Making Adjustments - Are Hands-on Assists OK? Pt 1
In this very special episode we ask the question - Are hands-on assists in yoga ok?
We decided that this subject was just too big for one guest, or even one episode, so we have a whole range of speakers and we have divided the show up into two parts.
In part one, we cover the different types of hands-on assists and some of their benefits, we learn some of the history of hands-on assists, we speak about the importance of consent, and we raise the issue of safety when performing adjustments.
We have some incredible guests this episode - including Leigh Blashki, Matthew Remski, Jesal Parikh, Jivana Heyman, Claire Cunneen, Dominique Salerno and Gina Macauley
While creating this episode we gathered over 4 hours of audio, which we are making available on our Patreon page for free! For more details go to: https://www.patreon.com/flowartistspodcast
Dominique Salerno: https://australianyogaacademy.com/
Leigh Blashki: https://www.yogaaustralia.org.au/yoga_user/leigh-blashki/
Matthew Remski: http://matthewremski.com/
Jesal Parikh: https://www.yogawallanyc.com/
Jivana Heyman: https://accessibleyogatraining.com/jivana-heyman/
Claire Cunneen: https://www.getfitwhereyousit.com.au/
Gina Macauley: http://www.yogahara.com.au/
For more on this topic check out the Evolution of Yoga Summit: https://evolutionofyoga.org/
Look out for part 2 in a week!
Thanks to Danielle Lara Woolley for the cover photo: https://www.instagram.com/this.wild.soul/
Click on a timecode to play from that time in the recording.1:28 The format of this episode
3:58 What are hands-on assists?
4:50 Intention is so powerful
5:32 Dominique - The four types of adjustments
6:13 Leigh Blashki - Assists for Awareness
9:50 Benefits of hands-on assists
13:10 Benefits from a trauma-informed context
14:37 Dominique - Benefits of hands-on assists
17:22 Matthew Remski - A history of hands-on assists
21:55 Jesal Parikh - Response from a South Asian
23:48 A response from Matthew Remski
28:25 Our Patreon Page!
29:44 Jivana Heyman - Assists and consent
30:40 Jivana - The three parts of consent
34:45 Jivana - It’s not our job to fix people
36:15 Jivana - How he injured himself helping a student
39:32 Student safety
39:55 Claire Cunneen - An injury that occurred with one of her students by a cover teacher
41:25 Gina Macauley - Our studio Policy at YogaHara
42:50 Gina Macauley - The reason for our policy
45:08 Leigh Blashki - Scope of practice
46:40 Next week's episode
Please email us to report any transcription errorsRane Bowen: Hello, my name is Rane …
Jo Stewart: … and I’m Jo!
Rane Bowen: … and this is the Flow Artists Podcast. Every episode, we interview inspiring movers, thinkers and teachers about how they find their flow and much much more. So, how are you Jo?
Jo Stewart: I’m good Rane! I’m excited about this episode!
Rane Bowen: Yeah me too, excited and daunted at the same time <laughs>
Jo Stewart: It’s a big topic! <laughs>
Rane Bowen: Yeah, yeah. So, this episode we’re doing a very special episode with a different format. The theme of the episode is on adjustments or hands-on assists, and the reason we decided to do this is because there was a video a little while back on the internet, I think it was from the New York Times, it was featuring a teacher named Johnny Kest I believe, a male teacher, who performed some hands-on assists, and some of them were a bit, I don’t know what the right word …
Jo Stewart: Yeah, the context was, it was a teacher training I think, and he was demonstrating some of the assists that he does, and some of the women there said that they did not feel comfortable teaching that in their classes and they would not feel comfortable receiving those types of assists, and he just didn’t get the message.
Rane Bowen: Mmm yeah.
Jo Stewart: It was really cringey to watch
Rane Bowen: Mmm mmm. And I posted that to the Facebook group and there was a little bit of anger there, so we thought that this would make an interesting topic for an episode.
So we thought this topic was probably way too big and nuanced for just one guest and way too big for one episode, so we have interviews with a whole range of teachers and authors and will be splitting this up into two episodes, the second of which will be made available next week.
And we’ve some amazing guests for this episode, including: Leigh Blashki; Matthew Remski; Jasel Parikh from the Yoga is Dead Podcast; accessible yoga guru, Jivana Heyman; Claire Cunneen and Gina Macauley.
Jo Stewart: Yeah I think one of things about this issue is it is so nuanced, and everyone brings their own individual experiences to the mat, as a student and a teacher, so we really wanted to hear from a diversity of different opinions and different points of view, rather than just giving you our point of view, which is still evolving because it’s a really nuanced issue, and Rane and I, well, I’ll speak for myself, we both came into this episode without a strong hard-line perspective in either direction. There are some forms of hands-on assists which are an easy, definite ‘no’. There are others where there might be enthusiastic consent from the student and a genuine need. So we really wanted to learn more and shape our own perspective and hopefully help people listening as well navigate this issue.
Rane Bowen: Absolutely. And, as Jo mentioned, we’ve got quite a wide range of guests on this episode, and we haven’t used the whole of every interview because, in that case we’d have over four or five hours of audio to get through. I’ve taken what I consider to be some of the best bits. There’s also many other very good and educational pieces so what we are going to do is we are going to put the rest of the recordings up on our Patreon page. It’ll be available for free, you might still need to sign up for Patreon, but as I said, there’ll be over four hours of completely unedited audio that you can listen to and, and there’s some really interesting stuff there.
Jo Stewart: Yeah! We went on some really interesting tangents. Some of our three-question, five-minute conversations went for an hour <laughs> yeah.
Rane Bowen: Haha! To hear all of this amazing content, just go to patreon.com/flowartistspodcast so yeah, no we’re really looking forward to sharing this episode with you, so let’s get started I guess.
Rane Bowen: So Jo, what are hands-on assists?
Jo Stewart: My definition is: any time, we’ll say a teacher for the purpose of this episode, though sometimes in group work it is another participant in the class, uses touch—could be their hands, could be another part of their body. It could be for reasons of safety, alignment, clarity—if verbal assists have not got the message through. It might be with the goal of giving their student the opportunity to experience safe touch and the process of consent and negotiation that lead up to that. And feel-good assists may be that palm on your back in child’s pose or that little foot adjustment that some teachers like to do in savasana 0440; a hands-on touch that’s really about nurturing. So, there’s a lot of reasons why assists might be given, and I’ll just start by saying I think intention is so powerful when it comes to this topic, and if you are teaching at a studio that requires every teacher to touch every student or you feel like you should just touch every student because that’s what a yoga teacher does, I’d really look at that point of view because: is that really serving the people in your class? I won’t go too far down that tangent though! <laughs>
Rane Bowen: I think we’ll start with our first guest, and that is Dominique Salerno, who is one of the owners of Australian Yoga Academy, she was one of my teacher-trainers, and I know that she leads her own teacher training specifically on adjustments, so I really wanted to get her perspective. To start with, we’ll get her view on the four types of adjustments.
Dominique Salerno: For me there are four different kinds of adjustment. There’s verbal, which is first prize; there’s demonstration, which is a great form of assisting, you know, a picture’s worth a thousand words; propping; and then, last resort, hands-on adjusting.
Rane Bowen: And tha seems like a good perspective to me, obviously hands-on assists should be the last resort.
Jo Stewart: Yeah, I think you should definitely try the other approaches first.
Rane Bowen: And we have mentioned the use of assists for awareness, so we’ve actually got Leigh Blashki, former President of Yoga Australia, co-Founder of Yoga Australia, talking about that topic, so let’s listen to him.
Leigh Blashki: In relation to touch, it needs to be said that there are teachers and therapists who use touch as part of their assessment and that really is to be encouraged. However, for any touch to be used by any yoga teacher or any yoga therapist at any time, clear consent needs to be provided by that student or client. And that clear and unambiguous consent can be either in the form of verbal, which the teacher then notes down on a date and time on their, whether they keep electronic records or written records, ah: ‘at 930 on the 20th of December 2019, ah Rane said to me, it’s okay for me to use touch to assess the mobility of his shoulder’. Sometimes what teachers will do, and therapists, is when they have an intake form, they say: ‘here’s the sorts of things that we do: in my form of yoga therapy, I would like to on occasions use touch to help you bring your attention to a particular area or to assess a range of motion or something like that, to assist your interceptive awareness.’ And the, the client signs the acceptance of that. And if they don’t, that’s fine, then you don’t touch. Or you ask at that particular time; they may have changed their mind.
So, wherever possible I think we need to establish that modification of postures particularly, I mean that’s the main thing we’re talking about with touch, we can occasionally use it for pranayama of course for awareness of areas of the, of the breathing parts of the body, which again, is inherently problematic if, if you’re dealing with a woman, or men, some men don’t like having their chests touched, you can understand there’s issues there. That modifications or adaptions, and I don’t like the word adjustments anymore, really needs to be by demonstration or verbal instructions in the first instance. And then, if clear consent has been provided, and then individualised instruction can be supported by the use of appropriate touch to assist the clients’, students’ proprioceptive or interceptive awareness.
So, when we’re thinking about that, we talk about the appropriate use of touch to assist body position, ah and bringing awareness to a particular area. It’s not to make a person go deeper or to bend a particular part into a particular position that it’s not ready to go to. That is just not part of a quality yoga practice that fits with good code of professional conduct. It was for many years and some styles still do it, but I do not believe it is appropriate. I think people need to have awareness of where the limitations are and work with that themselves, not have somebody forcing them with their hands.
Rane Bowen: Leigh raises a very key point there on consent. Obviously consent is very important, some would say vital.
Jo Stewart: Yeah definitely! <laughter> I think the point that Leigh raises is that initial written consent in the example is a starting point. If someone says ‘no’, that’s a definite ‘no’. If someone says ‘yes’, I feel like that has opened the door for a possible adjustment, not a blanket ‘yes’ to every time being touched, no matter what the reason.
And I think that is the same with consent cards. If it’s the ‘no’ face, that’s a definite ‘no’, if it’s a ‘yes’ face, it’s a ‘yes’ to a conversation, rather than a ‘yes’ to the assist.
Rane Bowen: And we’re gonna talk about consent a little bit more later, but for now, let’s talk about the benefits of hands-on assists. Do you have any words to share here, Jo?
Jo Stewart: I do, I do, and my perspective has changed a lot since I’ve been teaching aerial yoga. If I was teaching a group yoga class with everyone on the mat, I really feel like I could use words and demonstrate with my own body and get my message across in a way that I wouldn’t need to use hands-on assists. Some people like them, but I wouldn’t need them to make my point. Upside-down, everything changes, so I really have had some situations where, people have said to me, ‘can you just move my foot for me?’ because up and down and left and right get a lot more confusing when people are upside-down, and if someone is say, in an inversion and they can’t figure out how to get out, that’s a stressful situation for that person. We don’t want to spend another five minutes trying to come up with the words that will get the message across if they just want me to use my hands to help them out. And I think that there are a couple of postures as well, which you don’t really have in floor-based yoga, where I might be instructing someone to tuck their foot around the fabric in a certain way, but they can’t see because it’s behind them and they’re face-down, and once I’ve helped them do it once, they just know, they have that body memory for most people. So, for the sake of clarity and safety and peace of mind, I definitely use hands-on assists a lot more in my aerial classes than I ever did in my floor classes. And I have consent cards and, we got them for the studio for the ‘no’s’, so that we would know right away who didn’t want to be touched at all, and that’s totally fine and, I must say, if I had someone who I knew didn’t want to be touched in a class, I would hold off longer, on teaching a couple of the more complex moves until I really knew that that person would be okay to follow verbal cues only to get in and out of that pose, if I knew they didn’t want to be touched.
What I wasn’t expecting is looking around the room and seeing all the ‘yes’s, because I think I don’t really, I don’t know, I didn’t come from a style that was really big on hands-on assists, they’re not a part of my own teaching, so seeing a whole room of ‘yes’s was also kind of a really helpful message. It’s like, ‘okay people actually want this’.
Rane Bowen: Mmm.
Jo Stewart: Or at least they want the option.
Rane Bowen: Mmm absolutely. And, yeah I found the same thing teaching aerial yoga, you, you, sometimes people are just going to be quite disorientated …
Jo Stewart: Really confused yeah…
Rane Bowen: … yeah, yeah so it can just be, and I do even ask them ‘do you mind if I press down on your leg or do you mind if I just untangle you from this position here?’ and people go ‘yes!’ <laughs>
Jo Stewart: ‘Please!’
Rane Bowen: Haha! So, no I do think in, in some cases they are quite useful. Can, can you think of any other benefits that people might have from assists in general?
Jo Stewart: Yeah, so this is a trauma-informed context. I recently did a 60-hour trauma-informed community yoga training with Jo Buick 1258 and Mei Lei Swan, which was amazing, it was really great. And leading up to that training, my point of view or my understanding was that trauma-informed classes was just a blanket ‘no’ on all hands-on assists, and that’s absolutely the case in complex and relational trauma where someone may not have the capacity to say ‘no’ yet, even if that’s what they’re feeling, because of their history. So, in that context: totally ‘no’. And if it’s in a mental health space or a school, sometimes there are just rules that nobody gets touched and that’s also a ‘no’.
But what I hadn’t considered is how powerful the conversation can be about negotiation. So, if learning to say ‘yes’ and ‘no’ to different things is something that you struggle with in life, a yoga class with a compassionate and understanding teacher and like, a safe-feeling space, can be a really powerful place to practice that; to practice asking for what you need, saying what you don’t want, finding the words to tell someone that you do or don’t want to be touched could be really challenging in a relationship context or out in the world. And so on the yoga mat, it’s a little microcosm where we can practice having bodily autonomy. And that’s a benefit that I hadn’t really considered until I did this training.
Rane Bowen: Wow, that’s really interesting. And I also asked Dominique 1430 ah her perspective on the benefits of hands-on assists and this was her response:
Dominique Salerno: For me the most important benefit of a hands-on assist is to keep students safe. Unfortunately we’re living in a climate where more and more people are really disconnected from their bodies and, whilst its always best to try and achieve, let’s say the assist or the adjustment verbally, that’s always first prize, most people will really benefit just from a gentle hands-on assist, but primarily the benefit is to, to keep them safe. Other benefits are to assist the student to really feel where the energy’s supposed to be moving in the asana, not necessarily to deepen the pose, but to maintain safe alignment. And when I talk about alignment, I don’t mean perfect, physical lines and angles and all that sort of thing, but you know, is, is the drishti there? Is the focus there? Is the breath there? And are you seeing steadiness and ease?
Jo Stewart: Good information there from Dominque!
Rane Bowen: Anything to add there?
Jo Stewart: Yeah, thought of some more ones where I can feel real benefit for a hands-on. I guess I do this more in my Pilates classes, but sometimes in my yoga classes, it’s a shoulder blade assist to try and explain what’s happening with serratus anterior muscles and external rotation of the shoulders, and I have found that hands can explain that a lot more easily than words. And also, speaking of hands, handstands. So, not everyone’s going to do a handstand and some people may not even consider handstand part of yoga, but if you wanna learn, there’s this massive difference between kicking up against a wall and just kicking up in the middle of the room with nobody to catch you or support you. Having someone standing there, being a bit of a human wall with their arm outstretched and then like, helping you find your line and your shape and basically reassuring you that you’re not going to fall over because they’ve got you, I feel like that missing piece, if I hadn’t experienced that with a person, I probably just wouldn’t kick up in the middle of the room.
Rane Bowen: Now, before we go on, I feel it would be good to learn a little bit about the history of hands-on assists. It’s a very common practice now, but has it always been the case?
Jo Stewart: Good question Rane!
Rane Bowen: I did some research, but I found it difficult to find any history of hands-on assists prior to the modern era. The best resource I could find was in the book, ‘Practice and All is Coming’ by Matthew Remski. The book is a fascinating and disturbing read about Pattabhi Jois, Ashtanga Yoga and some of the abuse that occurred there, and I asked him what he had learnt in his research and he kindly replied:
Matthew Remski: To research my book on the tragedy of Jois’ Ashtanga Yoga and the fact that he was able to assault women for about thirty years on a daily basis under the guise of hands-on adjustments, I had to dig into this question historically as far as I could, and really the expect here is Dr Jason Birch, who’s probably the most well-read Sanskritist in the medieval Hatha Yoga literature, and I, I asked him ‘are there any indications in this literature…’—so, this is prior to the twentieth century of course—‘of 1) of a yoga teacher adjusting or physically manipulating a student while in a posture?’ And he came back with a really firm ‘no, that there’s nothing textual to indicate that there’s anything traditional about teachers handling or touching students at all’. He did find one illustration of a practitioner assisting another practitioner in a posture that looks like the person is in a virassana or in a Heroes’ Pose, and the person who seems to be assisting them looks like they’re applying weight to their thighs in order for there to be proper leverage or something like that, but that’s just an illustration in a, in a text, there’s no textual description of it.
And so as far as we know, really, physical adjustments in the yoga context begin to emerge in the Mysore asana revival that Mark Singleton describes in his book, ‘Yoga Body’, which really ah incorporated a huge amount of influence from the physical culture of Europe at the time, including training in gymnastics and ah perhaps even forms of dance, including ballet, in which it would be common for, children especially who were being prepared for the stage, ah to be manipulated by their teachers into positions of greater flexibility. And in fact, that’s what we see when we look at the archival footage of Mr Krishnamacharya working with his students at the Mysore Yoga Palace. So two things here, one is that the impetus to adjust the student in this context is to help them be better performers or demonstrators of asana, to be able to show off their, their flexibility in a more deep way. As Mr Ayengar says, to be able to thrill the audiences of the Maharaja at the time for which the children were performing. So, that’s one thing, is that the purpose for adjusting students in that context was to improve their performance, not to help them deeper into the pose or help them into a more contemplative state or you know, what have you, all of the things that you’ll hear today.
The other thing that really can’t be ignored is that while teachers like Krishnamacharya are touching, adjusting, manhandling their students into postures for demonstration purposes, they’re also, they’re also beating their students in the context of, you know, this British-influenced, public education, school system in which corporal punishment is a standard part of the discipline. So one thing that I’ve been trying to flesh out is this continuity between adjustments, physical adjustments for demonstration purposes that also have this disciplinary context or mode to them that can’t be disentangled from corporal punishment.
So to just pack all that up into a single sentence, we have Pattabhi Jois and Mr Ayengar evangelising yoga to the world, using physical adjustments to help their students demonstrate postures, but they learned those physical adjustments in a context of corporal punishment in which they were being disciplined by their master. And so, to talk about, you know, whether adjustments are about the benefit of the student or not, or whether or not they’re consensual, or how to work with that in the present day, we have to unpack all of that history because that’s the echo of what I would call ‘implied consent’ in classrooms all around the world.
Rane Bowen: So there’a lot of really interesting stuff there.
Jo Stewart: So disturbing.
Rane Bowen: And, as we learnt from our past episode with Tejal and Jesal from Yoga is Dead, there is some validity in retaining a little bit of scepticism around Mark Singleton’s work so, I actually asked Jesal if she could review a couple of chapters from the book and just give us her perspective on this topic.
Jesal Parikh: I think one caveat, just because of the way maybe I felt yoga tradition was being talked about in the book but also in the greater yoga industry is that the idea of yoga tradition is actually something that’s difficult to define. Because yoga’s not a monolith and it has ties to so many different practices, religions and ideologies, and because hundreds if not thousands of yoga texts have not yet been translated and, because so much of what yoga as we know it today was something that was passed down orally and it wasn’t really written down and of course, colonialism forced a lot of yoga into secrecy, hiding and stomped out pockets of it entirely, so we don’t really have a full picture of what yoga tradition really is.
