Consent in Yoga 

A brief history 

As a Yoga student of almost 43 years, Yoga teacher for 22 and Yoga therapist of 9 years, I have experienced and witnessed such changes in this aspect of teaching Yoga. 

When I began yoga classes in 1977, I have no memory of my teacher ever touching or adjusting us, instructions were verbal or visual. 

By 1979 she had done some training in the Iyengar method with Martyn Jackson, so then everything changed. Strange props in the room. My god, one was called by her, ‘The Guillotine”! It was a contraption to ‘help’ the student achieve correct alignment in a head stand. It was placed against the wall in a corner and it really required assistance from the teacher , verbally and manually, touch and adjustments. 

How I hated it! 

Suddenly physical discomfort was ‘0k’ as long as you achieved more intensity and alignment in the Asana. 

My teacher, Billee Bale, remained my teacher for over 30 years. She continued to touch and adjust without asking consent. However, her adjustments and touch never felt invasive, painful or inappropriate to me. I trusted her implicitly . She was a very intuitive, caring and dedicated teacher. She was also a qualified and skilled masseuse so her touch and adjustments came from that knowledge and experience. 

She once used her teeth to indicate where she wanted my husband to bring attention, his tailbone, as she was using her hands to adjust him in Downward Dog! He never let her forget it and often talked with humour of how she ‘bit his bum’.This was probably around 1986. 

Now today, such adjustments as she gave would be considered totally inappropriate and invasive. And yet, she had many students who stayed with her teaching for 20 plus years, some even saying ‘Billee saved my life’. To my knowledge she did not physically harm anyone, her intention was always to heal not harm. 

I did my initial teacher training with Billee so when I started teaching, I too put my hands on people to give gentle ‘adjustments’ or to bring their awareness to a particular area of the body. I doubt I ever asked consent, I taught what I knew and had experienced via my teacher.Once a student told me she had had a sore shoulder [fortunately only mild] after I pulled a wooden rod she had in her hands behind her back to draw her further into a posture. I hope I did not harm anyone else. 

From 2003 I began studying and training in the Krishnamacarya tradition, as taught by Desikachar and gradually my teaching and my own practice changed.I began, without conscious decision, to adjust and touch less and less, there was no need. 

Now I rarely touch anyone in group class, if I do it is a light placement of my hand and permission is asked first. In one to one Yoga therapy I do touch, but always only after consent given and even explaining why I would touch. 

However I do hug some of my students when they arrive at class especially after a break, I do this spontaneously and intuitively and I am confident that I would sense when someone did not want a hug. 

Often there is a mutual sense of approaching one another to hug or touch. Many of my students have been with me for over 15 years, so there is a connection, a rapport. I would not hug a brand new student, although recently, a new student approached me to hug after a class explaining that was part of who she was. 

So personally I would not use consent cards in my classes, I believe there is no need as I so rarely would touch. ‘Adjustments” are given verbally and often privately in a soft voice. (But do I need Hug Consent cards!?). However if I was attending another class where adjustments and touch were the norm, yes please I would like a card and I would say it would almost always be a no for me! 

So how as a profession do we address this issue in today’s society, especially after so many “scandals” in so many yoga traditions including my own? 

I believe it has to start with how we train our teachers. 

The number of hours of training less an issue than the length of time of training, so that a trainee can complete their own personal development. 

The content of training to include sound and up-to-date anatomy and physiology and understanding the psychology of pain. 

A thorough understanding of the psychology of anxiety, depression, mental illness and trauma. 

If the study is in a tradition of yoga where adjustments are the norm, a thorough and informed training in how to safely adjust. 

A respect for individual differences and needs and that as far as Asana is concerned there is no”one size fits all”, that function is more important than form. 

And Mentoring, mentoring, mentoring! 

Many training courses are doing this already , but not all and this is why I believe we need high standards, just as YA encourages. 

The world has changed, and what is acceptable in Yoga has to change with it. 

However I do remember how wonderful some of Billees strong adjustments felt! So there is definitely a place for touch and adjustments, we just need teachers to have the skills to do so safely and we need those consent cards! 

By Morag Local