Yoga is my refuge. For most of my adult life I have turned to my mat, to my breath, when I needed solace, when I needed space. This has not always been an easy pursuit for me. To put it simply: it’s a balancing act. I have a busy mind and a constantly churning conscience. I am a yoga teacher sure, but I’m also a feminist and I care deeply about fighting injustice and untangling webs of oppression. Seeking stillness and peace isn’t always easy when you’re deeply immersed in resistance or facing a police barricade. As much as it can feel like my worlds are separate sometimes, yoga has taught me the value of being able to see the connection – the union – between my passions.
Over the past year I’ve learned a lot about trauma sensitive yoga. This approach is most commonly used when teachers offer classes in places like prisons or rehab facilities. TSY seeks to reacquaint students with their bodies in a safe and (as much as possible) non-triggering way. It acknowledges that people hold trauma in their bodies and offers yoga as a tool to address these deeply held experiences (or samskaras). Whenever I teach I try to offer trauma conscience classes and a concept I’ve found very useful to incorporate is consent.
Consent can be a surprisingly tricky concept, especially when put into practice, but understood simply it means to freely and willingly engage in something, without coercion or force. When you consent to something you have the autonomy to choose what you do with your body, or what someone else does to you. You also have the right to say no, or revoke consent, whenever you wish, even if you gave consent previously. Meaningful consent is about respect and active, honest communication. Rachel Kramer Bussel explains this well in her piece “Beyond Yes or No, Consent as Sexual Process”:
“The issue of “consent” encompasses the way we ask for sex, and the ways we don’t. It’s about more than the letter of the law, and, like all sexual issues, at its heart is communication. Without our speaking up and demanding that our lovers do, too, we don’t ever truly know what they are thinking, which impedes us from having the sex we could be having.”
As this quote illustrates, consent is most popularly discussed in reference to sex. Seeking consent when engaging each other’s bodies is meant to encourage conversation between partners, keep people safe and allow people to feel empowered, rather than fearful, guilty or lacking control (though it’s also possible to consent to situations that make you feel that way, if that’s what you’re into). When people seek consent from their partners they demonstrate respect for their boundaries and strive to share in a mutually pleasurable and healing connection.
I think they way we imagine consent, as something that exists only in reference to sex, means we are missing opportunities to meaningfully apply it to the rest of our lives. Yoga is a practice that relies on, often-unacknowledged, physical intimacy. I love getting a welcomed physical assist as much as the next yoga teacher, but I have often felt, scared or triggered when someone I don’t know has come up behind me and pressed my hips closer to the floor. Same thing goes for a teacher suggesting I take a pose that just doesn’t feel right for my body. When we practice yoga together we are delving into an intentionally corporeal experience; we are showing up together to hang out in our bodies. As such I think an effort should be made to articulate and respect our boundaries on the mat, just like we do with consensual sex in our beds (or wherever else we end up getting off). Learning more about consent and committing to obtaining it in bed, helped me see how useful it can be anytime I have access to another person’s body – including the bodies of my students. It’s from this place that I decided to start incorporating consent into my yoga classes.
Here’s what consent based yoga looks like for me:
Consent is explained at the beginning of the class
When I start my classes I sit in a circle with my students and tell them that my classes are based on consent. I tell them that everything I’m teaching is an offering that they can accept or refuse as they deem appropriate and I put emphasis on their discernment, rather than my expertise. I offer them an intention like “I will listen to myself” or “I will hold space for everyone’s authentic movement”. I want them to know that I literally seek their consent for every pose I guide them into.
Invitational language is used
Incorporating invitational language reminds students that every pose is an opportunity, rather than a demand. Invitational language reduces pressure and encourages an inquisitive rather than striving attitude. Here are some examples:
“If you like …”
“When you’re ready…”
“If it feels right…”
Students are encouraged to ask questions and suggest poses
I encourage my students to ask questions when they’re confused. I also tell them they can ask for poses they like or shout out modifications for poses I’ve already offered. At the beginning of class I tell the students that I’m not the only person here who knows something about yoga and that I value their experience just as much as my own. I want people to feel comfortable and confident in sharing. For me, that’s part of building community in my classes. I have never had a student call out something that I felt was inappropriate or put the other students at risk. If that ever came up I’d simply explain my concerns – it’s a conversation, not a monologue. So far their suggestions have only enhanced my teaching.
The teacher avoids touching students and only does so with non-coerced permission
I love physical assists. They have helped me get deeper into a pose and explore my body in a way I couldn’t on my own. That being said I have definitely felt uncomfortable when a teacher I just met has come up from behind me and touched me without asking for permission first. Like many of us, I store anger and anxiety in my hips and sadness in my back. When someone touches me without permission they could easily hurt me, trigger me or push me past a boundary I’m not ready to cross. Touch is a deeply personal energetic exchange and it’s important to recognize that when we offer assists.
As a teacher, consent based yoga has offered me lessons in humility and letting go of control. Sometimes my students barely move through the entire class. Sometimes they leave early or show up late. Sometimes they lay down on the grass and stare at the stars and it can seem like they aren’t listening or don’t care about what I’m offering – but that’s where the lesson is. I want my students to make use of our sacred space in whatever way they see fit. Sure I have something to offer, but maybe that’s not what they need right now. It’s an exercise in faith and demonstration of confidence in my students, to trust that when they aren’t following me they are listening to and prioritizing their body’s unique needs. I’d rather teach my students to listen to themselves and honestly evaluate their needs than teach them the “perfect” downward dog.
Teaching is a vulnerable act. You’re standing up in front of people and offering yourself up as an example. You’re trying to share something you care deeply about, sometimes with people you’ve never met before. When all the students do exactly what you do it can offer a sense of validation – a sense of control and respect that many of us long for. Sometimes though, our desire to be validated and listened to can lead to a sense of hierarchy in our classes. When the teacher is seen as the only expert our students can feel compelled to listen to us before their own bodies or compete with the people on the mats next to them. I feel that consent based yoga works to undermine this hierarchy because everyone in the room is listening to themselves, rather than the expert at the front of the room. I’ve noticed too, that when my students are encouraged to consent to all their movements – when one person is meditating and another is offering up instructions for their favourite pose – they are less likely to compete with each other. They are closing their eyes or looking at whoever is giving instruction, rather than sizing each other up, pushing themselves past safe or comfortable limits.
Most importantly to me though, consent based yoga offers my students (and me) a path toward empowered, authentic embodiment. So much of our lives are shaped by influences over which we have little control. We are constantly subject to forces of power that shape our sense of self worth and our ability to act in the world. These forces keep us apart – apart from each other, apart from our selves and apart from our spirits. When we come together to hold sacred space for healing movement, free from coercion and pressure, we learn to embody our truth and acknowledge and meet our needs. In this way we learn to liberate ourselves and help each other to do the same.
When we practice yoga based on consent we shape our safe space with solidarity and our movement is revolutionary. One breath and one pose at a time.
Here are some resources for Trauma Sensitive Yoga and consent: