Making Adjustments - Are Hands-on Assists OK? Pt 2
In the second part of our two-part special on hands-on assists, we go a little bit deeper!
We hear how a trauma-informed context may change our approach to assists from Mei Lai Swan, then Amy Wheeler tells us about transference and countertransference and what role they might play when teaching yoga.
We learn how culture, race and gender can change perceptions around touch from Jesal Parikh, Gail Parker, Michelle Cassandra Johnson, Tim Seutter and Anu Fox.
Finally, we hear some conclusions from Leigh Blashki, Matthew Remski and Dominique Salerno.
While creating this episode we gathered over 4 hours of audio, which will be 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/
Tim Seutter: https://yogafire.tv/
Michelle Cassandra Johnson: https://www.michellecjohnson.com/
Gail Parker: https://www.drgailparker.com/
Anu Fox: https://www.yogaaustralia.org.au/yoga_user/anu-fox/
Queer and Trans Yoga: https://www.facebook.com/queerandtransyoga/
You can hear part 1 at: https://podcast.flowartists.com/episodes/making-adjustments-pt-1/
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.2:05 Support us on Patreon
2:45 Jo discusses her Trauma Informed Training
3:58 Mei Lai Swan - A Trauma Informed Perspective
5:56 Trauma informed teaching
6:07 Mei Lai Swan - Assists in a trauma informed context
8:48 Mei Lai Swan - Assists in a studio setting
9:05 Consent cards
12:16 Mei Lai Swan - power dynamics
13:26 Amy Wheeler - Transference
16:34 Amy Wheeler - It’s the teacher’s responsibility
17:50 Power dynamics between teacher and student
23:32 Touch from different cultural perspectives
23:55 Jesal Parikh - A South Indian perspective on touch
26:16 A passage from Gail Parker’s upcoming book - Restorative Yoga for ethnic and race-based trauma
28:40 Michelle Cassandra Johnson - Asked to be a different way.
31:00 Michelle Cassandra Johnson - Power and Responsibility
32:34 Tim Seutter - A cis-male perspective
35:42 Anu - a non-binary or transgendered perspective
37:50 Different modalities
39:08 Leigh Blashki - dual modalities
40:45 Matthew Remski - A positive experience
46:00 Matthew Remski - Touch is like a flashpoint for agency
46:58 Leigh Blashki - Some conclusions
48:40 Dominique Salerno - some final thoughts
51:30 Next Episode Renae Stevens
Please email us to report any transcription errorsRane Bowen: Hello, my name’s 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 really good! I’m really excited about this episode. It’s been awesome seeing everyone’s responses to Part 1, which we released last week. It seems like this question of hands-on assists and consent is something that’s on a lot of people’s minds, so it’s been really great to be able to enter into that discussion and to be able to share some insights from our amazing guests. And I’m excited to keep doing that in this episode as well.
Rane Bowen: Me too, yeah! So, as Jo mentioned, this is the second part of our two-part episode on hands-on assists. If you haven’t heard the first part already, I highly suggest you do. It’s, it’s a great episode where we spoke about the definition of hands-on assists; we discussed some of the benefits and some of the potential pitfalls; some of the history of physical adjustments or the lack of history; the issue of consent; and the nuance around the topic of accessibility in yoga. Now, we briefly touched on how trauma-informed teaching can add extra considerations, and we’ll be going much more in depth with that today with Mei Lai Swan. We’ll learn about transference and countertransference from Amy Wheeler and then we’ll tackle some interesting perspectives based on race, culture and gender. It’s an exciting episode and I can’t wait to get into it.
Now, before I do though, I wanted to let you know that I’m going to upload all of the full, unedited interviews with each of our guests onto our Patreon page, and they’ll all be available there for free. And we would love it if you considered supporting us, if you like what you hear, and that’s for as little as $1 a month and we use these funds to have our episodes transcribed, so you’ll be helping to make these episodes more accessible to the hearing-impaired. For more information, just go to patreon.com/flowartistspodcast and I’ll leave links to everything up on our website at podcast.flowartists.com.
Alright Jo, anything else to add?
Jo Stewart: One thing else I’d like to add about the transcriptions: these two episodes probably are ones that we will get transcribed, and it’s really useful for people who aren’t able to listen to the episodes, but it’s also really useful if you wanted to use this information for reference or for research. I’m thinking like yoga teachers in training or anyone who is maybe writing an article or a blog post, this can be a way just to go back into this information without having to listen to a whole hour of talking.
I’m super excited that we’re starting off this episode with Mei Lai Swan. As I mentioned last week, I just did a 60-hour trauma-informed community yoga training with her, and some of the topics that we covered are just going to continue to inform my teaching and my life from here. One of the really interesting aspects that she talked about is how our own background and our own assumptions can really shape the way in which we see the world. And so something as simple as asking someone, ‘is it okay if I move your arm?’ depending on that person’s history and past history of trauma perhaps, it seems like a simple question, but sometimes it isn’t. Sometimes, for whatever reason, they may not feel able to say ‘no’, even if that’s what they want. The way that the nervous system works might put them into a freeze response where they don’t feel able to say anything at all. There’s a whole lot going on within the mind and the nervous system that can come up as we move the body, and I think it’s really important for us as yoga teachers to be aware of, and hopefully with this episode today, we can build on that depth of knowledge and start that conversation. Let’s hear from Mei Lai Swan, talking about hands-on assist from a trauma-informed perspective now.
