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Consent is Super Hot


And no - this blog isn’t switching up our focus - this post is still about yoga!


While there are plenty of examples of teachers/leaders who have abused their powers and manipulated their students via power imbalances and promises of promotions, this post isn’t about that either.


Instead, I want to share my opinions on two other areas where we could tighten up our expectations and create better boundaries and safeties for our students.


  1. Photos shared on social media

  2. Hands-on assisting culture


I will start with the least complicated (and imbedded) issue: photos shared on social media


Obviously, the interwebs wasn’t a thing in Patanjali’s time, or any other revered author or teacher until the 1980’s/1990’s and the whole social media boom is only about 20 years old - so there’s no textual frame of reference to refer to in this instance. With a newfound reliance on social media for marketing, there’s a whole new field of connection and opportunity for introspection.


I believe that any technology is a tool and the use of these tools can either become medicine or poison - all dependent on the user. If one desires, one could become addicted to a practice of breathwork. Forgoing all responsibilities and duties to sit and breathe - almost getting high off prana - even forgetting to eat. Or one could do your necessary daily practices and move on with your day. #choices


What I observe repeatedly that makes me cringe every single time: photos of students taken in savasana


My question, and here’s where it all connects:

Did you ask for permission before (1) taking the photo and (2) sharing the photo to your network?


Consent!


Yoga is a sacred and personal practice. People experience a wide range of feelings and even moments of breakdowns (throughs). The “Observer Effect '' teaches us that being watched has an effect on us, according to physicists these are even documented on the particle level. We need to clearly ask permission and give easy opportunities to opt out. We can’t assume opt-in as many of “us” are people pleasers and will say yes to something as it seems easier and potentially leaves a better impression - even if we really want to say no. 


Savasana loosely translates to “corpse” posture and is meant to be a final posture of integration and deep supported rest. When is it acceptable to take photos of corpses? It feels thoughtless, at best, and disrespectful, at honest, to take these photos and publicly share them without asking if it’s ok. There are an infinite number of reasons why someone wouldn’t want their picture taken, much less shared openly. We don’t know people’s stories, and it feels harmful to assume that just because they showed up to a community class we can use their images for our self-promotion and participation in the “look at me” culture that is social media.


Full Disclosure: In the past, I’ve taken the savasana photos and posted them. At the time, I was following the trend and it kinda made sense. I opted to do quick videos (or boomerangs) that scanned the room because it made me feel slightly better about posting if faces couldn’t be seen. I’ve learned that if I have to do mental gymnastics to make things feel ok then maybe I just shouldn’t be doing the thing(s) that I have to spend extra time rationalizing.


If you do want to take photos for marketing purposes, memory keeping, and/or (humble) brags here’s a few ideas:

  • Take photos before or after class while being clear where/how these photos will be shared. You can even ask if people want to be tagged and BAM new followers!

  • Offer a free/special class with consent forms that clearly state that their purpose is to take photos for promotional purposes. Some people LOVE being included in photos and will totally show up for the opportunity.

  • Have a “no camera” zone clearly defined and allow people to place their mats in this safe(r) space - make sure to honor this space with no photos.


I’ve also been in situations where the venue/business partner wanted to take photos of their event. I have done my best in that situation (sometimes it’s a surprise to me too) and have announced the presence of the cameras. I also request no savasana photos.


I suspect that the majority of people are happy to take the photos and we also want to be inclusive of the ones who would rather not.


Personally, I used to love having my photo taken and shared. And I recognize how the camera made me more aware of what my face was doing or my alignment looked at that angle or even just trying to do “more” to be noticed by the photographer. Currently, I have had to make different choices for my body and have favored strength-training classes with weights and my yoga practice happens at home and includes more breath and meditation with slow mindful movements (and dance parties) - definitely not the show-off from before (love her too but whew she did A LOT). 


Feeling warmed up, let’s tackle the potentially more controversial topic: hands on yoga assists


 This topic has been heavy on my heart since the #MeToo movement and reignited after 2020+ when touching and close contact was rather sketchy. I launched my own Yoga School in 2020 so the first few years couldn’t include the practice of assisting, although we did some discussion.