What we do know is based on themes that we’ve seen sort of come up repeatedly in stories, evidence and indigenous knowledge, but in all of that I think its important to remember that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. So just because physical adjustments haven’t really been documented, for all we know, there may have been a sect of yoga that has always used forceful physical adjustments and was like some of those other yoga sects where they kept their practices really secret and hidden, and maybe Krishnamacharya learned from someone in one of those sects; it’s plausible. It’s probably not likely but it’s plausible.
Rane Bowen: So yeah, that’s an interesting perspective as well, and I do think she’s right, that it is plausible but most likely that there isn’t that much of a history of adjustments in yoga.
Jo Stewart: While I appreciated Matthew’s perspective and the research that he has done, I did want to question the lack of South Asian representation in his source material, and this was his reply:
Matthew Remski: Yes I have spoken to South Asian practitioners about field or the topic in general, not specifically about adjustments, so I can’t answer the question as to whether or not in a guru kulum environment in which asanas were taught, whether physical adjustments were you know, completely off the table. I can’t answer that question. What I can say is that the closest I think I’ve gotten to what a pre-modern or pre-colonial asana instruction scenario would have looked like, and whether it would have involved physical adjustments, is through my interviews with Jim Mallinson, now he’s not South Asian either but he, he spent I think like, six months of the last, of each of the last twenty years or so in Central India with his sampradaya guru who just passed away last year actually, and his story about learning Hatha Yoga from him, in what I think is probably the most pre-modern way in which we have access to, anybody has access to, is that he simply asked his guru, ‘can you teach me Hatha Yoga?’ and then orally he was, as you say, because it’s an oral tradition, he was orally given instructions about how to do, I think eight to ten postures or something like that. He says that it took him about a half an hour, and there was no demonstration, there was no adjustment, there was no hands-on anything. He didn’t have to demonstrate the postures to his guru. He was basically just given an oral description and then told to go away and practice them so there’s no group class environment as well. And so, I think what my feeling is, and I’m not like the accredited historian here, but my feeling is that we really don’t have any evidence for pre-modern asana instruction that has this colonially-influenced, group class, physical culture, performance-based quality to it. We, we just don’t, that, that is really a twentieth century phenomenon that, yes absolutely, probably distorts and confuses pre-modern traditions to a huge degree, but from a number of sides, and with a lot of different participants. So one of the things that we have to understand about what Singleton is describing is that it’s the, the modern Indian innovators of postural yoga who actively promote the influence of European physical culture as they extend or as they, as they try to create a Hatha Yoga for export and for national unity. So, it’s a really complex question!
With regard to like, oral tradition in asana practice, I think that, there’s even more evidence there that because it’s an oral tradition, we don’t have this manhandling going on in a pre-colonial setting.
Rane Bowen: So there you go, yeah, really interesting I think. I do feel that as much as we can get from what evidence we have, it does seem that there isn’t that much of a historical precedent for adjustments, so, take that for what it’s worth.
Jo Stewart: Just from that conversation as well, I think there’s a really interesting through-line where that traditional practice of guru-to-disciple, one-on-one, even though they’re working one-on-one, it was about that student’s internal experience. They were taught the practices and they went away to internalise those practices. One of the reasons why I didn’t really give that many hands-on assists in my general yoga classes is I really like don’t like the point of view that the teacher knows better than the student about what’s going on in that student’s body at that time. So, I would try and give functional cues about where we might be looking for a sensation, the kind of sensations that we’re not looking for, like sore knee or sore neck, and try and guide in a way that heightens that student’s internal experience and gives them the tools to safely navigate through the practice, rather than coming at it from a, ‘your knee’s in the wrong spot, your shoulder’s doing the wrong thing, let me fix you up, there you go, now you’re doing the pose right’. And I feel like that really came through in that text about, who’s in charge—of their body and their practice? And that’s one of the issues that really comes up when it comes to hands-on assists: Whose benefit are they for? Does the teacher really know better about what a good alignment is and what safety is? Or do we want to be teaching people to find that for themselves?
Rane Bowen: The next thing that I’d like to talk about before we go on is our Patreon page. Woohoo!
Jo Stewart: Yeah! <laughs>
Rane Bowen: <laughs> So Patreon is just a way that you can help support the Podcast for as little as $1 a month. And some of that money goes towards transcribing some of our episodes. We tend to transcribe one a month and also, just so you know, we put extra content out there and, as I mentioned at the start of the episode, I’m going to be putting all of these interviews in full, unedited, up on our Patreon page, so there’s hours and hours of listening there, there’s some really really good stuff so I suggest you check it out. Again, I’ll leave the stuff for free but you might have to sign up and we’d love it if you’d consider just giving us a small monthly donation.
Jo Stewart: Yeah! We really appreciate your support.
Rane Bowen: One thing that might add extra nuance to this conversation is that of accessible yoga and people with different levels of ability, they might need different types of adjustments, assists or help in general, so, again we had to talk to the most expert person we knew on this topic and that is Jivana Heyman. In this next piece, Jivana talks about hands-on assists and the issue of consent.