Mei Lai Swan: Thank you so much too for reaching out to have a chat about this topic. It’s something that I am really passionate about actually ‘cause I feel like it’s something that’s often misunderstood or taken for granted and, it’s shifting, I think that there’s still, there’s so many nuances to learn.
A few key things in a trauma-informed perspective on hands-on assists: I would say you know, first of all we’re looking at awareness, so having an awareness of the impacts of trauma and neuro-diversity, and how that shows up, because when working with hands-on assists we’re working with touch, and we don’t know peoples’ history with touch or sensory processing. And you know, that goes for you know, peoples’ histories of trauma, it goes for peoples’ general life experience, and yet we often make the assumption in a yoga class that hands-on assists and touch is just something that you do and that you should do. So that’s kind of the first, the first piece is, is having that awareness that we don’t know what someone’s history is so we have to be extremely mindful of it in the first place. And also to understand that what we might experience as touch, someone else’s experience of that touch might be very very different.
Rane Bowen: And as Mei Lai brings up next, context is very important. So let’s hear her talking about that.
Mei Lai Swan: The second piece is also context, what’s the setting that you’re teaching in? Who’s in front of you in the moment? Are there cultural factors that are at play as well? So you know, when we talk about trauma-informed, is that a trauma-sensitive class in a community setting where people have a known history of trauma and that’s what they’re coming for, or is it in a yoga studio, where it’s a general class but you’ve done some training and have an awareness around trauma-informed practice and you’re bringing that into the studio. It’s going to look very very different in those different settings.
Rane Bowen: And I think she briefly mentioned a point about cultural perceptions around touch and we’ll get to that a bit more later because I think it’s a really important topic, but in this next extract, Mei Lai discusses specifically teaching students who may be working with trauma.
Mei Lai Swan: So for example, and there’s a couple of different schools of thought, but say, typically working with people with known histories of trauma, particularly complex trauma and relational trauma, where often there has, you know, there have been histories of touch where people may have experienced you know, boundary violations or unwanted touch, and lack of consent and those kind of power dynamic issues, often in a setting like that we’ll stay away from touch and hands-on assists altogether, because one of the key pieces in that practice is building relational safety, um and it’s you know, as safe a container as possible for the yoga practice, and also the intention of the practice. If the practice is really about supporting someone to be in their bodies and feel that their body might actually be an okay place to be, for them to inhabit, and to start to cultivate a, a healthier relationship with your body as well, then it’s not so much about getting the form right, but it’s actually about experimenting and trying out different ways of moving and different ways of being in your body. So in that context, hands-on assists, they’re not really necessary because why would you offer a hands-on assist if there’s actually nothing to fix because you’re just supporting someone to be in their own experience, in their own body. That’s kind of one context, and then for example in a yoga studio, and where there has been you know, a culture of, of hands-on assists, although looking back, if I can, you know, look at, I’ve been thinking about this a lot with everything that’s been exposed with a lot of you know, senior male yoga teachers throughout the last, I guess even, close to a hundred years now, what we’re seeing is that we perhaps also have this culture of touch that has evolved from a place that has not actually necessarily been that healthy, or that helpful. Even looking at in Ashtanga Yoga, those kind of very intimate, deep assists that are often given and they were just thought of as the norm. And then, you know, when we look at it in the context of power dynamics and that teacher-student power dynamic and the, the sexual abuse that’s been revealed through those, it kind of really, makes me ask anyway, where’s that, where does that history of touch and assists actually come from? And yet we just take it as the norm.
Rane Bowen: And you might remember from our last episode we discussed the history of assists with Matthew Remski, so I think this point is worth keeping in mind. Let’s hear about the context of hands-on assists in a studio setting.
Mei Lai Swan: In a yoga studio setting, I think what we’re seeing is a, you know move towards, still the possibility of integrating touch and integrating assists, but really working with a process of informed and dynamic consent. So a lot of studios these days are using consent cards, and I find those actually so helpful, particularly when they’re introduced and set up in the beginning of a practice and people understand that, you know it’s really up to them to, you know, use the card at any time to indicate, ‘okay I’m open to an assist’ or ‘actually no, I actually prefer to be in my own experience and my own practice’, and that might actually change throughout the class. And if, you know as a facilitator, if you do choose to offer an assist and you’re using cards and you see that someone’s open to that, that there’s still a process of collaboration and negotiation around the use of assists and that you’re so clear, it’s like ‘what’s the intention here?’ you know, if I see someone in a particular yoga form and it looks like they might be harming themselves, that I might go in with that intention of supporting safety in their body, but I’d also check in because I don’t know, because our bodies are so different. You know, so for me, it always goes with that conversation of, you know, ‘how do you feel in this shape? What, can you notice what’s happening here?’ or ‘this is my observation, would you be open to a hands-on assist here with the intention of supporting the natural alignment of your body or with the intention of just bringing awareness to this area of your body.’
Rane Bowen: So a couple of interesting points there or the different contexts in which touch may or may not be used. Do you have any thoughts Jo?
Jo Stewart: Just a quick note on the consent cards, I find it really helpful to put them all down with the ‘no’ side facing up at the start of the class, so it’s already an ‘opt in’ for the assist, because I have heard the point of view that if someone feels any kind of coercion or has trouble saying ‘no’ even when they don’t want something, the action of flipping that card from a ‘yes’ to a ‘no’ might already be too much or something they just wouldn’t do because they feel like it’s the culture of the class and that’s what’s done here. So definitely making it an ‘opt in’ for the ‘yes’ and an ‘opt in’ for the conversation.
I think the other thing to note as well is, Mei Lai mentions people with a known history of trauma, but we don’t know peoples’ history and sometimes they don’t even have a clear memory of a past trauma, which could surface as we move through a yoga practice, so it’s absolutely always erring on that side of less is more. <laughter>
Another really interesting topic that we into with Mei Lai, which you’ll have to go into our Patreon to hear about, is partner work and group dynamics, and I think that’s a whole ‘nother area of the hands-on assist realm that some people really struggle with, and is a challenge to negotiate skilfully as a teacher, so if you’d like to hear more about that, please head to our Patreon ‘cause that’s a really great conversation.
Rane Bowen: And Mei Lai had a whole lot more interesting stuff to say, which as I mention will be up on our Patreon, but I just wanted to leave Mei Lai with this last little piece here:
Mei Lai Swan: As a facilitator, your own needs and desires and subconscious material, you know, I guess we’re kind of talking about transference and countertransference really, which is really highlighted particularly with touch and power dynamics. You know, that, I know for example many yoga teachers, they feel like, ‘oh, I get so much validation as a teacher by giving my students assists because they love it and then they like me more if I’m giving them assists’ and to really check and, and to ask, well a) ‘is that healthy? What’s the student/teacher dynamic here? What’s the power dynamic? What role do I wanna play in that? You know, am I getting something out of this by my offering it?’
Rane Bowen: Yeah and this is where things get a little bit mucky I think, and I wasn’t 100% sure what transference and countertransference was, so I thought we should probably ask a psychologist about this, so we got in touch with Amy Wheeler, who is a sports psychologist and also happens to be President of the IAYT and she gave us her definition of transference.
Amy Wheeler: Regarding transference and countertransference between the teacher and student and how it plays into hands-on adjustments is a very interesting question and I thank you for asking me to think about this. But first I think we need to review what is transference and countertransference.
Transference happens when there are three people in a relationship, usually there are only two of them present live, but there’s a third one in the background somewhere. So how it works is you have a teacher and a student and in the case of transference, the student has some ideas about someone from their past, they have some emotional imprints about someone in their past, maybe a mother or a father or a past yoga teacher or a spouse or a you know, whoever it might be, and they have unresolved emotional issues or trauma around that person from their past. And so they come into the yoga relationship unconsciously wanting to heal that trauma, and they come into relationship with a yoga therapist or a yoga teacher, and without being conscious of it, they end up repeating some of those same dramas, some of those same traumas that had happened to them previously with this other person that’s no longer present, in an unconscious attempt to work it out with the current person, who is the yoga teacher or yoga therapist in front of them, here and now. So, they’re bringing a lot of baggage into this relationship, a lot of expectations, like I said, unresolved trauma. And the way that can manifest is they can lure the yoga teacher or yoga therapist into inappropriate relationships, not having good boundaries. And when I say lure, I don’t mean that they’re attempting to do this, I mean that it just happens, it is part of the fabric of their being that this comes up again and again and again in multiple relationships in their lives. And so the idea is they’re coming to be healed and yet they’re repeating these past patterns that they want so badly to be healed, and ideally, if the yoga teacher or yoga therapist had some really good trauma training or psychological training, the teacher or the therapist would recognise what’s happening and very kindly call it out, and say, ‘This isn’t appropriate. This is a boundary. We are not going to participate in this together’ and ‘could you reflect on why this is coming up for you as a student and where you might have felt this type of thing before?’ and and possibly, ‘do you need some psychological help from a trained professional psychologist to try to work through this?’
And this is exactly why I think all yoga teachers and yoga therapists should be trained in trauma and, and have a very strong training with mental health and psychology, because when you add in this idea of touch, it’s very intimate. It really brings you to a different place when someone is touching you, and you’re very vulnerable and soft and receptive, and, you know, connected in that moment and then someone comes that you trust and, and you know, things happen.
So, that’s the first thing, is it’s not the student’s responsibility to recognise these unconscious patterns in themselves, at first, eventually it becomes their responsibility as they continue in yoga, but in the beginning, they don’t even know that there is something to be healed. They come in and do what they’ve always done in many different relationships in their lives, and it’s the teacher’s responsibility in the beginning to call this out kindly, and set the boundaries and communicate about it and ask them to get help.
Rane Bowen: And I think that’s pretty interesting and there have been some cases lately, I, I won’t call anyone out individually, of senior teachers having relationships with students that’s inappropriate, they’re making the claim that it’s a consenting relationship when there’s an obvious power dynamic there.
