I have delayed writing this post for around 9 months now. I thought it would go away. I thought - maybe - I wouldn’t have to. Yet here I am.
In November 2017, I read Karen Rain’s account of the sexual abuse she had suffered at the hands of Pattabhi Jois, whilst she was his student. Another gut-wrenching story that came out of the #MeToo movement, it wasn’t long before student after student of Pattabhi Jois came forward with similar testimonies. Despite standing by the majority of its content, the title of one of my most popular blog posts I’ve got 99 problems but my yoga teacher ain’t one (I’m so embarrassed to write that now), seems not only insensitive and lacking nuance, but also deeply arrogant.
I started talking to my Ashtanga students about the abuse. We began each class with a discussion about new abuse stories that had come to light; how renowned Ashtanga teachers had responded, and whether we thought their responses were good enough. My students and peers told me experiences of their own; of forceful, insensitive adjustments, and injuries incurred.
Now largely a home-practitioner, my Ashtanga practice (under my own tutelage) has changed - it continues to change. As a result, the way I have taught Ashtanga has changed - it continues to change too. Over the last 5 years I have been teaching, the physical adjustments I offer my students have become less and less frequent.
The adjustments I offer have always been sparing and gentle. My teaching style has never been disciplinarian, but even so, I began to question the motive behind my desire to physically assist students: Am I giving adjustments to look busy/feel useful? Am I moving the student because I want them to ‘look’ a certain way? Am I micro-managing their experience? Am I blindly copying how teachers have adjusted me? Am I adjusting some students more than others? Is this because I am judging them to be ‘more’ or ‘less’ advanced based on aesthetics alone? Am I approaching/not approaching students because I over/under-identify with them? Or because my authority feels more/less challenged? Is there a better way to assist this person than through touch? Does this person need my assistance at all? Am I helping, or I am getting in the way?
I began to hold back more. I wanted space to observe my own questions. I decided that I would not offer to touch a student until I had met them on more than one occasion, and we had sufficient opportunity to establish a basis of trust through relationship. Very rarely do we let strangers touch us - and for good reason - this is a rule I continue to uphold.
I shared articles about the abuse without adding any commentary. I did this because I wanted my students to make up their own minds, but I was also scared to be wrong. I witnessed teachers being publicly and voraciously lambasted for speaking too soon, and for taking too long to add their voice to the debate. “I don’t know” wasn’t good enough, even if it was the most honest response.
I have the good fortune of being a relatively little known, local yoga teacher; no one was demanding me to take a stance. I teach Ashtanga, but I have never been taught by Pattabhi Jois. None of the teachers I would identify as being ‘my’ teachers, have ever been ‘traditional’ Ashtangis, and none of them have studied in Mysore. These were all good excuses for avoiding accountability ("What has all this got to do with me anyway?"). These were also good reasons to feel vindicated and validated against a community I identified with, and wanted to be a part of, but - not being ‘authorised’, not practising 6 days a week, not sticking to the set series of postures, not agreeing with the whole ‘tradition’, not caring for the importance placed on ‘lineage’ - always felt outside of. Still, for reasons that remain unclear to me, I call my yoga practice ‘Ashtanga’. I couldn’t - I can't - get away from the melee that easily.
I completely stopped giving physical adjustments. I was going to have it all figured out before trying again.
Then I read Theodora Wildcroft’s blog post Trauma Sensitive and came across the idea of ‘consent cards’. At first, I thought the idea was a bit over-the-top, but - aside from not really wanting to change - I couldn’t come up with a reasonable excuse about why they were a bad idea.
In December 2017, I talked to my Ashtanga students about the intention to start using ‘consent chips' in class; the initial idea of how we would use them, the pros and cons. The responses I received were positive, even if slightly confused (what did all this abuse stuff have to do with them anyway?). I ordered some inexpensive, double-sided integer counters to serve the purpose.
Even though I continued to talk about them, my newly purchased integer counter/consent chips sat in my kitchen cupboard for months. My students started to ask if I was still going to bring them to class. The timing wasn’t right. The colour of the chips weren’t right. I kept forgetting. I worried my students would find them/me weird. I worried that my explanation for using them would make my students scared. I was procrastinating.
5 months later, having waited long enough, I grabbed the bag of ol’ chips and took them to class. Someone remarked that the colours were wrong. I admitted that debating the colour of the chips had delayed me bringing them to class for 3 months. We laughed and agreed that we would just give them a shot and see what happened.
This is how I use consent chips:
At the start of class, every student is given a double-sided chip.
