Yoga and the Ethics of Touch: The Guru’s Blessing

yoga teacher giving student assist
Photo by Krista Shirley

Cozy in pigeon pose, I started as a pair of hands settled into the crease of my hip and my sacrum, easing me much more deeply into the posture as they gently massaged. While grateful for the deepening, a surge of vrttis (thought waves) ensued; was this famous male instructor (also famous for being fond of his female students) pure in his intentions? Did his hands linger a tad too long? Was the assist just an assist, or something more?

It’s often difficult to read the intentions of yoga instructors who employ touch in the context of present day Euro-American cultures, where physical touch is often interpreted as sexual or intrusive. Even the most well intentioned assist can be misconstrued by students who are either attracted to the instructor, triggered due to trauma or doubt the instructor’s integrity for reasons real or imagined. Though most yoga teachers likely offer assists intended to help students come into alignment or deepen into a pose, one’s experience of being touched in yoga emerges from a complex intermingling of our personal samskara (patterns) with the instructor’s behavior, reputation, skill and perceived trustworthiness.

Given the touch-phobic nature of Western culture it is all too easy to witness deep assists and pass judgment. Consider a recent online video depicting the venerable late K. Pattabhi Jois’ (KPJ) execution of intimate and vigorous assists on very advanced Ashtanga practitioners. “When do Ashtanga Yoga Adjustments Cross the Line?” blares the headline, with comments decrying the sheer force and boundary transgressing nature of his adjustments. At times KPJ can be viewed pushing, pulling and contorting students into shape, and is not shy of placing his hands in typically taboo regions. The receiving students can be seen smiling, some half-grimacing, but all apparently on board.

When consulted, an Ashtanga-practicing friend who studied with KPJ reminded me of the importance of context. Those students, she pointed out, were very advanced in their practices, self-selected to study with KPJ, and had bodies that could sustain much deeper assists than the typical practitioner. In addition, KPJ’s teaching emerged from a non-Western context, with accordingly different parameters around touch. Yet were the parameters in India around touch that much different than in the West?

Historically, India has held strict taboos against non-sanctioned associations between men and women and the touch of castes deemed “untouchables.” One notable exception to this taboo is the guru, whose touch (usually to the third eye), gaze or thoughts are believed to confer spiritual blessings or enlightenment through Shaktipat, or transmission of energy.

Respecting his status as a guru, and his students’ choice to study with him, KPJ was well within his rights to touch his students in the ways depicted. Yet the recent evolution of asana as a primary method of practice means that touching by gurus of modern yoga (even KPJ’s Ashtanga yoga would be considered modern by Mark Singleton’s criteria) moves beyond the simple touch intended to bestow awakening or enlightenment, to physical manipulation via postural adjustments. When combined with scantily-clad bodies, the latter form of touch may readily cross boundaries that both guru and student are ill-equipped to navigate, as evidenced by the sexual scandals of modern yoga gurus John Friend, Bikram Choudhury, Amrit Desai and countless others.

Is the likelihood of sexual scandal or unethical behavior in yoga worsened by the spandex-clad touchy-feely free-for-all that modern yoga embodies, or have guru-student relationships always demonstrated this tendency? William Broad argues that yoga itself fosters sexually licentious behavior, although his cited evidence is controversial and somewhat tenuous. While there is little available data on rates of unethical sexual behavior in pre-modern yoga, modern causes are likely multivariable, involving a complex interplay of power, sexuality, skimpy attire and the phenomena transference and counter-transference.

What are your thoughts on offering or receiving assists in your yoga classes?

This is Part One of a two-part series. In Part Two, we will discuss some guidelines for safely receiving and offering assists in yoga.


Comments 6

  1. Better do a little more research on Shaktipat, there Tosca. Jois’ touching in those videos isn’t Shaktipat. Not even close.

    1. Doug, I think you are mis-reading the article as I do not see where Tosca is saying that K. Pattabhi Jois is giving his students Shaktipat. She only mentions Shaktipat as the one historical exception of guru’s touching their students.

  2. I’m surprised by such a careless article from a psychologist in training.

    First, to make the assertion that KPJ was ‘within his rights’ to touch students negates the experience of those students he touched who have come out against it. (Anneke Lucas for one)

    The last sentence to include ‘skimpy attire’ in a list of the causes of unethical sexual behavior smacks of victim blaming in an almost absurd nod to all that we have learned about rape culture in the past decade.

    Maybe this topic is just to big for a blog post, but I’m disappointed by the insensitive approach.

    1. Hey Mado, I think it is unfair to call this article “careless” and I think you are missing the main focus of the post that “it is all too easy to witness deep assists and pass judgment”. Unfortunately the video that this article is based on has been removed, but regardless Tosca was stating that KPJ had the right to adjust the students in the manner depicted in the video, and is certainly not justifying other unethical sexual behavior that was not seen in this video. Yes, this is a complex and multi-layered topic and this blog post was certainly not intended to address all of the nuances around physical touch, consent and sexuality.

    2. Post

      Hi Mado and Timothy,

      I composed a lengthy reply to Mado’s comment last Fall, but for some reason it did not post, my apologies (perhaps because I’m abroad). Timothy, thank you kindly for your reply. I really appreciate your point that it was difficult in this short blog post to address everything there is about this topic. I would like to address Mado’s comment on victim blaming as I feel it’s important for any future clients, students, and others who read this blog, as my understanding has shifted since I initially wrote this.

      Thank you Mado for your comment. At the time I wrote this blog, I lacked insight due to my own cultural conditioning, experiences, and consequent internalization of victim blaming. I was also wary of coming across as judgmental of cultural contexts and yoga lineages with which I was not intimately familiar, and sought tortured explanations other than the obvious. Even though I instinctively recoiled at what I saw in the video of Jois assisting students, I was afraid to articulate a line, and thus expressed a distorted view.

      As you point out, there is never, EVER any justification for unethical sexual behavior — and attire has *ZERO* to do with it. Ever. I cringe at what I initially wrote, but I do think it demonstrates how deeply these entrenched cultural beliefs can take root in the psyche and “spiritual” communities, even among those committed to helping others. Calling others out, education, and honest self-inquiry is so important to dismantle these mistaken beliefs so that they do not engender harm!

      In the years since I wrote this, training, personal work, and other experiences have proven hugely eye-opening. A small part of me regrets that my earlier “victim blaming” view has been canonized in this blog. Indeed, I hope anyone reading this can be relieved in *knowing* this article does not reflect my current beliefs or treatment approach.

      Yet a much greater part of me is grateful for the opportunity to demonstrate that a change in core beliefs, in the span of several years, is possible. Many trauma survivors internalize blame as a deep sense of shame; I had my own reasons for implicitly holding these harmful beliefs. Today I know better, to my core, and hope that all who internalize and express such beliefs might similarly awaken.

      **To illustrate the complexity of belief change, eight months later I wrote a blog on the toxicity of turning a “blind eye” in sexual abuse allegations in yoga and the importance of speaking out. This reflected my personal struggle to find my voice in speaking out against injustice. I am grateful to you for caring enough to speak out and tip off other readers not to take what I wrote at face value. Thank you kindly for calling me out. I am appreciative, and I’m sure others are, too.

  3. Hi Tosca –
    Wow, this may be the first time I’ve ever made a critical comment and had it taken to heart. I usually avoid making comments online because they so often are misconstrued and the receiver is generally defensive. This time I felt it just needed to be called out, not for you, but for others who read the article who might question their role in a received abuse. Thank you for taking the time to reflect and respond. The ability to receive criticism and actually use it to grow is a rare quality. Your response gives me some hope for online interaction and for the world.

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