Yoga and the Ethics of Touch: Guidelines for Teachers and Students

yoga teacher assisting student
Photo by Dave Brocklebank

“Put your foot here and scooch it forward. Now reach your arms back, wait there, no just a little further … oh … PERFECT!” exclaimed the instructor, beaming at her sculptural creation.  The student smiled awkwardly, trying to ignore the stabbing pain in her lower back.

The truth is that most yoga assists are beloved by students and teachers alike. For many students, hands-on adjustments offer an opportunity to sink more deeply into an expression of a posture.  But for the student who experiences pain—or for the student who prefers not to be touched at all—there are a host of practical issues that arise when receiving and offering assists during a yoga class.

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Yoga instructors will probably recall the guidelines for ethical assists taught in their yoga teacher training: Always ask students “is this ok?” before touching. Remember to be gentle. Approach with kind and loving energy. Some lineages, such as Kripalu Yoga, train instructors to view assists not as fixing the student or their asana, but as an offering that the student is free to receive or reject.

As students, it can be difficult to know how to respond to assists in class. We look to instructors for guidance, and it may thus feel difficult to turn down an assist or to consider one’s own body as a source of information as to whether or not an assist feels “right.” Guidelines for students to consider when attending classes:

1. Well-trained instructors will ask students if there are any injuries or any other concerns they should know about before beginning. If an instructor does not ask, approach them directly and tell them what you’re dealing with. Their response should give you a sense of their assisting philosophy and approach.

2. Does your instructor ask permission before assisting you? Some instructors announce at the beginning of class that they offer assists, and others ask permission individually as they move throughout the room later, so that students don’t feel put on the spot. Either way, be honest about whether you wish to receive assists during your practice. Do not feel the need to provide extensive explanations; most instructors understand if you state that you would prefer not to be touched. During class, always retain your authority to simply say, “thanks but no thanks,” and resume your own version of the posture.

3. When agreeing to an assist, you sometimes don’t know how it will feel until you’re mid-way through it. If you feel like you are being sculpted into someone’s idea of a perfect pose, or if it feels like a teacher’s assist is more about their expectations than your experience, communicate that you no longer wish to be assisted, or consider finding another instructor.

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4. If you notice that it’s difficult for you to say “no” when an instructor offers you an assist, or conversely, that you resist assists given in a gentle spirit of offering, turn this into an opportunity for some “yoga off the mat.” Are there other areas of life you find it difficult to say no? What would it be like to use this experience in yoga as an opportunity to break that pattern, and speak up? If your pattern instead is to consistently resist assists, notice if there are other places in your life where you resist feedback, advice or the support of others. Might there be a place and time where assists could be appropriately received?

5. Listen to your gut. If you ever feel weird about an assist, listen and either speak up or consider finding another instructor. Years ago, an instructor where I taught was known to spend a lengthy amount of time assisting attractive young women, while ignoring others. Thankfully several of the women complained, and he was forced to modify his behavior before resuming teaching. Without their dissent, this behavior would have continued.

For instructors, the best policy is to stick with your “assisting guidelines 101.” Conscious intentions for the use of touch in yoga can ease students more deeply into a posture, correctly align, or communicate caring, soothing and relaxation. An unconscious instructor may unwittingly over-correct or over-touch for reasons they don’t understand, raising the possibility of ethical violations. In addition, assists intended to correct or “sculpt” the student into a better postural expression reinforce the popularly held notion that a “perfect” asana is the point of yoga.

Some guidelines for instructors to consider with the use of touch:

1. Become clear about your intention for assisting and the spirit in which you would like to implement the assist. Do you seek to fix a student’s terrible alignment, or offer them an opportunity to embody a fuller postural expression with greater ease? Is this communicated in your words and energy?

2. Practice equal opportunity assists for everyone. Whether you’re offering assists to students with poor alignment, etc., or whether you offer feel-good deepening assists, be conscious of not spending too much time on a few select students.

3. Teach your class with an attitude of permission and loving-kindness. Students should be made to feel safe either accepting or turning down an assist.

4. Always ask—either at the beginning of class, or immediately prior to an assist—whether an assist is OK.

5. Take a deep breath and ground into yourself before entering a student’s space. This helps transmit a sense of gentle confidence in your touch.

6. Ask during assists whether the adjustment is working for them (“Too much? Too little? Deeper?”). Be willing to modify accordingly.

7. Offer permission, even after having given an assist, for the student to listen to their own bodies in deciding whether to maintain your offering.

What is your philosophy on assists—love them, hate them, or neutral?

This is Part Two of our series on Yoga and the Ethics of Touch. Read Part One here.

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