Jo Stewart: Yeah, and about that power dynamic. Some teachers will say, ‘we’re all equal here, the teacher is not above the student’, and in the most important sense of the word, that is true, we are all equal. But in the class context, it is the teacher’s responsibility to create a safe space for everyone in the room; the student is only responsible for themselves. So, to say that there is not a power difference between a teacher and a student; it’s just not the case. A teacher has an extra responsibility for safety for everyone in the room.
Rane Bowen: The teacher isn’t immune to this type of history. So, let’s have a listen to Amy Wheeler talking about countertransference.
Amy Wheeler: Countertransference also has three people in the relationship: the teacher, the student and someone from the teacher’s past: a parent, a spouse, a good friend, a grandmother, other students from their past. And when a teacher has unresolved trauma, unresolved emotional imprints, unresolved things that they haven’t dealt with in their life, they can transfer this back on to the student. So unfortunately, everything I just described with the student, now the teacher has to be more conscious of what’s going on inside of them and ‘why am I feeling this way?’ and ‘why do I want to touch someone in this way? Why do I feel an attraction to this student?’ Um, you know, whatever it might be. The teacher is in the position of power in this relationship, so it is the teacher’s responsibility or the yoga therapist’s responsibility to step out of that teacher-student relationship should these things come up and go get psychological help from a mentor or a trained mental health professional, and really get to the bottom of why they’re willing to put their unmet needs and their unresolved emotions ahead of the safety of the student, knowing that they are the one in power, and knowing that the student is not responsible for this relationship; it is the teacher who is responsible for the relationship. And again, with hands-on adjustments, it can be very vulnerable and very intimate, and it makes it even more messy. A lot of energy is transferred between people. So, I have to say, I don’t really like it when people say that it’s two consenting adults doing whatever they’re doing in a yoga class, that both parties are responsible and adults in making choices. I think whoever says that is actually not trauma-informed. They need to go get a lot of counsel and they need to learn about how these things like transference and countertransference pay out, play out, they need to really learn how things like transference and countertransference play out in the yogic relationship. I don’t have a lot of patience for people who are running around saying it’s consenting adults, because it’s really not. This profession is no different than being someone’s psychologist, or their doctor, or their nurse. They’re coming to us for health and healing and they look up to us as yoga teachers and therapists, and they really don’t understand what it is that they’re doing until it’s too late. But we, as trained professionals, need to take responsibility for the relationship and do our best to keep it safe for all involved.
Rane Bowen: I guess that reiterates what we spoke about earlier and I think it’s actually good just to have an awareness of these, I guess psychological mechanisms that can happen. So I think it’s good to maybe question what’s going on as you’re doing assists, both in yourself and maybe the people that are receiving the assists. So I think it’s really good information to have.
Jo Stewart: Especially if you keep asking yourself, ‘why does this keep happening to me?’
Rane Bowen: Mmm.
Jo Stewart: Maybe you are the common denominator in all of those situations. And a really, everyday example, which I think can happen to a lot of yoga teachers who want to help, is people coming to them with their deep intimate problems and having long chats at the end of class, and that can be a challenging situation to negotiate if you are a lovely, kind, compassionate person and you want to be there for your students but you know it’s not your scope of practice, or you just want to leave and go home and have your dinner at the end of class. So, it’s a really important question if this issue keeps coming up again and again in your classes or in other situations in your life, ‘why might this keep happening for me?’ And, as Amy suggests, maybe talking to someone about it, because sometimes we can’t just unpack these things for ourselves, we need help.
Rane Bowen: So, we’re going to switch things up a bit and, we mentioned earlier in the episode that there are a lot of different cultural and I guess racial conditions around touch and different perceptions around touch, so we spoke again to Jesal Parikh to get her perspective as a South Asian person.
Jesal Parikh: Touch is something that’s very very sacred in South Asia, so when people in South Asia greet each other, they don’t typically hug or kiss on the cheek like they do maybe in Europe, unless you’re greeting a family member, we typically keep our hands to ourselves. And again, gender plays a role, if somebody’s of the opposite gender or a different gender than us we typically are less likely to touch them unless they’re a sibling or something like that. And then, you know when it comes to elders or people we, we respect, we may touch their feet, and the head is considered more sacred, especially in a spiritual setting. So I certainly can’t imagine that laying on top of somebody would be ever considered appropriate behaviour just contextually. Culturally I don’t think that’s acceptable. And then I’ll say like, personally what I’ve experienced and seen with my dance upbringing, I did Bharatanatyam which is a traditional Indian dance style and, and also what I’ve experienced based on like yoga classes and of course the teacher training I took in India, touch is, doesn’t play a big part of those traditions. It’s not like built in the way physical adjustments sort of became built into the Iyengar and Ashtanga lineages. The most I could think of is like a teacher straightening an arm, if a student has like no perception where their arm is in space, or you know, maybe a teacher like, pressing your shoulders down to tell you to like, maybe lower your shoulders. Maybe most extreme example I could think of or envision, think sort of trying to go back to those memories, is maybe a female teacher coming up to a female student and placing hands on their hips to maybe like tell them to like lower their hips in space or something like that, but even that could feel very not great to somebody. But that’s like sort of the most extreme example I could think of of a physical adjustment.