Jivana Heyman: I think adjustments, and generally that word is kinda out, for me, it’s like I don’t think yoga teachers should be adjusting students at all, that feels like that’s something beyond our scope of practice; maybe for chiropractors. But, in terms of assists, I, I do think there needs to be an extra level of awareness when working with someone who has a disability. But I, but I would start by saying to me there’s really no difference when it comes to consent, and I, I think that’s maybe really, like the key part of the conversation is: how do we get consent for touching people? And, and that, that’s true no matter who you’re working with—you still need to have consent—so, regardless of a person’s ability or, or experience, you need their consent before you touch them. And, and actually for people who don’t use words to speak, maybe, for whatever reason, we need to find other ways to communicate with them in order to gain consent and, and it’s still not okay to touch them without that.
Rane Bowen: And in this next little piece, Jivana talks about the three parts to consent.
Jivana Heyman: I would say to me there’s three, at least three parts to consent. I mean, the overarching theme in gaining consent is communication, you know that there’s a dialogue going on between the teacher and the student, and I guess I, I would begin with that. And then say that the three elements I always look for are: informed consent meaning that the student has an idea of what you’re asking to do when you’re, when you’re trying to gain their consent. For example, if you were to say to a student, ‘could I assist you in this pose or can I, can I make an adjustment?’ you know, which is what we used to say or something, that’s actually not enough information, I don’t think, for anyone to make a decision and give their consent or not. It’s too vague. I think we have to be a little more specific. So I would say, ‘could I assist you in lifting your arm, your right arm, you know a little bit higher?’ and then having a dialogue around that, ‘oh and how does that feel?’ you know like, ‘how is that once I’ve assisted you? um what has the experience been like for you?’ So that’s, informed consent would be more detailed information like what I would like to do, when I’m going, when I’m coming to touch your body.
Second one I would say is enthusiastic consent, meaning that a person has to respond enthusiastically, like if I, if I go to a student, I ask them, ‘can I touch your right arm?’ and they just don’t say anything, ‘cause they’re trying to be all yogic and peaceful and quiet, which is great, but if they don’t respond, that’s not giving me consent, they have to actually say ‘yes’ or, or nod or do some, communicate ‘yes’ to me in some clear way. So that’s important that you actually get a clear ‘yes’ in response. And then the other, which goes again, back to communication right, there’s dialogue going.
And then the last element is um ongoing consent. So that, if I were to ask for you consent in the beginning of a class, it doesn’t mean that, that I have consent to touch your body later. So that’s important to consider too, that it’s an ongoing dialogue and that the student’s opinion or um decision about being touched can change throughout the course of a class.
Jo Stewart: Just from listening to that, I’m 100 per cent with Jivana on the enthusiastic consent, ‘cause in my mind it’s not just ‘is it okay if I do this to you?’ it’s ‘would you like me to, would that be helpful for your experience?’ And my other takeaway from Jivana’s is: it’s a conversation every time about, ‘this is what I’m think I might do, how do you feel about it?’ Say you have twenty people in the room, and you have that conversation with every person, that’s like forty minutes of talking about doing something, and it’s an hour class, that doesn’t leave much space for anything else. So it really comes back to that original statement by Dominique how, if we can explain something verbally or show something visually, that’s so much more efficient than having to go to an individual person and have a conversation about straightening out their arm or something like that. And, while there are a lot of benefits to having these conversations, and I think that it can be a really important practice, we don’t want to be doing this for every single pose that we teach in class. I guess that would be different if it was a one-on-one session, maybe then it would be a bit more hands-on if that’s what that person actually, that was their preference and that was a conversation that you had. The other point of view that um Jivana mentioned as well is, while there has to be enthusiastic consent, it might not be verbal with everyone, and that would be a different negotiation with a different person. I think there’s also another layer to this when you are working with someone with different abilities, how sometimes the assist might not be touching the person, but it might be handing them a block or helping them get a bolster in place or assisting them in another way that is not you moving them, with their hands, and I think those types of assists are also really valuable in giving that person that sense of autonomy so that they can feel for themselves how they would best experience the pose.
Rane Bowen: So let’s hear some more from Jivana.
Jivana Heyman: In the community that we’re talking about, like seniors or people with disabilities, there’s a lot of isolation, and so, I just have to say that I think touch has a role in yoga and I think it’s a really subtle and important consideration for yoga teachers to make: is how, how can they use touch in a way that is healing and um empowering of their students? You know, there is this way of approaching someone who’s older, like as if you have to fix them or help them and that, that can be disempowering. So yeah, I think, how could we use touch in a way that actually doesn’t do that? You know, that just helps people get in touch with their body and feel more whole and complete as they are. And maybe that’s really what, what it is, it has to do with: what is our role or the intention of the yoga that we’re teaching? Are we trying to fix people? Are we trying to heal people? In fact I used the word healing before and I kinda wonder why I, ‘cause I, honestly I think, that’s not our job you know, that’s not the job of a yoga teacher
Rane Bowen: And yeah, interesting point there: it’s not our job to fix people; we’re there to help guide them through an experience.
