If you walk into my yoga class, does that mean you are giving me consent to put my hands on you? To adjust your body, to add pressure or to give adjustments?
What if this is your first class with me, and I don’t know your story. What if you’re a trauma survivor? What if you have been sexually or physically assaulted in the past? What if you are shy? What if you have an injury you’re not comfortable bringing up to a new teacher? What if you are dealing with some emotions that won’t benefit from physical touch?
How can I respect any of those lived experiences if we work with implied consent?
The answer is, I can’t. I cannot honour your body and your experience fully unless you can take control of your own practice.
And that’s how yoga’s been for a very long time. The teacher playing the grand commander of the class – who is all-knowing and willing to manipulate the body to get the aesthetically correct pose (because we don’t have an x-ray … we often rely on alignment cues).
This is an exclusionary practice. And if we truly are, as many teachers claim to be, ‘inclusive’ – that means we need to make changes to how we teach.
One really small but powerful ways we can be more conscious as teachers is to STOP asking people to raise their hands if they don’t want an adjustment. Please don’t ask people who may be carrying trauma, who may be shy, who may be a new practitioner, who may be injured, to single themselves out in your class. It can truly be an uncomfortable experience for students and, BAM, you’ve made them feel that this space is not for them.
Yoga is for fucking everyone. And I’ll sing that until the day I die.
Just because you’re privileged enough to be able-bodied or financially secure or fitting the Western perception of ‘yogi’ (slim, cis, heteronormative, usually white, definitely wealthy, blonde, female), does not give you any more right to be in that room that annnnnyone else. You’re not great because of your privilege, and neither am I!
So, I think all teachers would agree, we want people to feel safe, supported and nurtured when they walk through that studio door. One really nice way to put action behind that desire is to use the consent card.
It’s a really simple system that I first saw used in Kula (Annex) in Toronto – my first real yoga home. It’s a tool used often in North America. In Ireland, it seems a little more rare.
How consent cards work:
At the beginning of class, the teacher gives a card to each student. One side of the card says ‘yes please’ (or something similar) and the other says ‘no thank you’.
The student places the card at the top of their mat. If they are open to hands-on adjustment they’ll leave the ‘yes’ side facing up. If they’re not feeling it, the ‘no’ side can stay up.
And – THIS IS IMPORTANT – they are free to flip that card over and back as many times as they like during the class.
Because, for example, if I go to a class with my current hamstring injury, I won’t want to be physically adjusted in forward folds. I am good working my own limit. But, if we move on to back-bending or balancing … I’m good with being positioned in those postures.
It’s a method for teachers to honour their students. We are always, always raving on about ‘respect your body, as it is today’. Well what good is that if we don’t do the same as teachers? If you’re looking to get your hands on some, there are fancy ones you can buy online. I just had cheap business cards printed square! Or just make some yourself if you’re crafty. The lamps will be different but the flame’s the same.
If you’re a student who thinks the idea of these cards is PC gone mad (a comment I’ve received from someone), please check your privilege. You have never encountered an experience that would leave you feeling unsafe, or ‘other’. These cards may never be used by you, but for your neighbour on the mat beside you it might be the ONLY reason they are comfortable showing up to yoga. We don’t get to gatekeep yoga with our privileges!
Yoga is not a competition. There is no perfect yogi or yoga pose. There is only practice. And that practice is internal. My role as a teacher is literally to facilitate your practice safely.
If you are a student who attends classes where consent cards aren’t offered and you’re not comfortable being the centre of attention during that ‘raise your hand’ moment, don’t worry. No teacher should ever be opposed to you taking a little word with them pre-class, where you can let them know.
If you feel they won’t respect your wishes or they make you feel uncomfortable for wanting a hands-off practice, GET OUT. That’s their ego showing and a teacher who can’t reign in their ego can be hazardous.
In larger cities, there are also some amazing safe spaces cropping up – yoga for trauma survivors, yoga for bigger bodies, queer yoga, trans yoga, yoga for people of colour. These spaces are essential so long as we present the previously-mentioned ‘perfect yogi’ image as the ideal. And by that I mean, if I Google Image ‘yoga’ and ‘perfect yogi’ is all that appears on the first page … yeah, we need safe spaces.
This is only a small segment of the conversations that are happening in the yoga community surrounding inclusivity and social justice.
One podcast I’ve enjoyed as they cover this topic is ‘Yoga International‘. It’s available on Spotify and, I’m sure all other host sites. They cover a whole range of topics related to social justice and yoga – with smart, informed guests.
Have a good one yogis – K x