Permission to Touch: The Complicated Matter of Hands-On Adjustments

December 1, 2014    BY Susan Stringfellow

Like we don’t have enough to deal with without having someone’s hands all over us, right? Hmm. What happens when that person’s hands are helping hands? And when are helping hands, well, not so helpful? The question of whether or not to offer hands-on assists in yoga class is becoming a big topic of discussion among yoga teachers and studio owners. Should we touch our students? And if so, how do we ask permission to assist without making students feel that they’ve been put on the spot?

Should we touch our students?

By Invitation Only

Teachers touch students to help them align better. We all know that. What many practitioners don’t realize is that sometimes they’re so out of alignment that they might actually hurt themselves. And as many teachers and practitioners can attest, a yoga injury can take months to heal, or longer. 

So, what’s a caring yoga teacher to do? Some studio owners have come up with a pretty innovative solution. They’re called “consent cards,” and these little unobtrusive rectangles of paper speak volumes. “Yes” or “No.” That’s it.

It's All Yoga, Baby blogger Roseanne Harvey describes consent cards as “a great way to give agency to practitioners in a yoga class and make it possible for them to choose or refuse touch.” There are various versions of the cards, with some studio owners making their own. Peace of Mind Yoga Gear offers cards that read, “adjust or assist? YES, PLEASE” on one side, with the request crowned by two hennaed hands, pinky-to-pinky. And on the opposite side, “adjust or assist? NO, THANKS,” with a blossoming lotus above. No upset. No resentment. No misunderstandings. Just a lovely way to avoid an awkward moment.

Roseanne Harvey describes consent cards as “a great way to give agency to practitioners in a yoga class and make it possible for them to choose or refuse touch.”

“We decided to offer the cards so that students feel that they have control over the practice of physical adjustments,” says Viki Distin, owner of Cascade Yoga Studio in Cascade, Michigan. “We were trying to be sensitive to those who may have had bad adjustments in the past and also those who may have [experienced] trauma.

I personally have had the full spectrum of adjustments,” she continues. “I have had physical adjustments that were healing and helpful for body awareness and then adjustments that have hurt my body and taken me several weeks to recover.”

Not So Fast

Yet others in the community share their reservations about the cards.

“While I applaud their intention, I still want to be in dialogue with students around touch,” explains Anna Guest-Jelley, founder of CurvyYoga and co-editor of Yoga and Body Image: 25 Personal Stories about Beauty, Bravery & Loving Your Body. Not wanting to create unwarranted stress about potential adjustments, Guest-Jelley chooses not to present consent cards to her students. “I offer physical touch so rarely,” she says, “I haven’t seen a need to potentially raise students’ anxiety about the possibility of it happening.”

In fact, all of the yoga teachers interviewed for this article said that they prefer verbal cues for a variety of reasons. “I believe that a teacher should be able to language alignment cues so that touching students is rare,"  says Lynn Matthews, owner of Yoga4Life. "[This allows] the student to find the pose by developing a deeper awareness of his or her body.”

 “I prefer verbal adjustments 99% of the time,” agrees Guest-Jelley, “and only offer physical [adjustments] if those fail and a student is at physical risk. When I do offer a physical adjustment, I always ask for consent. I’m well aware of the loaded relationship many people have with touch and do not presume to know anyone’s desire to be touched overall, much less on a particular body part.”

Picture Perfect

And aversion to adjustments can be even more complex than simply not wanting to be touched. “Sometimes I wonder if students who get a lot of adjustments drop into the ‘perfectionist side of themselves’ and the adjustment ends up creating a negative response,” says Distin. “I usually do not adjust until I have had the student in my class several times.”

Aversion to adjustments can be even more complex than simply not wanting to be touched.