Jo Stewart: Yeah or experience their own wholeness.
Rane Bowen: Another issue that came up when we were talking to Jivana was that of safety, and I think that this is important on a couple of levels. There’s the safety of the student and the safety of the teacher. So, let’s hear from Jivana talk about this issue and an incident that occurred with him a while ago.
Jivana Heyman: I really injured myself assisting students. I had a student once who couldn’t get up off the floor after class. She would, she came every week and so I knew her well and, and she would always get down on the floor to practice even though some of the other students stayed in chairs, but she always would get down and get back up with no problem, but this week that she came, and she had MS and I, you know with MS like, many other you know, conditions, you don’t know day-to-day what you’re gonna feel like. But that day she was more tired and weaker and couldn’t get back up off the floor at the end of class. And I, and it was like an empty place, everyone else had left, it was just her and I alone there, and I ended up lifting her back up into a chair and I really, I pulled a muscle in my back, it was really bad. And I realised later that was the wrong thing to do, like I shouldn’t have lifted her, but it was like, it was my impulse because I couldn’t, I didn’t want to leave her there…
Jo Stewart: No!
Jivana Heyman: <laughs> And I didn’t know what else to do, but I realised later that I should’ve called the fire department, honestly. I really should’ve, I should’ve gotten help and had it done correctly to get her off the floor. It really is like an emergency situation if someone can’t get up off the floor. So, I think it’s very serious, and I, and I didn’t take it seriously enough and I just wanted to help, in the moment, but I ended up hurting myself.
Rane Bowen: Mmm so yeah I guess we have an important safety issue there. I guess it could be argued that it’s not really our job to help people off the floor but what do you do if someone can’t get up?
Jo Stewart: Some of the things that you could do is could you bring some other props in? So maybe two chairs so you wouldn’t be carrying their full weight and helping them get up that way, or, like Jivana said, like call an ambulance if someone really can’t get up off the ground. And I was just thinking hearing him talking about that, that handstand assist which I mentioned that was so helpful for me, is absolutely an assist you could get hurt with as a teacher, you could get kicked in the face or trying to like, support someone’s weight as they come up into a handstand, if you’re doing that awkwardly, that could hurt you, so it’s absolutely part of this. And my Pilates mentor, Louise Taube, ah I did a ‘Pilates for Active Aging’ training with her, and it was a big part of that training: about if you see someone losing their balance, you cannot reach out and try to catch them because chances are you’ll get pulled over. So, its choosing the right level of challenge for somebody where if you do not think that they are going to be able to support themselves, set up supports around them with different props or choose a different move that will be safer, but as a teacher you can’t put yourself in jeopardy by trying to assist a student.
Rane Bowen: Mmm.
Jo Stewart: Because that’s not sustainable for anyone, and how bad would that student feel as well if they’d hurt you!
Rane Bowen: Mmm absolutely. And, before I go on, I just wanted to mention that Jivana’s going to be speaking at the Evolution of Yoga Summit that’s on March 20th to the 22nd of 2020, ah, that’s in California. So ah we’ll leave a link to that in the show notes, and the reason I mention it is because a lot of what we’re talking about now will be brought up during that Summit, so it sounds really interesting. I wish we could be there ourselves but not gonna happen.
Back to safety, it’s not just the teacher that’s at risk obviously; there’s also the student. Now we spoke to Claire Cunneen, we’ve had her on the Podcast before and she runs LV Chair Yoga Australia so she works with a lot of older students and she brings up an issue that happened with her a while back.
Jo Stewart: Well it was with someone who was covering one of her classes.
Rane Bowen: Yes, as you’ll hear.
Claire Cunneen: For example, I had this guy covering my class and there’s a lady in that class um who has um osteo, she also has a rod in her leg so it’s restricted there, and she’s also got a valve in her heart, the um a pacemaker in her heart, a valve—everybody has a valve <laughter> she has a pacemaker <laughs> so, I didn’t know this but the person that was covering me was adjusting people in that class, which I never touch her in particular, and he pushed, she was in a supine twist, and normally in her supine twist, like she would just have her leg up to the sky and that’s enough for her, and he actually pushed her over to the side and fractured her leg. And for her it was like, not just about physical aspect of that happening, but she had just come back after recovering from that rod being inserted in her body, and the emotional toll that that took on her as well was quite strong.
Rane Bowen: So as you can hear, that was pretty horrendous, right?
Jo Stewart: Yeah, so him pushing her leg across, did that break her femur?
Rane Bowen: I believe so, yeah. Obviously something you want to be very careful about. And of course, as I mentioned, that’s an older woman but I’d also like to share with you a few words we heard from Gina Macauley. Now Gina has been on the Podcast also and she runs Yoga Hara out in Bendigo and we’ll hear her talk about her studio policy and then the reasons they have that policy.
