studios offer a haven of safety and peace, a welcoming and inclusive space to collectively share the experience of movement, breath, and meditation. Every teacher has the responsibility to hold this sacred space for their students. The recent discussions swirling around the yoga community regarding affirmative consent (including the sexual harassment claims against Bikram Choudhury) have highlighted the importance of establishing a framework that supports consent and communication between teachers and students.
Many people understand the concept of affirmative consent as it relates to sexual relationships, but how does it pertain to yoga? Consent is a clear agreement between people that touch is welcome and that boundaries are understood and respected. Consent is about clear communication, which rings true for any kind of relationship, sexual or not. Because everyone comes to yoga with a different background and different comfort level when it comes to touch, teachers need to be extra vigilant in ensuring that every student’s needs and boundaries are met and respected.
While some of us may enjoy the experience of offering an adjustment or receiving a hands-on assist, for others this can be alarming, triggering, or even downright scary. In the United States alone, one out of every six women, and one out of every thirty three men have been the victim of rape or related physical trauma. Each one of these people might carry an energetic memory of that experience within their body. As teachers we may simply want to offer a gentle touch or guide someone into a deeper twist, but our touch may unintentionally trigger someone in very real ways. Taking that into account, as well as acknowledging the importance of physical autonomy and the personal experience of being in the body, it is imperative that a student gives consent before touch is shared.
Many students, especially those new to a class, may not feel comfortable telling the teacher that they would prefer not to be touched. Luckily, there are creative methods to communicate this without having to verbally say it. At a yoga class that I attended recently, the teacher walked around the room offering each student a card. With beautifully painted images and simple meditations on them, these cards served as intentions for our personal practice and communicated consent to the teacher. Image up meant that touch was welcome, image down meant that it was not desired. There are many other ways to incorporate similar ideas into a class. Stones or shells could be used in place of cards, with each student picking one up and placing it by their mat if they are open to adjustments. The yogaflipchip was designed specifically for this purpose.
Yoga has the power to bring us a deep awareness of our bodies. Expressing ‘yes’ to touch or ‘no’ to touch breeds an even deeper awareness of our bodies and a strong sense of empowerment. By providing a welcoming, open space with clear communication, we can ensure that people feel comfortable expressing consent, and thus create a space for people to flourish in their bodies.