Rane Bowen: And obviously this may not be universal sentiment but I think it is a very important cultural consideration. Now, we also recently spoke to Gail Parker for the Podcast and she’s releasing an upcoming book called ‘Restorative Yoga for Ethnic and Race-based Stress and Trauma’ and we’ve been very lucky to read that book and it’s got some great stuff. Gail is African-American and she wrote this passage which I’d like to read out to you:
“when I first began practicing yoga in studios, whenever a teacher would touch my head and massage my neck during Shivassana, I would have an instant tension reflex and recall all the times people had made demeaning remarks about my hair. I would freeze, even though I knew the teacher’s touches were loving or certainly neutral, and that she had no idea of my history, her touches brought up emotionally painful memories of negative comments made by others about my texturised hair, going all the way back to childhood. These were not memories I ever shared with my teachers, but they surfaced. Yoga taught me to just rest in the observation of the experience and over time, I was able to receive the touch without being triggered by it. Gradually the practice of resting in my discomfort with awareness shifted from uncomfortable flashbacks into a simple curiosity about how my hair felt to the teacher when she touched it.”
Jo Stewart: What I really get from this passage is the contrast to some of my conversations with yoga teachers, where teachers will say that they can just read the energy in the room and sense from a student whether or not they want the assist or not, because as Gail mentioned, she feels like her teacher had good, kind intentions and internally she froze upon receiving that unwanted assist, and yet the teacher never got the message. The teacher didn’t notice that internal response and just kept on touching her head and her neck, and Gail herself had to live through that experience enough times that she got to a better place within herself. But she shouldn’t have to do that in a restorative yoga class. That should be a respite from unwanted touch and a place where you feel safe and able to relax, and to not have to navigate and negotiate really traumatic experiences from your past, which obviously happens to people all the time in all kinds of contexts and, as teachers we just can’t assume that we know people’s internal experience.
Rane Bowen: Yeah. And we also spoke to Michelle Cassandra Johnson, and you might have heard our episode with her recently, she wrote the book ‘Skill in Action’, and here’s some of her perspectives.
Michelle C. Johnson: I’ve been adjusted in yoga classes and outside of yoga classes, right, like asked to be a different way. And outside of yoga classes I’ve been asked to be a different way to, to assimilate into some structure or culture that does not actually appreciate who I am and is not creating conditions for me to be whole. And the way I wrote about in the book was being stopped by the police, a police officer, and things were fine, it wasn’t, I think my registration sticker wasn’t on my car and I didn’t know that, but of course I was feeling trauma in my body, and the story in the book is that I turned to open my glove compartment, and then I stopped, ‘cause I mean my registration was in there, and so I think I was adjusting how I was, like in the way I wanted to move in that moment and not just physically, because I knew what was at stake, it was in the context of, it was a week or two after two black men had been murdered by the police, and so I had that like running through my body. I was very anxious in that moment, and I just paused and thought, ‘oh you can’t move anymore Michelle. You have to stop because you don’t know what this officer’s thinking and you don’t know who they are and they don’t know you and you don’t know what could happen and they don’t know what you’re reaching for’, right. And so, that’s what I mean when I say I’ve been adjusted outside of class, it’s like, I have to adjust the way I am because white supremacy makes it so that I have to do that right, like, that that’s part of what it sets up for folks of colour and any group, any system of supremacy does that for the folks it’s marginalising. It says you have to be a certain way, and so I’m just really hyper-sensitive to that in the physical practice, coupled with trauma, what I was talking about.
Rane Bowen: There are a couple of interesting points here. She speaks about how people of marginalised communities are asked to be a different way, and here we are asking them again to adjust the way they are in the world. Makes me think about how, sometimes in a class, the teacher will say something like, ‘you are whole, you are complete’ or a similar sentiment, and if that’s the case, why are we asking them to change? Another point she brings up brilliantly is how posture or movement can reignite trauma, and we’ve spoken about trauma earlier in this episode but I think this is a great example of how it could manifest. Let’s listen to this next piece where Michelle talks about power and responsibility.
Michelle C. Johnson: So I think we as teachers and in the seat of authority in that space really, we have power; we’re defining reality for everyone in the space, right. We’re setting up the theme, we’re setting up the structure of the class, we’re changing the structure based on what people are doing, but we’re doing that and we’re not necessarily telling people that’s what we’re doing so there’s not transparency there. I think we need to be really clear with people about why we offer adjustments and assists, and we need to listen when they say ‘enough is enough’. And unfortunately some of the harm that’s happened is this, teachers feeling that they know best, just like culture telling me ‘we know what is best and how you should be,’ so in the situation with the police officer I’ve internalised like, ‘oh wait, I can’t move in this way’ right? Culture does that to people who are marginalised all the time. And it takes away agency, and so I think we as teachers need to think about the power we do have, and the conditions we’re putting in place, for everyone in the, in the space, everyone that’s practising with us and you know, with power comes great responsibility.
Rane Bowen: We’ve talked about culture and race, well how ‘bout gender? And I obviously am a man and I do have my own concerns around touch, ah I obviously don’t want to be misinterpreted in anything I do.
Jo Stewart: Don’t want to make people feel uncomfortable.
Rane Bowen: Absolutely, I don’t want to accidently slip <laughter> so I, I do tend to be a little bit hesitant around hands-on assists, but let’s hear from another man.
