Save vs. Unsafe Adjustments in Yoga: How to Tell the Difference

There is only person who gets to say if a yoga adjustment is appropriate or inappropriate – and that is the person receiving. We, as students, have the only say that counts when it comes to our own bodies.

Only a student knows if an assist feels unsafe. Not the teacher. Not some angry dude on social media – or another with a grudge and a blog. Actually, may I suggest that all the angry dudes take a step back right now and perhaps use this opportunity to listen?

Because I know many of you are confused, hurt, and angry after watching recirculating videos of Pattabhi Jois giving women intimate adjustments. I’ve read your messages. I feel you. I’m going through it too.

For many, these images are triggering strong buried emotions tied to past abuse. It seems most women have a story. I have mine. If you’re a woman reading, I bet you have yours. And for the men, there’s a woman you love with her own she’s shared with you, right?  (Though that’s not to say men have not been victimized because I know plenty of them that have. My heart goes out to them as well and some of this will definitely apply).

Anyway, I don’t know that I’m the best person to address the current dissonance in the community, but staying silent doesn’t feel like an option anymore. And why yesterday, I sent out an email with the message I’m sharing with you today:

There is only one person who knows if a physical assist from a teacher is appropriate or not – and that’s the student receiving. 

That said, I personally would not have been comfortable being on the receiving end of a few of the adjustments I saw in the videos with Guruji. Unfortunately, I also can’t say that my 20-something year-old self would’ve been confident enough back then to speak up either.

You see, many of us have been raised to please. We have been taught to be polite, respect those in authority, and keep the peace. Even at the expense of our own feelings.

But then again, I would likely have also doubted those very feelings. Talked myself out of them, you see.

The Gaslighting Effect

It’s easy to write off what happens to us women as nonsense … women are taught to question our realities when we are young: He was only trying to be nice. He’s just awkward. You’re too uptight. We take on that instruction so studiously that we learn to do the work of inflicting doubt on ourselves. We can plant those seeds in our minds: Maybe I’m just being hypersensitive. Or: Maybe it didn’t happen as I remember. Or: Maybe it was all in my head. // Kat Chow, NPR

I remember when my daughter was 15 years old. We were on our way home from an orthodontist appointment when Meghan said: “Mom, can I please not have that one guy do my braces? He made me feel weird.”

Image taken of Meghan Powell – by Meghan Powell – as part of an art project. Shared with permission from artist.

That ‘one guy’ was the only male dental assistant. Immediately, I asked her what happened to make her feel weird. Meghan repeated the conversation, mostly his questions about her friends, what she likes to do outside of school, etc. As she repeated, you could hear just how benign they sounded … how easily explainable they were … and how possible her feelings could all be chalked up to a 15-year-old just feeling awkward around a young male assistant.

Thus, Meghan quickly decided she was overreacting and said: Never mind. After all, she didn’t want to hurt his feelings. He was just being nice — right?

But here’s the thing: It doesn’t matter.

His intentions are irrelevant. What I needed my daughter to realize in that moment was that if she felt weird, that was enough. So I called the doctor’s office and asked that one of the female assistants do her dental work from then on. I said my daughter was uncomfortable and while he did nothing wrong, her discomfort was enough to request a change. End of story. Only it wasn’t …

Because two weeks later, I received a phone call from the orthodontist office. They wanted to talk to me about Meghan and what had happened in greater detail. I told them it really was fine, just got a little personal, but I suspected he was just trying to make her feel comfortable and it backfired. Turns out, my gut was wrong but Meghan’s was spot on.

You see, our request was not the first. In fact, it was the fourth in just a few months. And a few had gone beyond just friendly banter. Our request was the one that caused them to investigate. And he was fired. So somewhere in her gut, Meghan knew. It wasn’t rational, but it was real.

Now, it very well could’ve turned out to be an isolated case. He very well could’ve been harmless. So I’ll say this again: It doesn’t matter. We need to listen. Feelings don’t need justification. Authority is not a free ticket of power.

Shouldn’t this be the same message we all carry into the yoga room? As teachers, students, and compassionate members of the yoga community (not just Ashtanga) – this is a conversation we need to have and encourage. It’s not about parampara. Frankly, I’m a little tired of that word being thrown around. And it’s not about Pattabhi Jois either.

It’s about us. What are WE doing – right now – to ensure a safe space for everyone to practice and learn? How can we be better?

Change from the Inside

Not all the responses from my email were favorable. One man wrote me (as he unsubscribed) and said this:

“Sick of hearing about this metoo nonsense. I’ve quit teaching and withdrawn from the community. They’ve turned ashtanga into another social justice sideshow.”

And as I read, I couldn’t help but think – him not teaching was probably a good thing. But there ARE measures we could all take that would make very real sense – and help us all, #changethestory.

Teachers:

David Keil, Yoga AnatomyAsk your students how you can help before you put your hands on them. Don’t assume it’s ok. Teacher and friend, Scott Johnson, has a lovely way of putting this. He always asks, “How can I help?”

Invite students’ feedback and give them permission and room to say, no. Saying ‘no’ should be: No. Big. Deal. Build unconditional positive regard and acceptance into the culture of your practice room and community – then saying ‘no’ will actually BE No. Big. Deal. Even the woman doing my mammogram last month asked it was ok if she helped me move my breast. If she could ask – so can you.

Students:

Your practice is your practice. Your body is your body. And the only person who gets to decide whether an adjustment is appropriate is you. Further, if you don’t feel safe, supported, or even seen – find a teacher and a room where you do. You don’t have to explain why you’re not comfortable if you’re not comfortable. You don’t ever have to justify your feelings. There doesn’t have to be any wrongdoing on anyone’s part for you to feel the way you do. And you don’t even need anyone’s permission to speak up – least of all, mine. But there you go. You have it anyway.

As a Community:

We are all human. There’s a great big elephant in the room but most of us can only see the part that’s right in front of us. Just know that even in our very best efforts, there will always parts we just don’t see. Still, there are no saints or demons among us. Teachers do not belong on pedestals – so can we please stop putting them there? The Ashtanga yoga method is not any more evil than it is a a cure-all. Most of us are doing the best we can. Make space for compassion. None of us have all the answers.

If there’s one thing growing up Catholic has taught me it’s this: Separate God from Man’s fallibility. Though as my mom, who still remains quite active in the Church, is quick to remind me:

Change must come from the inside.

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You know, this isn’t the first time we’ve tackled this issue through the Ashtanga Dispatch. In the Ashtanga Dispatch Magazine #3, therapist and teacher, Gretchen Suarez, examines the teacher/student relationship and addresses the potential abuse of power – as well as offers students safety guidelines in recognizing healthy relationships vs. unhealthy ones.

Ashtanga Dispatch Magazine #3

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