MeToo and Yoga

Should MeToo considerations extend to the yoga classroom?


I vividly remember the first adjustment I received in a yoga class. I was a young Wall Street professional struggling in a standing forward fold, surrounded by fellow students who seemed beyond bliss as they face-planted into their legs. There I was, hunched over from long hours at my banking desk and unable to straighten my legs. My posture needed adjusting and I was glad when the teacher bustled over to help me.

That was 1995, though, when nearly no one questioned what happened in the yoga classroom or any other environment where a person in power dispensed knowledge. In the case of yoga, you were the student there to experience and learn. You expected the teacher to see you -- and assist you -- through basic and complex bodily contortions designed to help you achieve nirvana.

Now that I’m on the giving end of the teacher-student equation, I expect that my students have made a choice to be in a yoga class to receive instruction and information. I’ve reasoned, and I’ve observed, that students want to be seen and acknowledged. Offering an adjustment, especially if the student could harm herself otherwise, feels necessary.

I’m not so sure anymore. A recent article in Yoga Journal, “The Ten Rules of Hands-on Adjustments for Yoga Teachers,” addresses the fundamental shift the MeToo Movement is driving in society. Consent is required no matter the context when it comes to touching someone else’s body. That’s why the first of the 10 rules states simply that the teacher must “get consent” before making any adjustment.

The intersection of MeToo and Yoga Journal’s article -- and a vital question for this multi-billion dollar industry -- is at what point, and how often, this consent should take place.

Despite yoga classrooms being almost all female, still most of the power brokers and senior teachers in the yoga industry are men. This is why consent has not yet been raised seriously as an issue, any more than it has been raised seriously in any other industry.

The issue can be particularly sticky, however, as teachers can -- and should -- based on their experience and training assist a student who otherwise could harm herself in a posture. Indeed, the Sanskrit word "ahimsa," which means non-harming, is widely believed to be the golden rule of yoga. Thousands of yoga teachers graduate yearly from programs believing that they have just learned the basics of how to safely lead a basic yoga class.

As an industry that profits from safe spaces (for relaxation, de-stressing, and community), yoga requires what responsibility from its leaders to be strong voices for MeToo?

These are intimate moments, when a teacher touches a low back, a thigh, or ribs. We do it every day, in every class. Most teachers, in fact, act instinctually in these cases because we see misalignment or struggle and we want to alleviate it.

YogaWorks treats it very well with little white domino chips they call "no-touch chips." If a student doesn't want to be touched, s/he takes the chip at places it on the corner of her mat during class. I find this approach more practical, private and empowering, and even consensus-building for the class, than using the meditation time at the beginning of the class (when all eyes are closed) to ask people who don't want to be touched to raise their hand. While it's the best teachers have been able to do until these chips, this approach brings into the meditation an unwelcome aspect for many, and it basically defeats the purpose of becoming still before the class. The chips empower everyone -- place one on your mat, or not -- because they communicate everything that needs to be conveyed without bringing anyone other than the two parties involved into the conversation.

Kim Weeks