Tim Seuter: Hi I’m Tim Seuter, I own the and teach at The Loft yoga studio in New Zealand. I also have an online um thing called Yoga Fire TV. I go right back to my teacher training, we were told right from the get-go, there was a few, there was a couple of us, two or three men in our teacher training, and the male instructor basically said, ‘guys, no creepy fingers’, and that was something that stuck with me, that if I am going to adjust a man or a female, that any touch that is applied is very direct, is very ‘this is where I’m putting a hand or this is what I’m trying to do, I want you to try and maybe expand this way’. Yeah definitely as a male, I’m always very cognisant of working with opposite genders or whatever gender you identify with, but just working with a lot of females in my classes and making sure that they’re comfortable with me being in a space that could be closer than what they expected. And I’ve also tried to make it very clear at any time that I have offered, that the person can say ‘no’ at any point, that there’s no ‘I know best and you just need to do it’, it’s always a, a communication, that person knows what I’m doing, they’re fine with the adjustment and then the adjustment has been in a way that’s not where they feel they can’t say ‘no’ or anything like that or they can’t, they feel uncomfortable or anything. I’ve been quite clear I think with people in the past that saying no is fine and I won’t be offended, and like don’t be disempowered by anything hopefully.
Rane Bowen: And I guess I do go by guidelines such as that…
Jo Stewart: Ah so you stay away from the creepy fingers <laughs>
Rane Bowen: I do and thanks for not letting me name the episode ‘No Creepy Fingers’ <laughter> but I think Tim does raise some valid points there.
Jo Stewart: I think ‘no creepy fingers’ is something to be applied across all genders, and all power dynamics.
Rane Bowen: Yeah I guess, or even anything that could be remotely interpreted as creepy fingers, so I think like a decent firm touch in the area that you intend to offer the assist in is very important.
Jo Stewart: Or a clear instruction, like ‘push your foot into my hand’…
Rane Bowen: Mmm.
Jo Stewart: …putting the onus on the student to control the amount of pressure, rather than applying that as a teacher, because one person’s light touch might push someone else over, as we heard in um Claire’s story about her student, so that’s part of the conversation and the negotiation: ‘is this okay? Is this too much? Do you want me to push a little bit harder? Do you want me to support you more? Do you want me to give you more space?’
Rane Bowen: Okay, so that was a cis-male point of view, but what about the perspective of a non-binary or transgendered individual. We had Anu on the Podcast way back in Episode 13. Anu runs Queer and trans yoga classes at Dance of Life here in Melbourne, so we asked them for their perspective on hands-on assists.
Anu: I don’t do hands-on assists. Ah one reason is that I don’t think I’m qualified to do it. I think that appropriate hands-on assists or adjustments come from people who have a really nuanced understanding of the individual’s anatomy they’re trying to adjust. The person adjusting needs to be super confident that they are adjusting for the right reasons and not trying to make them fit into a textbook yoga shape. For me, personally, good assists are tailored for my anatomy; they are gentle, and it feels like they are being facilitated or guided rather than forced or coerced. Too many times teachers have been too rough or actually caused me pain and discomfort, physical and emotional discomfort. I don’t do assists in my Queer and trans class but I also don’t do assists in the others either. I’ve always come from a trauma-informed perspective, so even the few times I’ve done them, I’ve asked permission and deliberately paused and wanted to ensure that it’s an enthusiastic ‘yes’ if it is one.
In terms of gender identity, I think that if people are experiencing dysphoria then the last thing they want is someone touching their body, especially without consent. It may also be hard for some people to say ‘no’, and people may say ‘yes’ because they don’t feel comfortable to say ‘no’. I think cis-gendered yoga teachers should be mindful, if they are making assumptions about someone’s gender, and then gendering the touch that they give.
My main reasons for not doing hands-on assists is because you don’t know someone’s trauma history, and as the body is a source of trauma, then hands-on assists can be really triggering.
I think appropriate hands-on assists are complex in terms of how they’re done, um but also there are, there are often assumptions from a teacher about how a person should look. The teacher should really ask themselves when doing hands-on assists, why they are doing them? Is it necessary? Will it be useful? And is this person okay with me touching them?
Jo Stewart: Perspectives like this are one of the reasons I really love doing these Podcasts. Hearing from a different point of view from someone whose life experience is different to mine is really powerful. And the kind of education that you don’t necessarily get in a teacher training.
Rane Bowen: I guess to switch things up again, how ‘bout different modalities? And I’m seeing increasingly that there are different modalities or hybridisations of yoga that incorporate things like massage or Reiki, not that there’d be much touch there, I suppose but …
Jo Stewart: I think an energetic transference as well though, that would be very much about permission …
Rane Bowen: Mmm.
Jo Stewart: … and also acupuncture I’ve seen as a combination with some other workshops, and you definitely want permission before you flick a needle into someone.
Rane Bowen: Yeah absolutely, though I guess if you are turning up to a ‘massoga’ workshop you know that there will be touch though, again I guess you still need to have the right to say ‘no’.
Jo Stewart: And when I have had acupuncture, not even in a half-yoga context, there’s been a negotiation each time, and a conversation about ‘I’m going to use this pressure point and are you ready?’ So I think that no matter what the modality, same with massage, if you show up for a massage, there’s usually a conversation about ‘is this too much pressure? Is this okay? Let me know if you don’t want me to work on a particular area’, and in fact, those more touch-driven practices are probably better and more comfortable at having those conversations.
