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The Ethical Yoga Part 1: Touch & Consent In Yoga

Jude Mills
Jan 20, 2020 1:50:49 PM

In this series of articles, I want to explore ethics for yoga teachers. In the wake of a series of revelations and allegations about well-known teachers and Gurus seriously overstepping and abusing ethical boundaries with their students, what it means to be an ethical yoga teacher, has never been more of a hot topic.  

Of course, Yoga already has a traditional ethical framework in the Yamas and Niyamas. This forms a moral and ethical foundation which might serve as a pretty good starting point for a Yoga Teacher. Surely if we are guided by doing no harm (ahimsa) in our actions, then perhaps the issue of ethics should be pretty straightforward? Sadly, no. The definitions of seemingly clear-cut adherences such as ahimsa are very much open to interpretation and always have been.  They are especially  open to abuse by those whose selfish desires are served by the convenient blurring of boundaries. When ahimsa is forgotten in the dynamics of ego and power – from which nobody is truly immune -  clearer codes of ethics become absolutely necessary.

In this first article, I want to examine the ethics of touch and consent in yoga.

Touch is a powerful, and necessary aspect of human existence. All human beings need touch, and indeed it is essential to our wellbeing. Conscious, consensual touch can be nurturing, healing and deeply caring.

However, navigating the boundaries of appropriate touch can be tricky in the student/teacher relationship. The boundary may be clearer for a massage therapist, for example, where touching a client is implicit in the relationship. For yoga teachers, however, the boundaries of appropriate touch are not always clear.

 It is important to consider what counts as appropriate touch from a yoga teacher and taking care around offering touch by: seeking consent and establishing boundaries; being aware of trauma sensitivity; and working withing our scope of practice Scope of practice means that we don't do anything we are not qualified to do or which is not within our remit as a yoga teacher. I will explore this more in a later article.

Look at the following examples of yoga teachers touching students (all from my own experience as a student) Consider whether this is this appropriate touch and what factors would change its appropriateness.

  1. Teacher placing a guiding hand on a student's arm?
  2. Teacher leaning their body weight on a student's back in a seated forward bend?
  3. Teacher pushing a student’s knees to the floor in Bada Konasana?
  4. Teacher massaging a student's feet in Savasana?
  5. Teacher standing on a student’s hands to offer an adjustment in downward dog?

It is possible that you didn't come up with any definitive answers to some of these questions. Some of these examples include aspects of physical safety as well as considerations of touch.  One thing however, that should be considered before touching or adjusting any student is consent. Is it  ever appropriate to touch a person without asking their permission?

Until very recently, it has been the habit in many yoga classes, particularly the more dynamic styles, to adjust students without seeking any form of explicit consent. If your teacher training was more than five years or so ago, it maybe wasn't even raised as an issue. Certainly, when I trained sixteen years ago, it was customary to walk around the class and give adjustments to everyone, without asking. It was just expected that this would happen. This is what is now referred to as implied consent – meaning that the student was  considered to be giving their consent to be adjusted by being in the class in the first place. Some teachers still operate on this basis.

However, as we are becoming (hopefully) more trauma sensitive and more aware of consent issues all round, it is becoming more and more common to at least ask the person's permission to touch them before you offer and adjustment or any other kind of touch.  I no longer physically adjust my students’ postures, and I generally find it invasive to be adjusted. If I touch, then it is gentle, guiding and encouraging. This is partly because I work with people living with cancer, and adjusting people usually isn’t appropriate,  but my practice has also evolved to consider this best practice all round.  I do recognise, however, that some students enjoy hands-on adjustments and look forward to them.  And of course, as we establish ongoing trusting relationships with our students, and learn how they tick, the dynamic of consent and touch becoming easier to navigate. However, the key to offering any kind of touch, especially with students we don’t know well,  is always consent.

How then, do we establish consent? Can you assume than the absence of a no, or saying nothing, constitutes a yes? Can you rely on people telling you that they don't want to be touched?

The trauma sensitive approach is that consent to touch should be opt-in and not opt-out. Meaning, a person should say a definite YES to being touched. There are many complex reasons for this but at the most basic level, speaking up is difficult for some people in a group setting, so if you say something like “If you don’t want to be touched, please let me know.” This does not help the person who would rather die – and just put up with the unwanted touch -  than draw attention to themselves.

Some teachers are now using cards, chips or counters that are double sided which a student can flip over at any time during the class to say, silently, to the teacher whether they are happy with being touched, or not. Because it can be really hard to say no for some people,  any way of communicating this non-verbally, is a very useful tool of empowerment. You can buy commercially produced ones, or I use a double-sided coaster that I bought really cheaply. It has a red side and a green side (red for no, green for yes) People can flip it at any time during the practice. You could even make your own. It just needs to be something you can see and interpret easily.

However, even if you have a "green for go" consent, it is still best practice to ask first. It is as easy as saying something like "Is it OK if I put my hands on your shoulders/low back/feet?" If the person doesn’t seem sure, I ask again, if they still seem unsure, I take it as a no. Some teachers include other visible ways of gaining consent. One teacher I know asks his students to “wiggle their toes” if they would like to receive a gentle neck and shoulder adjustment in Savasana. No wiggly toes, no adjustment!  NOTE: He still always asks again before he puts his hands on them.

Another question to ask is -  do  your students know it is OK to say no to you? It might seem obvious, but saying no, especially to a teacher – the person in the position of power in the dynamic - is difficult for a lot of people. There is a cultural edge to this, where politeness may often be valued above personal agency. The classic school model of teaching has carried its way into the yoga room and yoga teachers – sometimes even called “instructors” – carry a lot of power and trust. Think about it – we are in a position to ask a group of grown adults to do things with their bodies that – sometimes even against their own instincts – they will usually try to do.

It is worth letting your students know from the outset that it is OK for them to say no to you.  When it comes to touch, you might set this expectation up by saying something like “I may offer hands on assistance in this class. I will always ask if you want to be touched. If you don’t want to be touched, it is 100% OK for you to say no to me. I will never be offended by you making a choice that is right for you or your body. If you don’t feel like speaking, just shake your head. And if you don’t say yes, I will take it as a no.”

Touch can be a wonderful thing. And a calming, guiding, loving hand from a trusted teacher can be a healing and nurturing gift. But for some, being touched can feel invasive. And like our moods, this can change from day to day. We can’t assume that because someone enjoyed an adjustment last week, that they will today.

The answer is consent. Just ask.


In the next article in the Ethical Yogi series, I will explore Boundaries and the Yoga Teacher’s cope of Practice.

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