How Do You Feel About Hands-On Yoga Adjustments?

The New York Times had an article the other day about some people having problems with yoga teachers who use a hands-on approach to helping their students get into the correct pose. While not all approaches to yoga require it, some do because they’re very precise about the alignment of the body in order to get the most out of the practice.

The difficulty arises when people are uncomfortable with their teacher’s touch. Sometimes, it’s because the pose feels (as one person put it) “porny”, which can make it challenging to tell the difference between sexual touch and non-sexual touch. Plus, a teacher might put their hands on your hips or lower back, which are parts of the body that many people don’t let anyone touch other than a lover.

And then, there are teachers who will touch certain students more than others. In the classic Tarantino movie, Pulp Fiction, there’s a conversation about foot massage. One man says that it’s not sexual, to which the other guy responds with the challenging question, “Would you give a guy a foot massage?” Now, I don’t think that’s necessarily a fair question, given that homophobia and concerns about masculinity keep men from touching each other, except for the occasional pat on the back or a brief hug while shaking hands (which keeps things at a “manly” distance), but it does raise the point that some men will touch some women and pretend that there’s nothing sexual about it, even though they don’t touch all women or any men in the same way. Sure, this is a huge sweeping statement, but in most people’s experiences, men are much more likely to touch women in unwanted ways than most other gender combinations.

Adding to the situation, in my experience, a lot of yoga teachers have difficulty putting into words some of the subtle nuances that are simply easier to help someone understand with a brief touch. I’ve often wondered if that’s because yoga teachers need to have a deep kinesthetic sense in order to be able to attune to the body, and that sense is often hard to articulate. After all, you can be a great musician without being able to describe what you do. That’s one of the big differences between being someone who does something and being someone who can teach others. And it’s even harder when students aren’t able to put the words into practice, which is a skill that takes time to develop. Unfortunately, this tricky situation has caused a lot of people to feel uncomfortable, which usually leads to them leaving a class but sometimes prompts lawsuits.

But the part that I think is missing from the NY Times article is the question of consent. Towards the end, one teacher is quoted as sometimes asking for verbal permission, but I don’t think that’s enough. My yoga teacher almost always asks for consent before moving someone’s body, at least until she gets to know them and their comfort level very well. And I have to say that it makes a big difference. Not just because I am an active participant in the interaction, but also because it keeps her touch from being a surprise.

Given the effects of unwanted touch and sexual attention from men (not to mention the prevalence of them in our society), this really should be part of every yoga teacher training. Even when there is no sexual intention behind touch, it’s often interpreted that way and it’d be wise for teachers in training to be prepared.

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Dr. Charlie Glickman

Charlie Glickman is the Education Program Manager at Good Vibrations. He also writes, blogs, teaches workshops and university courses, presents at conferences, and trains sexuality educators. He’s certified by the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors, and Therapists, and loves geeking out about sex, relationships, sex-positivity, love and shame, communities of erotic affiliation, and sexual practices and techniques of all varieties. Follow him online, on Twitter at @charlieglickman, or on Facebook.

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