I’ll just come right out with it. I have never loved yoga adjustments. While I’ve been given a handful of incredible adjustments in my ten years of practice, the vast majority have been, at best, ineffective distractions and, at worst, painful intrusions. But most importantly and consequently, I have legitimately consented to only a few of the hundreds of adjustments I’ve received over the years.
That is a problem.
Consent matters. Consent fosters trust and mutual respect. Consent strengthens communication. Consent empowers. A lack of consent does the opposite. It can make us feel small, unworthy, and unvalued. It breeds mistrust and weakens relationships, especially between a student and a teacher. One of my yoga teachers, Kino MacGregor, recently wrote these words, and I can’t think of a more appropriate time to remember them:
“Between teacher and student there is a sense of the sacred, a bond of inviolable trust created from a mutual respect. In that safe space, breakthroughs happen, life changing awakenings happen. Trust is so fragile, just the smallest shift in intention can destroy it.”
Let me state unequivocally that I am not calling for an abandonment of the practice of adjusting. I know what a vital tool they can be, and I hope the practice has a long and fruitful future. As a teacher I have seen them transform an asana from inaccessible to comfortable. As a student I have benefited greatly from hands-on guidance from my teachers. I am, however, calling for the yoga community to have a thorough, open-hearted discussion about improving the practice of adjusting so that everyone feels welcome, honored, and safe in a yoga studio.
To begin with, we must understand that the power dynamics within a yoga class or community make it difficult for full, enthusiastic consent to be obtained. Students defer to teachers, not just in yoga, but within every teacher-student relationship. Teachers are the assumed authority and students are the assumed subjects. Most teachers would argue that they would never consciously create such a dynamic, but that’s irrelevant. This dynamic is formed early on and repeatedly reinforced throughout our lives. It may even be instinctual. Each and every student who walks into a yoga studio is carrying some degree of deference for the teacher. Because of this imbalance of power, having a fully consensual exchange is a huge mountain to climb, and one that there typically isn’t adequate time for in the average yoga class.
Additionally, we must deal with the unstated, cultural pressure to accept adjustments in yoga. There is an underlying belief that astute, curious, humble, and healthy students readily accept adjustments, and that stubborn, cynical, arrogant, anxious, or traumatized students reject adjustments. It is assumed that students who don’t prefer adjustments must be dealing with psychological issues, while healthy, well-adapted students feel safe and comfortable receiving adjustments. It doesn’t seem to be widely accepted that perfectly healthy, happy, and humble yoga students might simply prefer to be undisturbed during class. While it would be the rare teacher who would put such sentiments into words, or even into conscious thought, these beliefs are implied and reinforced all over the place.
I know some might say that the onus is on the student to let their preferences be known. If a student doesn’t want to receive any adjustments in class, they should make that clear beforehand. If they don’t like a particular adjustment, they should speak up in the moment. That sounds totally reasonable, except it isn’t. Firstly, it takes an exceptional student to make an awkward scene by saying no or be the odd one out with one of those, “No adjustments, please” cards on their mats. Those cards might as well say “Freak,” and probably do more to ease the teacher’s mind than the students in most studios. Saying “no” can simply be a leap too far for many, and they’d prefer to grin and bear the uncomfortable or unwanted adjustment than be so bold as to not conform. It feels like a lose/lose situation, so students choose to sit with the discomfort and deal with it internally. Who can blame them?
And because of both the internal and external pressure to be “good” students, some will shame themselves into accepting adjustments they might otherwise decline, thinking they are being anxious, unreceptive, or “bad.” “Body not stiff. Mind stiff,” is a favorite quote from a legendary yoga teacher, and is often used to teach students the lesson of surrendering. And while surrender is a beautiful concept when practiced responsibly, it is easy to imagine how confusing it can be when applied to adjustments and the larger concept of consent. Furthermore, some students second guess their own intuition because they assume the teacher has superior knowledge. “The teacher must know how this posture should look or feel on my body,” they think, “and because I am the student and have limited understanding, I should defer to their judgement, even if I think I feel uncomfortable.”
Student and teachers face numerous obstacles, some deeply-seated, on the path to consent. It’s not as simple as asking a student before class or in the moment if they are okay with an adjustment. There is too much to sift through and process in those short moments for full consent to be given then and there. In some cases, there is a literal lifetime of programming that would need to be examined before anyone could honestly answer “yes” or “no” to a question about intimate touch from an authority figure. Gaining true consent from a student is truly an ongoing, lifelong process that requires much deeper contemplation and respect than is typically given.
I say the onus is on the teacher to create an environment in which students are fully empowered, intrusions are minimal, and respect for all preferences is freely given. This means confronting some of the culture within our studios and community at large.
My prescription, if you will, to improve the practice of adjustments in yoga is for the teachers to reform themselves and the way they think, feel, and express their ideas about yoga. It is imperative that students walk away from every practice knowing they are the ultimate authority on what is right for them. They know best, period. A truly great teacher will shine a light to help a student find their way, but the work ends there. One of our most important endeavors as teachers is to create a culture of humility from the top down. We must repeatedly reinforce the notion that every student is already equipped with all they need, and must only look inward to find the answers they seek. We must never position ourselves as a more worthy source of information about themselves than they are. Let’s ensure our words, actions, and energy reflect this, inside and outside the class. This is crucial, and will help offset the inherent imbalance we all bring into the room that makes full consent so tricky.