Perfectionism is a particularly nefarious form of anxiety, and for many practitioners yoga and perfectionism are intertwined. Let’s face it, the axiom “perfection is inside you” is sometimes difficult to buy into, let alone bring into moment-to-moment awareness. As author and recovering perfectionist Michael Law once wrote, “At its root, perfectionism isn’t really about a deep love of being meticulous. It’s about fear. Fear of making a mistake. Fear of disappointing others. Fear of failure. Fear of success.” Or as psychologist Anne Wilson Schaef, author of several books on intimacy and addiction, has so aptly stated, “Perfectionism is self-abuse of the highest order.” Which, of course, is why savvy yoga instructors are on the lookout for it. 

Mentoring students to retrain their inner critic is perhaps one of the greatest gifts a yoga teacher can offer. It’s incredibly healing for everyone in the room when a respected authority says something like, “Hey, we’re all just human. It can be really difficult to fill out your pose and stretch and grow if you're not present right now. Presence requires courage. Be who you are on the mat right now." And that includes the instructor, whose subconscious is taking in the message of compassion and self-care again and again.

 “My teaching philosophy is built around student empowerment," explains Guest-Jelley. I want my students to feel that they can make the best choices for them during our practice—with feedback from me, of course, but not reliant on me. Many yoga students will defer to their teacher’s instruction, even if it doesn’t make sense for their body. They assume the teacher knows better and they should just go along with it.”

For this reason, she advocates “a classroom where teachers share power with their students, rather than having power over students,” and stresses that “The teacher must be aware of the ways in which they continually give the practice back to the students—encouraging them to do what works for their bodies, offering multiple options for varying needs, using props, etc.”

Fostering a Culture of Consent  

One of the benefits of consent cards is that they offer the ability to state your preference about access to your body without getting into a philosophical discussion about it. And who doesn’t want to be understood without saying a word? 

“I think that classes in most yoga studios operate under an assumption of ‘implied consent,’” says Harvey. “If you take a class in that space, you are likely to be touched by the teacher whether you want to [be] or not. But this doesn’t take into account the wide range of experiences and stories that we bring into class with us.”

“I think that classes in most yoga studios operate under an assumption of ‘implied consent,’” says Harvey.

“Touching someone is quite personal,” reminds Matthews, “and many people do not want to be touched. As a teacher, you don’t know the student’s past. I’ve worked with a number of physically and sexually abused students, so I think consent is quite important.”

For those who have ever been hurt physically or, more specifically, sexually, the touch of the teacher can be confusing and even emotionally painful, eliciting responses to partially resolved or unresolved trust and safety issues hunkering down in the corner of the mind.

The cards also help students come to know a teacher over time and become comfortable with that teacher before allowing physical-touch alignment. Verbal cues and modeling are the industry standard for many because, as Guest-Jelley reminds, “If students feel on guard because they’re worried about getting a physical adjustment, or if they’re surprised by one, they’re not able to drop into their body and practice."

"[I have] worked in the past in the fields of both intimate partner violence and sexual assault prevention and intervention," she continues, "[and] I’m fully aware that there are people who have experienced trauma in every class I teach. Every class. No matter what. I’m also well aware of how unlikely I am to know who those people are because very few people disclose trauma.”

Different Bodies, Different Minds

In addition to the millions of us affected by trauma, there are also people who just feel self-conscious about touching and being touched, or are struggling with a health problem, or have simply had a yucky day. In these cases, tools like consent cards act as a sort of nonverbal communication for those who are uncomfortable with or unable to express their needs verbally.

Yet, there is still some concern about the possible long-term implications of setting consent cards as the "gold standard" for student/teacher interactions. “While I think that the consent conversation is important—and I believe that every yoga teacher should have some kind of trauma-informed training to fully understand the capacity of the human body to hold experiences," says Harvey, "I also don’t want to see teachers become too cautious, or a culture of ‘consent policing’ emerge in yoga studios.

There is still some concern about the possible long-term implications of setting consent cards as the "gold standard" for student/teacher interactions.

I’ve been in yoga classes,” she continues, “where the teacher will do an informal survey while everyone is in downward facing dog or child’s pose, and people respond by raising an arm or a leg and still maintain a certain amount of anonymity (if, say, they worry about what other people think).”

