Safe Touch in Yoga

BY SARAH FUHRMANN, E-RYT

The first time I received a hands on assist was about two weeks into my yoga journey. It was during Savasana and I felt my instructor place his hands on my shoulders massage them and then move down to my legs and press down on them and then rub my feet. If you are in the world of teaching yoga, then you know this is a very common hands on assist. However, new yoga me did not. I shut down, completely terrified. After that I quit going to his class. I felt completely violated and didn’t understand what I had done to give the invite to touch me. I am survivor of sexual trauma and advocator for safe touch on the mat. I’ve spent years teaching and growing my knowledge. Especially in the realm of hands-on assists.  I wish I could say that this incident doesn’t happen that often. Unfortunately, there are many more that relate to this story than I’d like. Why? Because safe touch in the context of yoga didn’t come to the forefront of thought until the last decade or so and much of it due to the misconduct and unethical behavior by prominent yoga figures.

 

In many Yoga Teacher Trainings, hands-on assists are discussed on average of about 2-3 hours out of the 200 hours of required training; and most of this content is focused on the physical. Providing hands-on assists can be a very positive and beneficial experience for students, bringing students’ awareness and connection to parts of their body, something perhaps not available outside the yoga class. Assists can foster a sense of knowledge and growth in students’ practices and propel them into new experiences. This is why you give them, right?

 

However in many Yoga Teacher Trainings, there is no requirement to discuss trauma-informed touch in the context of a yoga setting. I see this as a big problem especially when it comes to providing physical touch.  What is your intention when you walk up to your student and place your hands on them? Do you have the knowledge and background about this human? Not just their body and all the benefits explained above, but what thoughts, feelings, experiences they have hidden inside that may be potentially released? Were you taught what to do for them when it comes out in the form of freak out, shut down, transference when you touch them? Unless you specifically sought that out, my guess is no.

 

If you are a newer yoga teacher or even one that’s been around for ages, I encourage you to take the following steps to provide safe and supportive touch in your class, and on top of that get trauma-informed. There are yoga teacher trainings available on this subject around the country. In St. Louis, YogaBuzz.org’s training includes this and they’ve created The Missouri Model: A Developmental Framework for Trauma-Informed.

 

Here are some trauma aware steps I implore you to take as a yoga teacher:

  1. Ask for permission! It’s really easy. In fact that’s why it is number 1 on my liist. So often a catastrophe around hands-on could have been avoided by just asking permission. Most of those who don’t ask in the Yoga realm either haven’t considered the trauma implications with touch or are letting their ego drive the steering wheel. There are a few ways you can get consent from your students.
    1. Make a legit connection with your students at the beginning of class. Ask them how they are both physically and emotionally and make sure you are actually listening. Ask them if they need assistance with anything. Then ask them if they are okay with touch. Ask individually.
    2. Blanket statement at centering. While your students are grounding and connecting with breath you can say something like: I will be providing hands on assists today, physical touch. Not everyone is cool with that and that is OK. AND I need to know to respect your space.  I’ll take the right hand over the heart (or insert other visible movement) as you saying “I do not want to be touched today.” This is also best done in visual anonymity, as people who’ve experienced trauma as a result of being touched inappropriately may not wish to announce their disapproval publicly.
    3. Prop usage. Some yoga prop companies have created permission cards or chips with yes/no or colors or symbols that teachers can give to students at the beginning of class that the student can face up whatever they’re feeling around assists that day. What’s cool about these is that if your student decides “no” for the meat of the class but is okay with a savasana assist, they can flip the card/chip.
  2. Safe touch always comes from a place of “why.” Just like setting an intention for your practice as a student, it’s important for you as the teacher to also set your intention behind touch. If you don’t have a intentional reason for touching then you are better off utilizing one of the other following ways of assisting your students:
    1. Verbal Cues: Offering clear concise cues that students can understand is a foundation of teaching yoga. If there is a student in your class that seems to be misunderstanding what you are saying then first say it again in a different way. Unless the student is in a place where they could injure themselves let them figure it out in their own way or take time after class to connect with them with what you noticed.
    2. Visual Demo: Monkey See Monkey Do! A great way to invite student to engage in the proper function/action/alignment for their bodies is to do the pose with them. Mirroring is a great way to show students the difference between unsafe and safe body alignment.
  3. Assist what you know and only to the degree that you know your student. There are a few levels of assists you may decide to incorporate into your class setting and knowing your stuff matters to provide a sense of trust and safety with your students.
    1. The safest is Press Point Touch or PPT. PPT Is placing your open hand near a body part that needs adjustment and allowing the student to come to you. This type of assist empowers the student to decide what is right for them. It is their body not your body. You don’t know the skeletal structure of your student without their x-rays and this assist provide a way to connect with your students provide a connection to an unconscious part of their body limits potential injury and emotional distress.
    2. Energetic Sweeps are next. They can be a great way to calm stress induced tense areas by light touch of the area and sweeping out and away from the midline of the body. Be wary on offering this assist on students you have not built a relationship with because light touch on a tense area could trigger a student who suffers from any form of trauma.
    3. Feel Good Assists or FGA. God I wish there was a better name for these because only about 50% of the time do students find these to reflect their name. This is the type of assist I spoke of at the beginning. If you have taken the first two steps of this list then these assists are a great way to release tension, make connection and make students feel good. And that’s not always the case. How you show up and offer this assist matters. For this assist you really need to have what I call the Baby Bear approach. Everything has to be just right. How you place your hands. How much pressure you give, how slow or fast you go, how long you offer it, etc, has to be just right.  Even after all that you still have no idea what that student is harboring inside them. In my own teaching career it has been these assists that brought some of the most powerful breakthroughs for my students and also the most overwhelming dysregulation. My advice is these assists should be used sparingly and only on students with whom you have fostered a safe and supportive relationship.
    4. Manipulative Assists. The name says it all. These assists manipulate the students body to go deeper. My question to you is why do we want to manipulate a student’s anything? I will admit that I do use a few of these in my yoga classes and very sparingly. These are often incorporated at the request of a student who I have worked with for a long period of time and have a good understanding of their physical and emotional state. These assists are the top cause of injury from assists. My suggestion is don’t do to others what you wouldn’t have done to you.
  4. Feedback matters. Encourage your students to give you feedback. Show up in a way where students feel empowered to share with you. There is a imbalanced power dynamic between teacher and student and it is up to us to foster trust, safety, and connection with our students so they don’t have to be afraid to tell us what they need. If you are a student and you are reading this, you are WORTHY of letting us know what you need. Please share!

 

I am not saying stop giving assists, I am saying start having a “why” behind them. Or maybe I am saying that. If you aren’t in a place yet where you are ready to take on the whole student then I encourage you to pause, step back, assess, and then take the steps to get there, because assists are an amazing teaching tool when done in an intentional human informed way.

 


Sarah Fuhrmann, E-RYT, originally found yoga setting out to become more flexible, and wound up a multi-state yoga teacher who found self-love through her yoga practice who now guides countless others in the quest for teaching. Sarah has lead Yoga Six‘s teacher trainings and recently developed her own Yoga Alliance 200 hour yoga teacher training and offers it through Namaste in St. Louis.

“What I’m sharing through my teaching is that same opportunity. To EMPOWER the masses to love themselves while also having a kickass time on the mat!” ~ Sarah

Join Sarah along with Debby Siegel, Christine Kick and Josh Lynn in Costa Rica for a retreat that will begin 2019 as your most empowered, radiant year in one of the happiest countries in the world. Deepen your yoga practice and find balance for the year ahead, while we practice on the Pacific coastline each morning and sunset. The December 28 – January 2 retreat offers much free time to enjoy the beauty of Costa Rica as well, with catamaran sailing, surfing, jungle hikes, and more. This retreat will be the perfect way to reflect on the year past and to gain perspective on your new year ahead. Packages start at just $800 and payment plans start with $350 down. More info: Adhirohati Cost Rica Yoga Retreat

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