Students are told that the red side means ‘Please don’t touch me’; the yellow side means ‘I am open to be approached for an adjustment’, which is not the same as giving carte blanche.
I place a chip next to my mat too, as a way of including myself in this process.
Before I started using the chips, I had never been asked by a teacher if they could have permission to touch me. I am not being accusational - I have failed to ask my students also - I am highlighting a norm. In the vast majority of classes, it is assumed that the teacher will adjust you, and you should let them adjust you. Up until very recently, I would have found it strange if a teacher did ask for my consent. Obtaining consent has never been discussed in any of my teacher trainings. The idea that consent is assumed in the yoga classroom is out of date, lacks critical thought and needs to change.
As a student, I have had to rely on gut instinct alone; some teachers I would feel safe with (the body yields), other teachers would put me on guard (the body tenses). But gut instinct, despite the rhetoric we often hear to the contrary, is quite as often misleading as it is trustworthy. Physical adjustments are routinely given before you’ve had time to consider assent or withdraw. Asking for permission as you step into someone’s personal space, have already begun placing your hands, is not really asking for permission at all.
Teaching is a practice too. I practice being with my students. Seeing my students. More importantly, seeing how I am with my students. Sometimes I think I do a pretty good job of this. Sometimes I think I fail miserably. Self-administered self-reflection is not enough to safeguard students. Our intentions, almost always good, are almost always flawed (to say the least).
This is why I think consent chips are a good idea:
They are simple to use and their message is clear and unambiguous. Transgressions cannot be minimised and ignored.
The onus is on the teacher to observe and respect any decisions made by the student regarding touch and personal space; not on the student to explain, justify and defend.
There is an explicit agreement as to what is acceptable and unacceptable. This agreement is not only between the individual student and the teacher, but between the group of students and their teacher. This is important to me. Pattabhi Jois abused these women in full-view of his students, his family members and other teachers.
They remove the pressure to give consent as a result of the perceived authority of the teacher (to some extent - I realise I am being idealistic here). The default position is that the student knows themselves better than the teacher, not the other way around. We must take pains to decentre our authority as yoga teachers, if we are to empower our students. Independence (Kaivalya) is the goal of yoga after all.
The student has the power to change their mind; the chip can be red for one posture and yellow for another.
They are discreet; students not wanting to be touched don’t have to worry about other students knowing, or noticing.
They offer a level of emotional, as well as physical protection.
There is no obligation to use them. If a student thinks the consent chip is a load of bunkum they can throw it to one side, not caring whether it lands on red or yellow, and forget all about it.
It prompts critical thinking on behalf of the student and the teacher. For the student: do I/don’t I want to be touched? Do I feel safe in the hands of this person? Do I need more time to make up my mind? For the teacher, the chips present a welcome pause. I have to think and check the colour of the chip before I proceed, which stops me from wading in, or forces me to notice when I have gone into automatic pilot.
Consent chips are not the perfect solution (is there ever one?), but they do contribute towards creating an environment where it is assumed that the student can - without question - protect their personal space and retain autonomy. Consent chips also demand that the teacher commits to a level of inescapable accountability, precisely because any transgression is identified in the moment it occurs and is impossible to deny (albeit only at the time an adjustment begins to take place). Consent chips are not only useful as a partial safeguarding method, anchored in mindfulness, they are an effective tool for self-reflection, something that can aid your yoga practice, not get in the way of it.
Since May, I have forgotten to bring my bag of consent chips to class on more than one occasion. In this instance, I will not ask and I will not touch. Perhaps this will change in time. I have adjusted a student who had the chip facing red because I forgot to look; I panicked and apologised in front of everybody after class. I have adjusted a student who had the chip facing red because I forgot to look; I panicked and apologised immediately to the individual, but within earshot of the rest of the class. Currently in the trouble-shooting phase, new procedures and practices take time to bed in. I have the time.
Some background & recommended reading/listening:
Pulling things apart, Mary Taylor, 7th July 2018.
What does 'parampara' mean to us today? Ashtanga Dispatch Podcast recorded at the Stillpoint Yoga Spring Gathering, May 2018. [I was there.]
Ashtanga Yoga Stories: Delights, insights and difficulties, Norman Blair, 10th May 2018.
Yoga's Culture of Sexual Abuse: Nine Women Tell Their Stories, Matthew Remski, The Walrus, 25th April 2018.
Karen Rain Responds to Mary Taylor’s Post About the Sexual Misconduct of Pattabhi Jois, Matthew Remski, Decolonizing Yoga, 11th December 2017.
Why The Abused Don't Speak Up, Anneke Lucas, YogaCity NYC, 27th March 2016.