This playful way of determining consent gets the job done while maintaining inconspicuousness, but for some, the desire for touch—even romance—supersedes concerns about neighboring opinions. “It's not unusual for the combination of spandex, sweat, and opening your heart to lead to a yoga studio flirtation,” writes About Health blogger Ann Pizer.

Who’s In Charge?

Under certain circumstances, a teacher’s touch can provoke uncertainty. The teacher-student relationship is one built on authority, and authority, as we all know, can mess with people’s minds on both sides of the equation. Students can be more likely to allow an interaction they might normally fend off because they’re awed by the integrity, the charisma, the power, and the knowledge of the teacher. Instructors can fool themselves into thinking that what they are doing in the shala is helping the student, and any interactions outside of the practice space are based on the natural course of nature—two people equally attracted to each other and equally conscious of the motives behind their behavior.

Uh. Not. (Not all the time, anyway.) 

“Most teachers have extensive conversations about physical safety during their training," says Guest-Jelley, "and, of course, those discussions must be had. What is often talked about less, though, but which I think is equally important, is students’ emotional safety.” 

“...It’s evident that grappling with challenging psychological and emotional issues is the new normal," she writes.

So true, and hopefully this type of thinking will provoke a change in the yoga teacher training community. Carol Horton, Ph.D., author of Yoga Ph.D.: Integrating the Life of the Mind and the Wisdom of the Body and co-editor of 21st Century Yoga: Culture, Politics, and Practice, addresses the importance of talking about psychological and emotional safety in teacher trainings in a 2013 blog post. "It's evident that grappling with challenging psychological and emotional issues is the new normal," she writes. "Yoga teachers should be proud of the fact that they’re working to create a sacred space that not only offers students refuge from these pressures, but tools for emotional and psychological renewal as well.“ 

The Human Connection

Also worth considering is a thought brought up by Harvey, “Many people are touch-deprived and adjustments from yoga teachers may be one of the few instances they receive loving touch. I wouldn't want to see anyone deprived of this. Rather, I want to see students be empowered to choose touch or no-touch, and teachers be trained in the subtle impact of human touch.”

What is the subtle impact of human touch? Sometimes we don’t even realize how tense we are until someone touches us. Because of their contact, we suddenly recognize that we have something stored up inside of us to work on. We have to relax for our own health and welfare, and tune in to discover what’s beneath all that prickliness, all those jagged edges.

Sometimes we don’t even realize how tense we are until someone touches us.

We all have days when we’d rather not be bothered. Things haven’t been going well, in our body or our mind, or in the outside world. And we’re feeling a bit raw. Sometimes those states of feeling stick around longer than we’d like. Sometimes a lot longer. Sometimes we feel helpless about them. Sometimes we’re able to let things go, and other times we have difficulty releasing. And sometimes we might find hands-on assists to be welcome and helpful for aiding in that release. Other times not so much. Certainly, the skillful touch of a well-intentioned teacher can be tremendously supportive, but not if it's unwelcome. 

Tools like consent cards can surely be helpful for opening up the lines of communication between teachers and students, but whether or not teachers choose to use them, the introduction of consent cards (and the attention that they've garnered in yoga-related media) opens up an important conversation: 

How can we increase awareness of, and sensitivity to, the effects of trauma? How can we empower our students to make the choices that are best for them? And how can we foster human connection in other ways? 

Because in the end, it’s that human connection that we all remember, and yoga teachers have a part to play in the healthy understanding of body and mind. And therefore, ultimately, in the connective relationships that keep ourselves and our world together.

Susan Stringfellow
Susan Stringfellow is an editor at Yoga International and has been teaching yoga since 2010. She taught English Writing and Literature at Point Park University and has earned two MFAs in Creative Writing, as well as a Certificate in Publishing, while studying in the U.S., England, and Ireland. Her most recent work has been published in 5 A.M., The Carlow Journal, and the anthology, Ashes to Ashes. Her current projects include The Girl in Water, a volume of poetry investigating the binary soul... Read more>>

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