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.

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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?

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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.


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