And in service to that imperative, let’s scale back on nit-picky adjustments. Unless we are about to blow a student’s mind and revolutionize that asana, a teacher interfering is probably only perpetuating the idea that they know better than the student about their own body. This is precarious territory. A student should never view the teacher as the gatekeeper to “correct” practice. When properly supported and encouraged, a student can and will find their own best asana, and as teachers we must honor that. While an occasional gentle touch from a teacher can expedite the process, a student must be empowered with the belief that it is their own personal process, and that no teacher will ever be as effective as regular, mindful practice on their part. A student must know each and every time that adjustments are voluntary and the direction behind them is merely a loving suggestion. No student should feel pressure to accept an adjustment or feel shame for doing a posture “incorrectly.” Nit-picky adjustments impede that lesson. Inserting ourselves—our ignorance, our biases, our preferences—onto someone else in such an intimate, potentially destructive way is entirely incongruent with the concept of consent.
We must also remain conscious at all times of the power that rests in our hands as teachers. You may see yourself as just another person with no special authority or privilege, but that is a dangerous misunderstanding of human behavior and the very real dynamics in the class. Let us understand that every student is coming into class with some level of deference or reverence for the teacher, and that they likely don’t fully understand what it is they may or may not have consented to. Just because a student didn’t make it clear that they don’t want adjustments doesn’t mean they enthusiastically consent to them. It should be assumed that a student would prefer to not be touched, or to be touched minimally, rather than the other way around.
Is there anything, then, that a student could or should do to safeguard against unwanted adjustments? It’s crucial to remember that unwanted touch is never our fault. We didn’t ask for it and it’s not our problem to solve. However, I believe we can help eliminate some risk. I think our best bet is to only work with teachers who are truly interested in our needs and preferences as we understand them. That’s quite a task, though! It’s often too late before we learn our teacher’s true motivations. Unfortunately, people with narcissistic personalities flock to positions of leadership. You will find them in yoga studios all over the world, and they are truly a physical and spiritual hazard.
It’s further complicated by the fact that even well-meaning yoga teachers can fall into the “parampara trap,” as I call it. Parampara is a sanskrit word that means the continuation of knowledge from a teacher to a student. There is nothing inherently wrong with this concept, but it can certainly muddy the waters of mutual respect between teacher and student. If a teacher is too fixated on preserving their idea of traditional practice, or they believe themselves to be in a position of special authority, they will likely struggle to see us, the students, as worthy partners in our own journey. This is a red flag and I’d advise students to practice elsewhere. Talking with our teachers to glean information about their understanding of student-teacher relations is a wise idea. And if something happens in class that seems disconcerting, we should seek outside opinions if we’re unsure. While context matters, we can be blinded by bias if we are partial to a teacher, studio, or a certain style of yoga.
Speaking out when we feel or see something that makes us uncomfortable is also key. While it is not the solution to the firmly-entrenched, often reckless practice of teachers touching and physically moving yoga students without full consent, it can help to reign it in, both in the moment and long-term. If you don’t feel comfortable saying something when it happens or even after class, send an email, anonymously if you have to. I, too, am not always comfortable speaking out if it means making a awkward scene, appearing like a “bad” student, or damaging relationships. I fully understand the hesitation on the part of the student for all the reasons I’ve laid out in this piece. But, we have to keep trying. It can help to remember that speaking out once can have reverberations down the road. Maybe we can make it easier for the next person to reject unwanted touching. If we speak out enough, we can help make the necessary cultural shift within the practice. But please remember, it’s not okay for someone to touch you if you don’t want to be touched. It doesn’t have to be full-blown physical or sexual assault for it to be wrong and for you to be right about your discomfort. Unwanted touch has no place anywhere, least of all a supposed bastion of spiritual and physical growth and healing.
I know I have painted a bleak picture of the state of yoga adjustments. While it’s far from hopeless, and plenty of adjustments are healthy and welcome, I do think we have lots of work to do. And I wish I had easy answers! I wish there were straightforward steps we could follow that would ensure every student felt empowered and respected all the time. But, I don’t think it works that way. There are simply too many variables. Each time a teacher might make physical contact with a student, the person, adjustment, energy, emotions, and more are unique to that moment. This is why I think we ought to focus less on changing the adjustments themselves—although there is certainly room for that, too—and focus more on improving the dynamic between teachers and students. I think it really comes down to truly open communication and fully mutual respect, and that simply must happen from the top down. Without those present in their deepest capacity, no physical contact within the context of yoga will ever reach beyond the ineffectual or intrusive. No asanas will be transformed and no new spiritual barriers will be broken. Adjustments without enthusiastic consent, no matter how “safe”, will remain an indulgence of the teacher and hindrance to the student.