The recent New York Times article, titled “Yoga is Finally Facing Consent and Unwanted Touch” has stoked the fire of long-overdue debate around yoga teachers giving physical assists to yoga students. This comes after a spate of heartbreaking accounts of sexual assault in the yoga world: well-known yoga teachers who have violated students’ bodies and spirits through inappropriate touch that they’ve sold as a ‘yoga assist’. The perpetrators of these despicable acts are not yoga teachers. They are sexual predators who have disguised themselves as yoga teachers – many of them hiding in yoga for decades.
My heart aches for the yoga students who endured this treatment. And my heart aches for the many wonderful yoga teachers who now fear giving physical assists in a yoga class, lest they be tarred by the brush of an important discussion that in part is insidiously painting a picture of assists as something creepy. Sadly, gender bias appears to be casting an uneven shadow over the discussion of appropriate versus inappropriate touch in yoga.
The yoga community needs to meet this conversation honestly and head-on, resisting an understandable impulse to throw the baby out with the bathwater.
To be clear, there are many positive benefits of yoga assists, when they are welcomed:
1.Yoga assists can help yoga students access a pose they would otherwise not be able to experience on their own, e.g., handstand or seated forward bend.
2.Yoga assists can be deeply therapeutic for students with body aches and pains, e.g., lower back pain.
3.Yoga assists can help students access the nourishing aspects of yoga that come from human touch, e.g., a stabilizing touch of a shoulder in Warrior 2 may be the only human touch a student experiences regularly.
This all presupposes that the yoga teachers who are giving these assists are specifically trained to give them. Still, what and how yoga assists will be given in the future deserves significant discussion.
Instead of abandoning yoga assists altogether, let’s start a conversation. The conversation starts with asking students if it’s OK to assist them in a yoga pose before actually doing it. Creating an environment in the yoga room where “yes” and “no” can stand alone – without any explanation whatsoever – is essential. Finally, let’s reassess the very yoga assists we give, acknowledging the sad truth that variations of the deep assists we give in yoga today were handed down from once revered teachers who now stand accused of violence.
It can be tempting to walk away from an otherwise salvageable conversation, situation, or relationship because one aspect of it is uncomfortable. In doing so, we may inadvertently close a door on the good in a rush to close a door on the bad. Figuring out how to take right action only where it is needed – that’s what yoga is all about. Not throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Moving through the messy bits. Telling uncomfortable truths. Yoga, as in life, is a constant clean-up act.