Content Warning: This week’s post is about consent and contains frank discussion about sexual assault.
I teach consent-based, body positive, sliding scale yoga. Or at least, I try to. These are the values that I try to uphold in my practice and in my teaching. I’m writing over the next couple weeks about why and how I enact these values. Stay tuned for thoughts on body positivity and sliding scale classes.
I had planned to talk about consent this week before I knew the Stanford rape case would be all over the headlines, and though my heart is broken for the survivor in that case and all survivors everywhere, I’ve felt encouraged by all of the impassioned conversation about consent, sexual violence, and rape culture happening both on social media and in real life.
As a yoga teacher, the simplest way I enact consent is by always asking for permission to touch my students before I make adjustments. I do this by having everyone rest in Child’s Pose (or some similar posture), and then say something along the lines of, “As we practice today I’ll give a lot of verbal instructions, but I’ll also do some hand-on adjustments. If you’d rather not be physically adjusted, turn your palms to face up now.”
Other ways I practice consent are asking if a student would like to demonstrate a pose rather than volunteering people, allowing students to opt out of partner work, and having students ask each other for consent when we do partner poses.
Ninety percent of the time people consent to be adjusted, and to do partner work, but every now and then, people request not to be touched by me or others. Those few times confirm for me how important it is to ask. Even if no one ever said “No thanks” to physical touch, I would still ask. And here’s why.
1. I have been injured by a physical adjustment from a yoga teacher. It was a non-consensual adjustment given by a teacher I didn’t really know. I’d asked a question after class about Revolved Side Angle, a pose I have always struggled with. She had me come into the pose, and she wrenched my back around to try to get me deeper into the pose. My shoulders did not comply, and I was in pain for weeks. I never mentioned this to her.
2. I have injured a student by giving a non-consensual physical adjustment about five years ago. I gave a commonplace adjustment to a student in bridge pose. I didn’t know she had issues with her lower back and her knees, and though it wasn’t serious, my adjustment injured her. I was horrified and remorseful when I got the email saying so.
3. I was sexually assaulted in 2006 by an acquaintance I was on a date with. He invited me for dinner at his house. I got drunk on red wine. When it happened, I did not react how I imagined I would. I said no, but I did not scream. I did not run. Instead I lay paralyzed and disbelieving. I never reported the incident.
I am not the only one with this kind of trauma. One in three women will be sexually assaulted in their lifetime. Many of my friends and loved ones have suffered sexual abuse or assault. (It's worth noting that people of a variety of genders, not just women, and particularly trans folks, are at risk of assault.) Add to that all the people who have been injured by yoga adjustments (see the work of Matthew Remski for more on this issue), not to mention all those who have been abused by their yoga teacher/guru. That in itself is reason enough for me to always ask for permission before I touch a student.
But there are deeper reasons that I practice consent. We live in a world that affirms over and over again that men are entitled to women’s bodies and that women’s bodies are constantly available for consumption--to be looked at and to be touched, sexually or otherwise, consenting or not. This is rape culture.*
I long for a world in which women are unafraid. I long for a world in which asking for consent is a given. Fighting back against rape culture is one vital way to take down rape culture. Building new ways of being within the world as it is now is another way. This is why I practice consent.
Here are some ways you can practice consent in your daily life.
Ask permission before you hug friends and acquaintances rather than assume they want to be hugged.
Ask your own body if it would like to do the yoga pose rather than force yourself into it.
Teach children that no one is allowed to touch them without their consent, and that they are not allowed to touch others without consent either.
Want more resources or to share your story? I’d love to hear from you. And if you like what I write, sign up for weekly blog posts direct to your inbox by clicking here or filling in the form below!