I have been teaching Yoga for over 10 years and A LOT has changed since I did my first training. In fact, my very training was a weekend intensive to learn about hands-on assisting. This training was held in a local studio that was known for having assistants in classes who systematically moved through the room and put their hands on EVERYbody to give you cues/clues about where your body was and where it maybe should be instead. We were taught all about the benefits of touch and how to intentionally place our hands on others’ bodies while moving through a rather vigorous asana (postures) practice.


Relevant side story: I graduated from NC School of Advanced Bodywork in August 2023 and became a licensed massage therapist and bodyworker in September 2023. Licensing is a long, lengthy and at times confusing process. In the state of North Carolina a LMBT (licensed massage and bodywork therapist) is considered the bare minimum for a “license to touch”. The process included letters of character reference, background check by the SBI, fingerprinting at the sheriff’s office, and passing of a comprehensive exam at one of those super regulated testing centers where the security made me take off my jade necklace and swept my glasses for “smart technology” prior to entry. Other modalities such as physical therapists, chiropractors, and doctors have their own licenses, permissions, and scopes of practice. In massage therapy, there is a HUGE emphasis placed on ethics, power imbalances between therapist and client, and it’s super clear what’s within our scope of practice. We are required to renew our license every 2 years and have a minimum of 24 hours of continued education hours with 3 of those being ethics. There is a system of checks and balances, a board that reviews reports of abuse and other violations, and a quarterly newsletter that shares recent cases against therapists and their outcomes. AND with all of these systems in place, there are STILL asshats who take advantage of their position and power and cause harm to others. There’s no such system of checks and balances in the Yoga world. I won’t waste more space/words but ICYMI here’s an article about the founder of Ashtanga Yoga Pattabhi Jois (all the TWs) - and people still have his photo on altars and in exalted spaces. #ew


Back to the main story: I later assisted, and then taught, at the studio where I took that first assistant training, although I did my additional teacher trainings under a different style (and lineage). When I assisted, there was sometimes an introduction of me to the class but typically it was assumed that everyone opted in to be assisted - although there wasn’t never an official informed consent, at least there was some acknowledgement. When I taught I added this disclaimer, again assuming opting in, but at least giving an avenue for opting out:

As I teach I will be walking around the room and offering hands-on assists. These assists aren’t because you are doing anything wrong. They are more of an offering to ground you  and maybe take you a bit deeper into the shape. You can always tell me no, or go away, or shoo me away - my personal feelings aren’t involved. I respect your choice.” 

Most people were receptive to my touch, and a few would tell me no. If I had an extra assistant, I would introduce them with the same disclaimer and share any “no’s” as they came up. The studio closed in 2020 so I’m not sure how it would have responded to this brave new world. I am still deciding how I am responding, and I’m finding that my response differs based on the setting.


Generally speaking, I don’t offer hands-on assists in community classes. I prefer to watch and cue and sometimes demo. On retreats, I travel with “consent cards” - one side says “yes, please to hands-on assists” and the other side says “no thank you to hands-on assists”. I place the cards with the “no thank you” side facing UP so they get to opt IN and my spiel sounds like this:

“Throughout today’s class I would like to offer some hands-on assists. I have placed some consent cards for hands-on assists at the top of your mat. You will need to flip them over to say “YES”. You can also change your mind at any time by flipping your card. Consider it like a Brazilian steakhouse - where you can say yes or no to more meats OR you can totally stick with the salad bar the whole time, it’s just as fulfilling.”

In Yoga Teacher Training, we weave in hands-on assists while covering the ethics of touch and the gray area that these inhabit. We also have a session with Polly Weiss (TCTSY-F) a trauma-informed yoga practice facilitator and future mental health therapist who highlights how unwanted touch will have a harmful impact, regardless of intention. 

In my 1:1 sessions, my regular clients often opt-in and I may choose to opt-out on the days where my energy is low and/or scattered. I will also practice new techniques on them including Thai massage - a beautiful (and legal for me) blend of yoga posture assists + energetic awareness and Craniosacral therapy - a beautiful blend of nerdy brain science + yoga philosophy.


A note on Thai massage: your practitioner should be licensed according to NC state law (other states may be different). Period. I have personally witnessed harm in the community from a group of dudes offering free Thai massages to female-identifying yoga students and creating unsafe environments. At the time I only had suspensions, which were later confirmed, and did not have the proper tools to combat what I witnessed. I still carry this guilt and maybe that’s why I feel so spicy about this topic today. 


