One Possible Solution: Incorporating Consent into Hands-On Assisting
I'll always remember the first teacher who gave me an assist in a yoga class; it was supportive, confident, and it felt like she saw me on my mat and chose an assist that was tailored to me in that moment. When I started teaching, assisting was the thing that helped me be present with who was in the room and gave me a chance to connect to each person individually. Between then and now, a lot has changed. There are more yoga teachers, more styles of yoga, more yoga podcasts, more ways to learn, more yoga conversations happening, and (yes!) trauma informed/sensitive practices are more commonly woven throughout classes. Because of all of these things, the way assisting is approached also needs to be changed. Finding a more complete solution in regards to hands-on assisting in yoga classes is something I have thought a lot about over the last year. There have been developments in this area with assist chips and more refined ways of asking students to opt-in/out, but it seems that each of those things is only a partial solution to a more complex topic. When someone is asked to signal in some way if they don't want an assist, as teachers, we have to ask ourselves, "What about beginners who don't know what an assist is?" What about students who are new to your class who may not know what your style of assisting is? What about people who love assists and want more of them? What if someone says "no", but then wants to say "yes" later on during the class, or vice versa? And what about the fact that (in most cases) the assist cards (at least the ones I have seen) are quite large, a bit pricey, and only have "yes" and "no" as options?
A few days ago, this article was posted in The New York Times. This article, and many others written on this topic in the last year or so, has started an important conversation about the lack of consent in the yoga studio, and has created space for people to share their stories. From these stories, awareness is spreading. I want to add voice to this conversation as a way to offer one potential solution moving forward. It is important that teachers teach from a place of intention with a strong foundation in education and a deep commitment to building trust and relationships with students. Informed and ongoing consent must be integrated into every class.
So, here's what I've incorporated in my own classes..... Each of the points below are important when talking about INFORMED and ONGOING consent. 1) Introduce yourself and your style of assisting. This means providing some details about assists you will give. This may change if you're teaching a core flow vs. a gentle flow. 2) Inform what the choices are. 3) Inform why the choices exist. 4) Inform how to ask questions/contact you. 5) Recap of #2.
And this is HOW.... ASSIST NOTE CARDS — similar to the assist chips cards, but different. The cards I have been using are just small note cards. They don't take up a ton of space around someone's mat, they're cute, and they bring in a casual-ness because I say "they're just note cards, so if you want to keep them you're more than welcome too". And they're affordable — the pack of 85 I purchased was $14. The casual-ness is important because it can create a sense of ease and approachability right at the beginning of class. Also, everyone gets a card. Not just the people who want to say no — which is what sometimes happens in classes. This creates a unity among the class and doesn't call anyone out. A feeling of "we're all in this together". These cards are just one example of a simple concept that can be tailored to each teacher. Here's my prompt right now. It seems long, but it actually takes less than a minute to say it all (I promise, I timed myself). Know that this is something I keep refining, but each of the points above are here.
"Hi. My name is Caitlin. I'll be walking around during class doing physical/hands-on assists. For this class, my style of assisting is more anatomical or stabilizing during the main flow of class and more feel-good, massage-y assists towards the end of class. The cards are a way to communicate with me. So, 1) poke the card out the side of your mat if you don't want to be assisted, 2) poke it out the top of your mat if you feel like assists enhance your practice and you want them, or 3) slide the card under your mat if you have no preference. I'll do my best to get to everyone who wants an assist based on how many cards are poking out. The idea behind this is that 1) you can easily change your mind throughout class, 2) if you are new to my class, you can observe me and see what my style is like, 3) if you're new to yoga, you can see what an assist is, and 4) I believe that a large part of my job teaching yoga is to also build a relationship with the people who come to class. Over time we'll naturally get to know each other, but just because one day you may want an assist doesn't mean you always will, and I want you to be able to communicate that to me. Know that there are never any personal thoughts or hard feelings when someone does, doesn't, or doesn't care about assists. If you have any questions, I am always available to talk before and after class! However, sometimes class check-in and class changeovers can be busy, so you can also email me. My business cards are on the front desk. Also, these cards are cute little note cards, and if you like yours, you're more than welcome to keep it. Ok, quick review— poke out the side means 'no thanks', poke out the top means 'yes please', and sliding under your mat means no preference." And then, DURING CLASS — know that it's ok to talk to someone while you're assisting them! In fact, these moments are sometimes the best way to connect with someone one-on-one. Yesterday morning while I was assisting someone in reclined spinal twist, I just asked, "Can I shift your hips a little? Does this feel different? Better?".
Remember: teaching yoga is so much more than just teaching the poses! It's really about relationship building, and communicating with the people who are in the room is the best way to open the doors to having a meaningful relationship. In the time that I have been using this system, I have found that more students ask questions. I have felt a sense of ease while I teach because I assist the people who say "yes" first rather than steering away from the people who say "no" via a hand signal. From this ease I have found a deeper level of connection and community among students and have seen my class numbers and student retention grow.
So, teachers: What are ways you can inform more in your classes? Practitioners: How does this system feel for you? As with everything, we need to keep checking in with ourselves to ask why and how do we do the things what we do. In the context of hands-on assisting this means continuing the current conversation while also incorporating the next phase of it.
I believe that this conversation is one that we will and should keep having, and I hope that teachers are inspired to question how and why they do or don't weave hands-on assisting into their teaching. I hope that teachers begin (or continue) to take the extra steps and time to build trust, openness, and relationships with the people in their classes so that the invaluable benefits of yoga do not get tainted by prior wrongdoings. And I hope that, at the same time, we hold space for healing behind the stories that are being told while also working towards a solution founded in connection.
Just as in class, I'm here for the dialogue, to connect, to share stories, to problem-solve, and to listen. Reach out anytime: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thanks for reading.
11/14/19 note: since the publishing of the above mentioned The New York Times article, many people have shared the article link with us at Sangha Studio and have asked our thoughts. In response, we will be sharing this post with The New York Times, BeYogi, Elephant Journal, mindbodygreen, the below teachers, and any other recommended sources. You are welcome to share as well or recommend who else we reach out to (thank you in advance!). Thank you for your support and encouragement to, largely, the Sangha Studio community for urging us to publish this post and contribute to this conversation.
Below are shoutouts and recognitions for a huge "thank you" to the people who have engaged with me in parts of this conversation over the last year or so. It's from different thoughts that we can come up with lasting solutions.
Jason Crandell, for first having this conversation with me and saying that the current solution (referencing the yes/no assist cards) is an incomplete one, but the best we have right now. More from Jason on his podcast episode All About Yoga Adjustments and article Common Errors in Manual Yoga Adjustments – and How to Fix Them.
Caitlin Downey, for advocating for the "yes" and the benefits and connections that can come from touch
Britt Shattuck, for listening and helping to piece it all together who all in different conversations have helped this possible answer
Stil Studio's core staff, for teaching me to teach, and to always teach from a place of love and connection
all photos by Daniel Schechner