Gina Macauley: My name’s Gina, I have a small studio called Yoga Hara in Bendigo and our studio policy on adjustments is very permission-based. We have permission cards in our studio that support students in being able to communicate to us whether they generally want to be adjusted; it’s either ‘yes’ or ‘no’. But even if they have the ‘yes’ card up, we still ask their permission. So for example if we’re working in a pose where you might want to maybe support them in the position of their knee or their hand, it’s just a simple question, they’ve got the ‘yes’ card up: ‘is it okay if I put my hand on your knee or if I put my hand on your shoulder?’ and we don’t assume, even when they have got the ‘yes’ card up, that their shoulder is okay to be touched, they might have an injury in their shoulder, everything else is okay but maybe not their shoulder. We also encourage them to flip the card over during the class if they’re working on a pose that they know, ‘oh I don’t like being adjusted in this pose’ so they can flip the card over. But we’re, you know we really encourage them to honour that for themselves. One of the things that I like to say to people in terms of saying ‘no’ is that you know, the yoga studio, the yoga space and particularly Yoga Hara, that is the safest space, so if you can say ‘no’ in this space, that gives you practice for saying ‘no’ out in the world where sometimes you really do need to say ‘no’. And if we’re not practiced at it, it can be quite a challenge to say ‘no’.
The main reason why Yoga Hara has this policy is, for me personally, I was quite badly injured by a yoga teacher in virabhadrasana 2, probably about fifteen years ago now, which badly injured my SI joint, and I spent a lot of time recovering from that and it’s still problematic. And I just think that, you know this person didn’t know my body and forcefully forced my body into a position that was not right for me. I, I know what’s right for me, and ah, I get really upset when yoga teachers don’t want to listen to their students. Their students know what’s right for their bodies and I really feel that giving them permission and space to feel into those poses for themselves, that’s, that’s important. If, as a yoga teacher we can’t give really clear instructions of, verbal instructions, then you know, maybe we should look at how we teach. I don’t think adjusting, forceful adjusting is even necessary in, in any yoga class anymore. I feel really strongly about that.
Jo: And so from both those peoples’ experiences, the potential value of that hands-on assist was way outweighed by the injurious effect of the assist and like, that’s the reality, I think that’s something we do need to think about as teachers: what’s the benefit to the person of me putting my hands on them? What do and don’t I know about this person? And is there another way I could convey what I’m trying to convey with touch, with words, with a different cue? And maybe: am I teaching beyond my reach? If I’m trying to explain concepts in class that I can’t explain with enough clarity, that I do need to physically move people into these shapes, should I be teaching these poses in a group class?
Rane Bowen: Another consideration we had is scope of practice. Is it within our scope of practice to do these type of adjustments? Let’s hear from Leigh Blashki talk about the topic. And just so you know, Leigh is actually working on the guidelines on touch for the IAYT, the International Association of Yoga Therapists, so let’s have a listen to what he has to say.
Leigh Blashki: I believe it would be great if every training organisation had their own scope of practice so somebody knows: what are the boundaries of their scope when they are teaching or doing therapy in that particular style? So, as I said before, any form of touch to assist the person with proprioceptive, interceptive awareness or to assist with the process of valuating and assessing a person’s physical capacities, that needs to have some form of permission that, explicit, not implicit, explicit. And of course, the yoga therapist or teacher needs to avoid any form of touch in doing these things that in any way could be regarded as sexual or in any other way harmful or exploitative.
Jo Stewart: So, Leigh made a good a point there that the consent has to be really explicit, and that was another thing that I got out of that recent trauma-informed training that I did: it can be really helpful for people to kind of negotiate this decision if they know upfront what the assist is going to be, if it’s really clear. And in that training, they mention it at the start of the class, so they might open the class by saying, ‘during this class, there’ll be the possibility for a hands-on assist, this is what it looks like’ and they got someone up to demonstrate the assist. And so it’s not springing that on someone, it’s giving them time to think about it and to formulate their response: ‘do I or don’t I want this?’ And knowing that it’s always going to be a conversation; it’s never going to be compulsory.
Rane Bowen: So, we’re going to have to end the conversation there for now, and I think we’ve covered a lot, what do you think Jo?
Jo Stewart: Yeah!
Rane Bowen: Yeah! We’ve discussed the types and benefits of assists, some of the potential risks, the importance of consent and the different forms it can take. And we’ve learned a little bit about the history or potential lack of history around adjustments or assists.
In our episode next week we have some more amazing guests. We’ll hear Mei Lei Swan talk about assists in a trauma-informed context, we’ll learn about transference and counter-transference from Amy Wheeler, we’ll explore race, cultural context, gender and some of the other factors that play into this issue from Michelle Cassandra Johnson, Gail Parker, Jesal Parikh and Tim Seuter. We’ll also hear more from some of the guests you’ve already heard today.
As I mentioned earlier, you can hear full interviews with these guests on our Patreon page at patreon.com/flowartistspodcast.
If you have any comments or feedback we would love to hear from you. Let’s make this a discussion! You can comment via our website at podcast.flowartists.com or join us at the Flow Artists Podcast Community on Facebook.
Thank you so so much for listening. We really appreciate you spending your time with us. Arohanui, big big …
Jo Stewart: … love.