Mention that you swam laps or went to a bootcamp and you seem like someone who enjoys, or at least participates in, exercise. Tell someone that you’re heading to yoga, and there’s a whole Goop-adjacent, wellness-infused philosophy of open hips and good vibrations implied.
As the yoga industry has grown—a 2016 study by Yoga Journal found that yogis spend $16.8 billion annually on classes, equipment and yoga gear in the US alone—questions about what yoga should be have started to percolate. Is it a moving meditation? A core workout? A series of body weight exercises? A spiritual practice? All of the above? And should these definitions better reflect our current values system?
This debate is perhaps best embodied in the growing number of voices in the yoga community that are calling for affirmative consent in the studio and on the mat—the idea that before a teacher touches your body they need your explicit, rather than implied, approval. This is not just a #metoo moment for yoga, affirmative consent challenges some fundamental assumptions about the teacher-student relationship.
This dawning awareness of the teacher-student power dynamic has led some studios to offer students a seamless way to opt out of assists—a form of hands-on instruction that can include anything from a teacher gently straightening repositioning your arm, to tugging your hips during downward facing dog, to laying her entire body on yours to “deepen a pose.”
Studios around the country have come up with a variety of strategies that normalize the idea that not everyone wants to be touched all the time, and that some reasons for not wanting to be touched—such as past trauma—are too personal to share with a stranger. Some teachers have students start the class with their eyes closed and ask that anyone who does not want an assist to raise their hand. Others provide small objects, stones or paperclips, to be placed at the top of a mat for anyone who would prefer not to be touched.
Nina Jackson created the Yoga Flipchip, a small bamboo disk students can place at the top of their mat that says “assist” on one side and “no hands-on assist” as a way for teachers and studios to address this issue. She and her husband Giles say that there’s been a surge of interest in affirmative consent in the yoga studio recently. “We’ve seen a great sea change I’d say in the last six months to a year,” Giles says.
While #metoo has made the yoga community more aware of overt abuse, Nina says that Flipchip started because of more subtle issues. She has been a physical therapist for 24 years and a yoga instructor for close to two decades, and a few years ago she started to note an uptick in preventable, yoga-related injuries in her PT practice. As someone who spent a lot of time on a yoga mat herself, she realized that while some of these injuries were from repetition, others could be attributed to a yoga culture constantly pushing students to go deeper and stretch further than their bodies were able to.
“A lot of times it was just a lack of communication between the yoga teacher and the student,” Jackson says. “The students did not feel comfortable telling the teacher they don’t want an assist, because everyone in the class got assists and they thought that was the normal culture and they felt bad raising their hand and saying ‘I don’t really want that.'”
When the Flipchip launched at a Yoga Journal conference in Colorado in 2012, the feedback from yoga students was immediate and positive. Many said to Jackson, “‘Oh my god, I really love this,'” she recalls. “I think this is a brilliant idea, can I have a chip just for me?”
If you’ve never been to a yoga class, if might not be obvious how easily injuries, and also abuse, can occur. Even when everyone is filled with good intentions, there’s a certain amount of surrender in yoga. Most yoga classes do not encourage students to talk. Once you’re in class it can be exceedingly difficult to speak up in the middle of an otherwise silent room if you are being touched in a way that makes you uncomfortable, or that hurts. And if you’re new to yoga, it can seem like the discomfort is all your fault.
With this in mind, some studios have gone even further and decided to stop assists altogether, in an attempt to create a more positive, and less hierarchical power dynamic between teachers and students. At Portland Power Yoga in Portland, Maine, owner Julie Kiger tried using consent cards, but noticed that a lot of students who had used the card to indicate that they wanted to be assisted had body language that made it clear to her that they did not actually want to be touched.
When she would ask them about that contradiction after class, they would tell her that they felt like they were supposed to want assists from the instructor. She has since eliminated assists, except for students who arrange in advance to work with a second teacher—a sort of private session within a larger class—with a pre- and post-flow consultation about the student’s goals for the session.
“The point is to be able to have a discipline of mindfulness that makes people feel empowered in their body,” says Kiger. “The point is not to perform poses in such a way that is pleasing to the teacher than then makes the student feel like they’re doing a good job.”
Jackson said that while she has received overwhelmingly enthusiastic responses from students. many yoga teachers find her Flipchip concept puzzling. “‘I am so good I can feel what people want, I can feel that they’re not injured, I can feel it, I can put my hands on a person and I can feel exactly what’s going on,'” she says teachers sometimes tell her. “That’s ludicrous.”