Poker Chips, Meet Yoga
First of all, I hope you dig my new fashion inspiration. Gonna be wearing that yellow ensemble on the right tonight to teach.
In all seriousness, I've been doing a lot of thinking and reading and listening lately. There's some really intelligent and thoughtful dialogue in the professional yoga world right now about hands-on adjustments: whether we should actually be adjusting people (since many yoga teachers are not trained bodyworkers), what the purpose is, and how adjustments feel for folks with a history of trauma (which, according to some statistics, is 1 in 4 women — whoa, right?!).
Do the math. That means in your average class of 32 people, you've got 8 or so who might be super-triggered by a seemingly-innocuous adjustment — and that's not even counting men! (I don't have the statistics in front of me right now, but they are sobering, and that's just the reported cases. Glad to dig them up for you if you'd like more info.).
Needless to say, we've come a long way from the days when Pattabhi Jois and BKS Iyengar would just crank students into poses, whether their bodies were ready to go there or not. There's a ton of fantastic cultural commentary coming from folks like Matthew Remski in the wake of the recent Jivamukti scandal (and the many other yoga-world sexual harassment scandals which have preceded that one), much more nuanced than I could ever write. So I encourage you to follow what he's saying, and to stay engaged in the evolving conversation.
In just my own anecdotal research, I've discovered tons of hot and cold opinions about adjustments. A lot of people say "Ohmigod, I love them!" Which I totally get. Because usually I do, too. There is nothing like a great forward fold assist to get you just a little further than you realized you could go...especially when you're a bendy person who doesn't feel much in some of those poses by yourself.
So, yes, I usually love them too. That is, unless they feel creepy, or inappropriate, or I don't really know what the teacher's trying to get me to do, or I just ate a huge lunch and I kind of want to be left alone, or I'm having a challenging practice and really want some space, or if I'm not sure if the teacher is really qualified to be giving assists, or if my knee hurts, or I'm pregnant, or injured....
You get the drift. For every person who's told me they loooooove adjustments, there's another who says "Hell no, get out of my space, unless I know you, or you've been my teacher for years, or you ask me ahead of time, and I give you permission." Which I totally understand, too.
I have very distinct memories of being adjusted in Downward Dog some 7 or 8 years ago. I wasn't prepared for anyone to touch me, didn't know the assistants, and was already feeling contracted and anxious on a rough day. The minute the assistant (a wonderful, warm, well-meaning woman) touched my low back, I felt my whole body tense up. I tightened. I retracted. I got angry. I wanted to shove her away, shake her off, scream at her to leave me alone.
But of course I couldn't do that. I just got even quieter, turned even more inward, and stayed tense until she finally moved on to the next person.
Then again, there was that class at Yoga Tree Castro back in 2009. I was hiding in the back row doing my thing. Debbie Mobley (then a stranger, later a dear friend and colleague) came up and adjusted me in Happy Baby. She smiled and made a nice comment and I felt warm and welcome and seen, in the midst of a roomful of sweaty strangers. It made me want to come back.
So, you see? Adjustments are such a shitshow of possibilities. And what I'm learning, the more I listen to senior teachers like Jason Crandell and read nuanced commentary by folks like Matthew Remski, is that maybe the best thing to do right now is step back a bit. It's not enough to just offer folks the ability to say "Thanks, but no thanks." Many people might not feel comfortable doing that in a class setting between vinyasas anyway — especially folks who might not have a strong self-care voice due to past traumas.
Let's be frank here: I have been witness to inappropriate adjustments myself. I have heard too many stories, seen the aftermath of too many invasive and presumptuous adjustments that left students afraid to return to a studio, or a particular teacher. And, honestly? Even the kind of adjustments that left students feeling sexually harassed.
And that's flat-out wrong.
So for the time being, meet my new yoga assistant: poker chips. This cheesy little turquoise OM bag will come with me every time I teach a class, and you can find it on the stereo by my iPod. All you have to do if you want to be left alone is grab one, place it on the top of your mat, and I will happily give you tons of space. Whether it's a matter of being injured or being hungover or just wanting to be alone in your practice, I'm so glad to honor that.
I am grateful to my teacher Rusty Wells and the staff at Urban Flow, who first devised this "No Thanks, No Touch" chip back when we were teaching there. In classes that could sometimes swell to 175 students, it was an easy, elegant way to communicate that desire to just be left alone, for whatever reason. I spent years assisting Rusty and MC Yogi there at Urban Flow, and will always be grateful for those hundreds of hours of hands-on time that offered me an unmatched opportunity to be quietly with people's bodies, in all their sweaty, stretchy glory. And I am glad to be able to share some of that learning with students now.
My sister Mariah and I are in the process of developing a curriculum for trauma-sensitive trainings for yoga teachers. She's a dance/movement therapist who's got a terrific amount of knowledge to share about somatics, embodied trauma, and empowering students to observe and adjust their own bodies. I look forward to sharing more of this with you in the weeks to come.
Thanks and love to you. See you on the mat. With or without a poker chip.