To touch or not to touch
I recently had the great good fortune to attend a Judith Hanson Lasater workshop on the sacroiliac joint. Judith is a world-renowned yoga teacher and author of numerous books, including one of my faves, Yoga Abs: Moving from Your Core. I was surprised to arrive at the training site and discover more than 50 teacher-students in the room. I shouldn’t have been surprised, as Judith is a wonderful teacher and obviously many of the yoga teachers and serious yoga students in Vancouver would want to come to learn from her.
I learned some fascinating information about our natural spinal alignment and how that impacts the most basic poses such as Mountain pose. I will write about that later. What I would like to discuss today is the respect with which Judith created a safe space for her students. Although we were all experienced yoga practitioners, and many of us were teachers, Judith did not make any assumptions about touching each other. She created a ground rule about asking for permission to touch, and she followed this rule herself every time she demonstrated a principle of alignment or subtle adjustment on a student. Similarly, she coached us to ask for permission to touch our partner when we worked in pairs. It seems very obvious to me that this is a foundation for creating safety in a classroom. I was very happy to see that one of the foremost teachers in the North American yoga community promotes this basic courtesy.
In several recent Yoga Outreach trainings that I attended, including their foundational teacher training and a course on teaching trauma-sensitive yoga, the YO teachers explained that when working with students in the populations that Yoga Outreach teaches, touch is rarely appropriate. Many of the students in Yoga Outreach classes in prisons, mental health facilities, women’s shelters, addiction treatment centres, and so on, have experienced physical trauma in their lives, such as physical or sexual abuse. When someone’s boundaries have been trespassed in this way, it can be difficult to say no to touch, even when gently asked by a caring yoga teacher. This is one of the reasons that touch is not advised. Another reason is that any kind of touch can inadvertently re-traumatize a student. Even a word or tone of voice can be re-traumatizing to someone who has experienced abuse or other forms of trauma.
Even in a mainstream yoga class, it is usual, though not universal, for teachers to request permission to touch before they make an adjustment. Often they will make a statement at the beginning of class about the possibility of touching, and ask students to indicate if they are not comfortable with this.
I must be like one of those people who are allergic to cats, whom the cats love to come and rub up against. I don’t feel comfortable receiving physical adjustments in a yoga class. If the teacher is moving around the classroom and making adjustments it makes me feel wary and on edge. I like the teacher to stay at the front of the room where I can keep an eye or her or him! Even if the teacher is someone I know well and have had many classes with, I still feel uncomfortable about being touched. I am very sensitive both physically and energetically, and others’ touch leaves an imprint that I continue to feel long after the touch has occurred. I don’t like it.
So you would think I would have learned by now that for some reason my discomfort with touch seems to call out like a beacon for teachers to come and touch me! Yes, I finally have learned that this is likely to occur, and I’ve thought of a strategy to deal with it. But the learning didn’t come easy.
In January I attended a class at a location I was thinking of teaching at. I was there to participate as a student while getting a feel for the location, which was in the Downtown Eastside in the back room of an organization that offers yoga classes to DTES residents as an adjunct to health services that they provide. I’d never been there before, and I’d never met the yoga teacher. I have to admit I wasn’t 100% comfortable with this scene. Being in the DTES is a bit challenging for me, and attending a class with DTES residents was scary. Although I must say, the women who attended the class seemed like ordinary, high-functioning individuals and not at all different from students in other classes I’ve attended, except that they were a bit older than the average student in a yoga studio.
Nonetheless, I felt a bit on the hyper-vigilant side as students came in. The teacher turned off the light in the room, so there was only dim light coming down a hallway from the front room. This made me feel uncomfortable, but it seemed to be what the other students were used to. The teacher began the class late, and did not remark on this with an apology, but perhaps not being too vigilant about time was intended to make students who were late feel okay about attending. This was another difference from what I’m accustomed to, because usually being punctual about time is a way of respecting students’ schedules and setting clear boundaries for the class. I didn’t mind it beginning late, but the teacher also ended the class quite late, and to me that is disrepectful of the students’ time.
I don’t know, I suppose all these things were the conventions the teacher had established after founding the class there and teaching it for 3 years. But to me it was as if I had entered some weird Twilight Zone where all expectations are blown away. I was doing my best to deal with the norms of the class, and when the teacher began teaching, I was very impressed with her skill as a teacher. She had prepared a lesson about cleansing out the digestive system after over-indulging on the holidays, and had a second theme about protecting the joints when extending limbs. Wow! I was impressed.
So I was participating in the class, and exploring the subtleties of inner perception that the teacher drew my attention to. I was really getting a lot out of the class, and it seemed like the other students were too. Then we were all in child’s pose, and the teacher began moving around the room. Uh-oh. I noticed she was approaching various students, but couldn’t really see what was going on since my face was on the mat. And, in case you are not familiar with child’s pose, my ass was in the air. It is a very vulnerable pose. In the trauma-sensitive training they advised to use extreme caution about putting students into this pose, because it can trigger trauma. Think about it! Yet here the teacher was, going around the room and approaching students from the rear while they were in this extremely vulnerable pose.
Still, I didn’t dream that she was going to touch me. We had never met before. I had not granted her permission to touch me. She hadn’t said anything about touch at the beginning of the class. I felt uneasy as I sensed her approaching my mat. Then she did it–she bent over and placed her hands on my kidneys–one on either side of my waist. I turned towards her to say don’t do that, and she removed her hands and moved away before I had the chance to say anything. But the imprint of her hands remained for the rest of the class. I felt violated, and this incident did retraumatize me.
At the time, I was trying to cope, and mindful of the fact that I was supposed to be teaching there soon. I felt I had to get along with the teacher, and go along with what was happening. Big mistake. I over-rode my own instincts in order to be nice and go along, instead of shifting out of the pose and looking after myself. I wanted to deal with this maturely!
At the end of the class I waited for an opportunity to speak privately with the teacher. After complimenting her on the class, I explained to her that I hadn’t wanted her to touch me and that in trauma-sensitive yoga trainings that I have attended they teach that touching students is not appropriate. She did not apologize for touching me or express any concern about how her touch had impacted me. I guess this was new information to her and she didn’t understand how what was obviously a good intention could leave a bad impression.
Unfortunately for me, I learned the hard way that I have to set clear and definite boundaries even if there is no easy opportunity to do so. From now on, if I ever attend a yoga class again, I will be sure to speak to the teacher before the class begins to make it clear I don’t want to be touched. Yoga is supposed to be healing, not harmful, yet this incident was very distressing to me. I later experienced a panic attack when I was out for a run and remembering the class, and I ended up having to go to a trauma therapist to de-activate the triggered event of being held around the waist and physically beaten.
I have been reading Thich Nhat Hanh’s new novel, The Novice. He writes about a woman who responded to extreme injustice and physical violence with equanimity and magnanimity towards her aggressors. Clearly, I have a long way to go towards healing and being a spiritually enlightened being. Even now, I feel resentful towards the yoga teacher, and even towards my trauma therapist, who was supposed to have helped me deal with this trauma already! Although I am sure the yoga teacher meant no harm, I am still angry. And underneath the anger, I am hurt that she did not care how I felt, or admit she had done anything wrong. As always with events that impact us strongly, there is still more for me to understand about what happened that day.