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Revisiting the Hands on Conversation in a Hands Off Time

Originally Published July 27, 2020

One thing that I am grateful for is that even when we return to teaching in real life, we might take a break from hands on adjustments/assists in the foreseeable future. This might surprise those who have known me for a while because I have taught trainings and workshops for years on the subject, and teach a practice that is known for its adjustments.

Don’t get me wrong, I love them and think they can be useful, especially when studying and learning about body mechanics. But the pre-COVID debate around the issue mixed with the hopefully obvious reasons why they have little place in yoga classes at least for the a while, warrants a huge and maybe permanent pause from them altogether.

First of all, there seems to be no safe way to offer assists/adjustments in group settings even when we start to rebuild and open studios. (One-on-one sessions are a different situation.) It won’t be safe to touch more than one body without washing your hands in between. It would be dangerous and irresponsible for any teacher to do so, likely even when we have a vaccine.

But dangerous and irresponsible behavior from teachers is not new to the conversation that surrounds assists/adjustments. The issue even made its way to the New York Times this past fall. In this piece, many student’s experiences with inappropriate touch and abuse are highlighted. It’s a tough and worthy read and presents a problem worth studying, even in this time of mostly at home practice.

One thing that is often presented as a way to solve the problem, including in the NYT piece, is the use of consent cards.

Consent cards are used as a communication tool between teacher and student. They are designed in a variety of ways: some with words, some with symbols, and present the practitioner with the binary choice: Yes, you can touch me, or, no you cannot. Some studios supported using these in constant conversation throughout the class, meaning a student could opt out or in at different times throughout class.

I want to state that the intent in using the cards is very good, but there is a problem with them that I don’t see discussed very often: they only protect people who say no. They do not protect people who say yes, and in some cases might actually cause further harm.

Because, really what are we saying yes to? If we say yes, does it absolve the responsibility of the studio/teacher if they imposed harm? After all, we consented to it. Also, those of us who have been victims of assault in yoga would likely have said yes to being touched had we been given the option. Not only do we have to unpack the psychological distress of the act, we have to grapple with the fact that we “asked for it.”

I share this from first hand experience. I was assaulted by a teacher who I was friendly with and used to work with. I will spare the details, but it was one-hundred percent intentional and disgusting. After it happened, I mostly tried to justify this person’s actions in my head instead of calling it out or telling the studio. After all, I knew them, and trusted them, surely it was me who misinterpreted his actions.

I don’t think this reaction is uncommon, and if I had been given a card, it would have said yes. But it wasn’t until I had coffee with a friend two weeks later that I realized what had happened. I brought up how good his class was (yes-it’s all so sick), and my friend said, “yeah, but he grabbed my boobs in downward dog.”

Years later I finally confronted the studio owners. In their first response to me they said I was not the only one who had come to them with claims and concerns. But unfortunately, after lots of back and forth, gaslighting, and victim-blaming, one of the owners said: “I just honestly do not believe that he is intending to violate any woman’s body or sovereignty with his assists.” I wonder how many women would it have taken them to reconsider.

I mention this not to rehash old stories or pick fights, but to point out that yes/no questions might not be the solutions to big systemic problems. Also, I don’t think consent cards are a bad thing because protecting people who say no is a great and important step. But they are (were?) just a band-aid to a much bigger problem. Band-aids are important for healing, but if you just use them to hide what’s underneath, they will lose their efficacy. In many ways, our current circumstances have lots of these to be ripped off. I think this is a good thing. Because the real problem is abusive power dynamics and patriarchal normalcy bathed in “love and light” platitudes. And that sometimes manifests in someone’s “healing” (and wandering) hands.

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