None of my words are to negate the benefits of consensual and intelligent touch. Touch is amazing!!! I find that I crave long hugs from trusted friends after a day of massage work, and have to work really hard to rebalance myself after so much giving of touch (and energy). 


The BIG question: does a 200-hour yoga teacher training certification give us the authority to touch bodies without consent? 


Definitely not!


Rephrased: does a 200-hour yoga teacher training certification give us the authority to touch bodies with consent?


Probably not, but also maybeeee


AND…many of the yoga teachers (and trainees) that I have had the pleasure of meeting hold multiple certifications, display an abundance of practiced skill sets, and are some of the most intelligent people I have met (and I spent 5 years working as a research assistant for UNC-Chapel Hill and was around phD’s all day, every day).


Speaking to yoga teacher trainers here: we HAVE to do a better job at establishing new systems of consent and practice for our newly created yoga teachers. We need to present multiple sides to controversial topics and be careful not to imbed our own biases into the yogic teachings. I currently don't know how I feel about the future (and present) utility of assisting and I share that openly with my students.


Relevant side story that will eventually become a whole story: Another gift of massage school was a personal revelation that may seem obvious but to me I was oblivious…I’m hypermobile.


What does that even mean?


In school we learned about the normal range of motion in all the joints and ways to get folks back within these ranges using the specific and targeted tools of bodywork (slightly different than massage). And then there’s hypermobile people who’s normal range of motion is outside the “normal” limits. Sure, I had heard of hypermobility but that wasn’t me. I had grown up in the dance and gymnastics worlds and seen hypermobility - middle splits, legs behind heads, contortionist-like backbends. That wasn’t me, and never has been me. This topic deserves its own post (and probably will get one), but briefly, my normal range of motion is above the averages and much of my yoga practices over the last 15ish years may have been making my issues worse :)   


I hope to make it back to an asana class soon-ish and I question if I would want hands-on assists from someone who doesn’t know me and my body’s story. I would need to approach the asanas differently and many assists that I initially learned would be terrible for my body. As much as I would love the touch, I would feel unsafe in most styles of community classes with what I would call fly by assists (intentional but nonspecific to the student assists that we all learn in the beginning that may be effective for most but harmful for some). Specifically for me, any sort of assist that would deepen my forward folds or open my hips more would be detrimental for my personal journey of healing/listening to my body. "No" would be easier than trying to explain myself. 


I have been injured by well-intentioned friends who assumed that I could go further into a shape. I have been injured by following well-intentioned teachers into deeper versions of asanas. While in both circumstance my body technically could take the deeper expressions of these asanas, I most defintely shouldn't have as both of those injuries took monthssss and $$$ to heal.


Every time I step into the room as a massage therapist I remind myself of what a sacred privilege it is to touch another person. Every time I step in to the role of a yoga teacher, I feel in awe of the long lineage of students and teachers and hearts that have carried these practices down to me today. I take time to clear my mind/heart and do my best to come to the table/mat with an openness and a sincere desire to hear what the body/community is telling me. I take time to talk with my clients ahead of time, perhaps do a quick assessment of movement and range of motion, and then let them know my plan for our time together. 


Note: I don't do this same checking in method with my yoga students in a community class. I find this info to be overwhelming and I am not quailified to handle so many issues directly and broadly. Rather, I assume we all walked in with something we are working through, whether mental or physical or both. I encourage students to listen to their bodies and offer many variations for folks as I watch and observe my students arriving and moving on their mats.


It’s all about managing expectations both as a massage therapist and as a yoga teacher. If we plan to assist, or take photos, just let people know and give them clear options of how to participate or not. As humans, we must become more trauma-conscious of each other, and of ourselves. We are swimming in an atmospheric river of oppression, genocide, and violence - even if we aren’t directly affected we are still breathing the same air, standing on the same earth, and witnessing today’s circumstances from our own privileges and perspectives. 


Yoga is being commercialized and sold as a healing modality, and yet many yoga teachers are perpetuating harmful systems of oppression and violence by not recognizing individual lived experiences. All yoga should be trauma informed and that looks like having options, dropping assumptions, and offering many opportunities for consent within the practice - even beyond my two chosen topics.


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