Rane Bowen: Mmm absolutely. And again, we spoke to Leigh Blashki to get some of his perspectives on these type of dual-modalities.
Leigh Blashki: The other thing to say about touch is that a lot of yoga teachers and therapists have dual qualifications in other areas of Natural Health, particularly massage. If a yoga therapist or teacher wants to offer some form of hands-on therapy whilst seeing a client, and this is more to do with a one-on-one situation, though it has happened in classes and people have been sued as a result of it, that they need to say, ‘okay, I think you could do with this or that other hands-on treatment. I would like to offer you that outside of the realm of this yoga class or this yoga therapy session’.
Rane Bowen: So I guess, where to from here Jo? What have you learnt during this episode?
Jo Stewart: It’s such a nuanced episode Rane <laughs>
Rane Bowen: Isn’t it? <laughter>
Jo Stewart: It is. I think a takeaway has been: we don’t know people’s experiences before they step up on the mat, we can’t assume, based on people not saying ‘no’, that that means ‘yes’ or if they are saying ‘yes’, it’s really our responsibility to be super clear that they know what they’re agreeing to and it’s actually wanted, rather than just tolerated.
Rane Bowen: And I think I’ve, I’ve learnt a lot during the making of this episode and to be honest, overall I’m actually coming around a lot more to the power of assists. Even people that are quite reserved about the subject of touch have positive things to say. Let’s hear from Matthew Remski, you had the wonderful initiative to ask him whether he’d had any positive experiences during an assist.
Matthew Remski: Positively? I would say, okay so the first yoga teacher that I, or the first yoga class that I ever went to was somewhere around the year 2000, and the teacher’s name was Jean, I’ve, I actually reconnected with her a couple of years ago, can’t remember the story now but it was in Manhattan. I believe I was clinically depressed at the time; I had just come out of a neo-Buddhist cult, I was about to head into a different cult, and I took an Asana class on a rainy day in Manhattan. And I remember Jean, not adjusting me, but probably when I was in child posture, without warning, without asking for consent, putting her hand on my middle back, as was the style in the day, it was, it was, I mean the style of the day was actually also to crank and push on people but nobody did that, this is twenty years ago now. So she didn’t, she didn’t do that, I just remember that there was something about the simpleness of the physical movements and the breathing, and the kindness of this really gentle touch on my middle back that was really profoundly moving to me, and it felt connective, and it also, I think it was tied up, I think it, it provoked this experience that I think was, actually helped me catch fire on yoga ah personally, because I remember rolling out of Shivassana in that class and looking down at my hand and going, ‘oh hello’ like, ‘you’re here’ like, ‘this is my body, and this is real, and my body’s okay’ and I had all of these thoughts that were, that were kind of the gateway into or out of a kind of disembodied state that I’d been in, in what I think was a clinical depression, and, and so I think being able to feel my own body was, in that moment anyway, ah, and after such a long time, came out of this intersection between the sensations of the practice itself and also the fact that she touched me, she, she did something really simple, which was she just made contact, and almost as if, and with this feeling that ‘yes your body is worth attention and it’s real, and I’m going to be kind to it, and that means that you can be kind to it as well’. I mean, it’s one of those instances in which the act of kindness that somebody else shows to you is what allows you to ah adopt a new perspective towards yourself, and so, and so yeah, absolutely positive, a positive experience and ah, I’m glad that you asked me that because nobody’s asked me that before!
Jo Stewart: Yeah! <laughs>
Matthew Remski: Nobody, nobody has asked me that and everybody, everybody, you know, they’re, I get a lot of complaints ‘oh you know, I’ve got great experiences from touch’ and like, ‘yeah sure you do, that’s great, let’s look at how problematic this is as well’, but yeah, on a personal level, definitely I understand why people have fantastic developmental experiences in, in touch-contexts. And I’m saying, let’s have that and let’s look at what it means to be competent in that. Let’s look at what it means to discern between distinct kinds of touch, like, you know, touch in massage therapy legislation is usually described as ‘moving tissues’. She did not move my tissues. She, she basically made very light contact with the palm of her hand on the middle of my back. Now, she didn’t ask permission, and she happened to get it right, and if I had been in a different place that might’ve freaked me out, and that’s why consent is like essential.
Rane Bowen: Something I’m taking away from this is that touch is incredibly powerful and that’s why we need to be careful with it. As Michelle Cassandra Johnson mentioned, ‘with great power comes great responsibility’ and I don’t just think that’s great just because it came from Spiderman, but yeah, something that we really need to keep in mind.
Jo Stewart: When I was doing my yoga teacher-training, I just had in my mind that great yoga teachers give great assists, and pretty much thought that that was part of being a yoga teacher, and I think times have probably changed in teacher-trainings and the climate has shifted, but as I mentioned at the start of the episode, giving someone an assist because you think it’s expected, is the wrong reason.
Rane Bowen: Mmm.
Jo Stewart: Giving someone an assist that you’re not sure about, whether it’s the right thing to do, whether they want it, whether it’s within your scope of practice. Listen to those hesitations.
