Some yoga teachers routinely lay their hands on students without asking. These teachers argue that students expect physical contact in a yoga class. As a yoga teacher of 12 years, I argue there’s no justification for touching a student without their permission, and that a trusting relationship must be established way before the first adjustment is ever made.
My wife was assaulted by a yoga instructor at her former yoga studio. She’s cried over it, has lost sleep, and still has dreams about what happened months later. She spoke with a lawyer who confirmed that what happened is the definition of assault.
My wife emailed the studio owner about what happened. The owner (a woman, although this shouldn’t be important) responded three days later, only after my wife sent a second email cancelling her membership.
This assault could have been prevented if this yoga teacher and studio owner had respected the impact hands-on adjustments have on people. Students are vulnerable in class. There’s no way for a teacher to know who has a history of trauma, or simply doesn’t want to be touched, without developing a rapport with them. This means all of those in the yoga profession need to build relationships with students and communities. There’s no other way.
Physicians, physical therapists, massage therapists need to touch others to do their work. Because we as a society acknowledge the impact of touch, these professionals get tested, certified, licensed, and scrutinized.
Licensed professionals have legal obligations to clients that unlicensed professionals do not. Psychologists for example have a litany of restrictions:
- They can’t have sexual relations with their clients for two years after therapy.
- They can’t have relations with their client’s close relatives, guardians, or significant others.
- They cannot accept former partners as therapy clients.
- They need to terminate the therapy if the client no longer needs it.
Any violation is referred to professional ethics committees, state licensing boards or institutional authorities.
The profession of yoga teacher has no such licensure, so the free market and our own ethical compasses decide who teaches. Yoga teachers are more like bartenders, and students are like bar patrons. So when any student gets touched in a yoga class, they could ask themselves: “If I were touched by a bartender the way I’m currently being touched, would somebody call the cops?”
In a bar, what touch is appropriate? If you and the person ordering a drink don’t know one another, virtually nothing is. If they return to the bar a few times and you make small talk, a handshake may work when leaving the tip. If you start to know and appreciate one another as people, it could lead to high-fives, hugs, and personal conversations.
This is how interpersonal relationships work. Bartenders, yoga instructors, and other non-licensed professionals use this model, which involves consent, trust, and mutual understanding.
None of those three things were considered by the yoga instructor who thrust her hand between my wife’s upper thighs in a difficult headstand variation. This wasn’t even the first aggressive adjustment in the class. My wife told her “I’m fine” and moved away from the teacher after an earlier adjustment in the same class.
My wife emailed the instructor about what happened. The teacher responded that she, too, had been in classes where “she didn’t agree” with the teacher. She then wrote this:
“Only we can control how we respond to stimuli the divine puts in our path so while my class didn’t suit you, if it continues to eat at you- the answers and solutions you need to overcome that won’t come from me- since none of yoga is about “us” “Me” or “I” but from god.”
In this teacher’s reasoning, shoving a hand between somebody’s legs is divine stimuli, and an “answer” doesn’t need to involve the person who created the problem. She refuses to take any responsibility for her actions and doesn’t even acknowledge my wife’s autonomy was violated. This isn’t relationship-building; it’s establishing a pecking order and gaslighting.
This thinking has resulted in the fall of many leaders in the yoga and meditation world, often because of assaults. Bikram Choudhury’s response to rape allegations was “I pick them from trash and give them life.” When a Jivamukti teacher allegedly assaulted a student, David Life, the co-founder of the school, responded with “A person sees what they want to see.”
I’ve seen my profession swell in the last decade. It’s been wonderful in many ways. More people are moving, more are meditating. But with this swell came more instructors, acting more irresponsibly.
When a yoga teacher violates a student, it has nothing to do with perspective or the divine. It has to do with what we as a society have deemed unethical, non-consensual, and potentially criminal. And it goes against the way all of us non-licensed professionals go about our business, which is developing trust in relationships.
May all beings be happy. May all yoga students know and assert their boundaries. And may all yoga teachers and studios respect and honor them.