Creating Cultures of Consent in YogaApr 28, 2022
Photo by Cinthya Zuniga.
by M Camellia
This month, our programming focussed on supporting people with sexual trauma. This heavy and important topic has many facets deserving of exploration, and our presenters this month adeptly covered a lot of integral ground. I offer huge thanks to everyone who took part in the conversations that were had and to all of our many community members who are working to raise awareness, educate themselves and our peers, and contribute to the cultural shifts that must be made Ito honor the bodies, experiences, and agency of all people, including our students and fellow practitioners of yoga.
We each exist within many layers of culture, which interact and unavoidably seep into one another. As yoga teachers working to broaden our consciousness around power dynamics, trauma, and the oppressive systems baked into our dominant culture, within which our yoga culture and microcosmic classes and offerings exist, we are undoubtedly familiar with the ways that internalized dominant cultural beliefs find their way into yoga spaces. As we work to unlearn these harmful internalizations, we must also make a collective commitment to a new cultural paradigm, one that honers the practice we share, embodies its philosophical tenets, and, as much as possible, safeguards every person’s right to agency over their body, time, and other resources.
At the core of trauma, we find the restriction of exactly that—traumatic experiences cut us off from our ability to choose what happens to us, our awareness of our bodies and desires, and our inherent power. Often, healing after trauma looks like slowly reconnecting with a sense of safety and personal agency. This process is different for everyone and often nonlinear, sometimes frustratingly so. However, humans are resilient, and we’ve recognized a number of different tools and practices that can be useful in that process; yoga and other somatic, embodied practices are among them.
That said, the power of these tools for healing can also be mishandled. When I talk to teachers about power dynamics in the yoga classroom, I often ask questions such as:
- What are you asking your students to embody?
- Are you giving commands, or inviting exploration?
- Who in the room knows the most about your students’ bodies and experiences?
- When and how are you in a conscious consent practice with your students?
Throughout my years teaching, I’ve noted that a majority of teachers I’ve encountered were initially taught to teach by command. There are exceptions, of course, but it would appear that quite often, yoga classes take on the hierarchical model of many of our dominant cultural institutions, with an external source of authority (a teacher) telling a group of students what to do with their bodies. This strikes me as odd and discordant with the liberatory nature of yoga. It also does not offer opportunities for deep internal connection or the exacting of choice, instead reinforcing the power-over dynamics of dominant culture. I have yet to personally meet a teacher who doesn’t want their offerings to be welcoming, connective, and of-benefit to their students, and to do so, we need to reorient, create opportunities for active choice-making, and an environment that really serves the inward journey, allowing the student to be their own authority. We need to create cultures of consent.
It is your responsibility as the teacher to engage in and model good consent practices before, during, and after your classes. Consent, briefly defined, is “permission for something to happen.” That “something” may certainly be touch (such as for the use of hands-on assists), but consent also applies beyond physical contact. For example, registering and showing up to class is often regarded as consent to participate in the yoga you’re offering—this means that practicing informed consent with your students begins even before they enter your class, with ensuring the accuracy of your class description, bio, and other marketing materials.
I teach consent as having four key tenets. Using this model, true consent is always:
- Clear. There must be a shared language between you and your student in order for consent to be given. This may be verbal, written, or signified via non-verbal cues (such as a head not or thumbs-up) as long as the meaning of those cues is clearly understood by both teacher and student.
- Coherent. If your student loses consciousness, falls asleep, or is otherwise incapacitated, they cannot give consent.
- Willing. Even if someone indicates agreement, that agreement is not actually consent if it is forced, coerced, given under false pretenses, or given under the pressure of a power imbalance. Willingness requires both, 1) specific, accurate information abut what your intended action is (i.e. May I place my hand between your shoulder blades to bring awareness to your spine?), and, 2) the ability to freely say “yes” or “no” without fear of judgement or retribution.
- Ongoing. Consent must be obtained for every step of an interaction and can be revoked at any time, for any reason. Even if your student said “yes” to an assist earlier, you still need to request informed consent again before assisting them again. If you are in the middle of an assist and the student asks you to stop, stop immediately and check in.
It’s important to acknowledge that there is an inherent power dynamic at play between student and teacher. As the person perceived as having power within your classes, it’s your responsibility to ensure you hold yourself accountable and practice sharing power with your students, allowing them agency over their own bodies, their practices, and their time and space. You can share power with your students by offering invitations instead of commands, intentionally providing options and opportunities for choice-making, and by fostering an ongoing awareness of your social positioning and the ways your social privileges (white privilege, thin privilege, privilege based on physical ability, etc.) may have an impact on the power dynamics in your classes. If you use touch, always make sure you’re getting informed consent.
Fostering dialogue with students, soliciting feedback, and adapting based on the experiences they’re able and willing to share is another way to hold space for your student’s agency in your classes. As practitioners have opportunities to inquire within and to build the skill of feeling into their bodies, hearts, and minds, you can honor their inner work by taking an interest in what they’re experiencing and using what they share to guide the progression of your class. This makes every class a collaboration and moves away from a hierarchical dynamic that may be reinforcing problematic dominant cultural paradigms. It can also be very freeing for you as a teacher since sharing power also means sharing responsibility—it’s a good reminder that you can’t and don’t need to know everything in order to teach well.
M Camellia (they/them) is a yoga practitioner and facilitator, writer, consent educator, and advocate called to create profoundly accessible spaces for self-inquiry. They believe that yoga is a practice of collective liberation and challenge contemporary yoga practitioners to dismantle the systems and beliefs that hold us all back. M is a co-founder of the Trans Yoga Project and edits the Accessible Yoga Blog among other roles within the realm of yoga service. Their teaching and writing center Queer and Trans identity, consent and agency, body liberation, and disability justice in relation to yoga philosophy and practice, and they serve as a mentor for other yoga teachers and practitioners desiring to deepen their understanding of accessibility, power dynamics, trauma, and yoga as social justice. M lives in Southern Maryland amongst beloved, intentional community and regularly makes offerings online and in the Washington-Baltimore metro area.
Want more from M Camellia?
You can find other blog posts by M here.
Check out this conversation between M and Accessible Yoga Founder Jivana Heyman on the Yoga Revolution podcast.
You can also hear M and collaborator Puja Singh Titchkosky discussing the Trans Yoga Project with Jivana on the Accessible Yoga Podcast.
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