Rane Bowen: Mmm.
Jo Stewart: And if in doubt, just don’t or open up a dialogue as to what that student may want in that moment.
Rane Bowen: And here’s a few more words from Matthew Remski.
Matthew Remski: Touch is like a flashpoint for agency is what it is. It’s not that touch is evil, it’s not that touch is somehow necessarily or categorically dangerous. It’s that, it’s that touch is a flashpoint for whether or not there is real clarity and transparency in the room about agency and consent, and so people like to box it down into well, ‘are we going to outlaw all touch?’ and I’m like, ‘no, I do think however that standardising the permissions for who is allowed to touch and what kinds of trainings and competencies they have to show might be a really good idea’ because without that, it’s just kind of like a free-for-all and we’re, we’re kinda trusting ourselves and each other to move forward with the best intentions, and we know how that works out in the yoga world: it sucks. Good intentions do not work in the yoga world. <laughs>
Rane Bowen: Here’s a few concluding thoughts from Leigh Blashki that I wanted to share as well.
Leigh Blashki: It is a complex area, it’s one that does need discussion. We need to be as inclusive as possible, there are lots of yoga teachers with styles ah that do use a lot of touch, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be educated and encouraged to use a better form of touch that is more sensitive, more attuned to the needs of our contemporary world. And for those who think that yoga is about getting people into a particular shape and therefore they’ll use whatever they can, tactilely with their hands, to make that person make a shape, well I think there’s a huge re-education needed there. And there are a lot of yoga teachers who still don’t understand that for a lot of people, this whole idea of touch really is already pushing the boundaries. It mightn’t be exploitative in the minds of the teacher or therapist, but you don’t know what’s going on with that particular person. I know Janet Lowndes is quoted often, that when you’ve got a group of people in a yoga session you can be almost certain that at least 40% have had some form of trauma or abuse and that touch is likely to cause some issues for them. A student mightn’t speak up, but they could still be being harmed even if they’re not speaking up.
Rane Bowen: So as we’ve heard, time and time again through these episodes, we really can’t make assumptions on what’s going on in someone’s mind or body. But I still think that with proper training and with enthusiastic consent being vital, touch can be a powerful tool. I wanted to end on a more positive note, so let’s hear these thoughts from Dominique Salerno.
Dominique Salerno: I think we’re, we’re living in an environment at the moment where a lot of teachers are getting really scared off from adjusting, which I think is, is quite sad because hands-on adjusting, for me anyway, was a really pivotal point in my practice when I started practicing Ashtanga because the adjusting is such a, such a big part of that practice. I think it would be really sad if, if people just put their hands down and stopped offering assistance. I think it’s part of the responsibility of the teacher to, without being overly dominant, to step into that teaching archetype, students, in, in my experience right, students want someone who is competent and confident, that’s not giving us any leeway to become cocky or domineering or abusive, but you do require a certain amount of confidence and competence so that students feel safe in your hands. And I think it would be really sad, because of what’s going on in the ‘yogaverse’ at the moment, I think it would be really unfortunate if, if teachers just stopped touching, but I think it is a really great, or a really important conversation to be having as long as we can all keep open minds
Rane Bowen: Alright, so we’ve reached the end Jo, so what are you thinking?
Jo Stewart: I have many thoughts. And a key thing that comes to mind is how often a student, especially a new yoga student, will come to class and want to be assured that they’re doing it right. Initially a student will hand over this authority to a teacher to be guided through this practice, and I think my role, as a teacher, is ultimately to guide someone into their own inner awareness. As a teacher, whether we use hands-on assists or just a lot of aesthetic cueing about the external shape, about how we want the pose to look, we’re not really centring that person’s own inner experience about how a pose should ultimately feel in their body, and I think that is deepening of a yoga practice. We might initially come and want to learn the shapes, but ultimately, we want to guide someone into their own inner experience and feel the alignment that’s right for them. Touch could be a part of that – it doesn’t have to be – but if we are always pushing people into different shapes and telling them to be a different way, I don’t even know if that’s yoga.
Rane Bowen: And thank you Jo for that great summary, and I just wanted to say thank you to you and to all the guests and contributors for this episode and the last episode. It’s been a real learning experience for me, and thank you to all the people who have commented on social media. It’s been really great to get your responses and your points of view as well.
On to our next episode, we’ll be speaking with Renae Stevens in a fortnight. That episode will be about art, art therapy and aerial yoga and I’m really looking to that episode as well.
Jo Stewart: I’m so looking forward to that episode. Renae is one of my main aerial yoga teachers and my mentor. She’s amazing! ‘Aerial Yoga Therapeutics’ is a trauma-informed approach to aerial yoga in a much more gentle therapeutic setting, and we have some trainings coming up at our studio with Renae: April 19th-20th is her ‘Aerial Yoga Therapeutics Foundations’ training and on April 18th we just have a workshop that’s open to everyone. It’s a ‘break free from your chair, focus on the spine and aerial yoga’. We’ll be talking a lot more about these workshops in our next episode with Renae, but just know that this is a topic that’s really close to my heart and so I’m super excited about sharing it.
Rane Bowen: Fantastic, well thank you so so much for listening. Thank you for spending your precious time with us. Arohanui …
Jo Stewart: Big big love!