Blurred Lines: When Does Physical Contact In A Yoga Class Become Inappropriate?

December 19, 2019

Inappropriate Contact in YogaRecently, yoga teachers are coming under scrutiny about the level of contact being used for adjusting their students in classes. Some instances are coming to light of teachers crossing the line of professionalism, hiding behind the parameters of their position or the ‘spiritual’ nature of everything that happens within a yoga class. My eyes were first opened to this unfortunately from first-hand experience, but very quickly afterwards I saw more accounts of similar experiences on social media, the creation of #metooyoga and the release of the Netflix documentary Bikram: Yogi, Guru, Predator. F*ck. My heart really sank. This is an actual thing?? I was simultaneously glad and deeply saddened to see that this was actually a thing… Yoga teachers taking advantage of their position, students too afraid to speak out.

As a self confessed yogini of more than 12 years, I have been to many different studios and have had an array of teachers, both male and female. I’ve also spent many years developing my home practice with Adriene at Yoga With Adriene (big love!). After quite a few years not having set foot in a yoga class, I developed a curiosity for hot yoga. A friend of mine was also interested in going and trying to get me out of the house and moving my body. I was going through a difficult time and spending a lot of time at home feeling sorry for myself. She was trying to help me, and I greatly appreciated it. “No one ever regrets doing yoga,” she told me. Unfortunately, it turned out to be the one time in my life that I regretted doing yoga….

Let me start by saying I have some issues with physical contact from strangers. If I don’t know a person, I don’t like being touched unless it is invited or mutual (shaking hands, kissing cheeks, a hug, etc).  Interestingly enough, in a yoga class that barrier is significantly reduced for me. Being adjusted by the teacher or doing partner work was something I was okay with in the context of a yoga class. By this point in my early thirties, I had been to a lot of yoga classes and really felt like I had a good understanding of good and appropriate physical adjustment. Most of the teachers I had learned from throughout the years used physical contact to adjust me in a position. Being someone who is sensitive to physical contact from strangers, as most of these teachers were to me, the moment someone touches me I really notice it. Cold hands, hot hands, smooth hands, dry hands, calloused hands, rings, no rings, manicure or nail biter, I absolutely knew it. What I always loved about the classes I had been to so far was being asked for permission (number one in this list of 10 rules of hands on adjustments) to make adjustments. Where it wasn’t explicitly asked, a casual statement was always given…’I’m going to… lift your leg/push your hips/turn your head’. My response was always absolutely go ahead.

In the hot yoga class, no such permission was asked, no prior notification given. That in itself was okay with me. I forced myself to allow the contact to happen anyway, it was a safe space, it’s yoga, it’s normal. Right? But in what other context in life would you allow somebody to touch you (outside of a medical scenario for example) like you get touched in a yoga class?? I wish that this story ended only with somebody crossing my personal (albeit quite strict) boundaries of physical contact and me leaving the class feeling a bit uncomfortable. But it was much more than that.

Shortly after the class began, the teacher was making his rounds adjusting us. I wasn’t paying any attention to it at first. It was minimal, although I was already cringing at the fact I was horribly sweaty and someone was putting their hands on my bare, dripping skin. His hands were really cold. Not a nail biter. Firm skin but not calloused. How were his hands so cold!? I never did figure that out. The adjustments slowly started coming more frequently, not in itself a problem but they also began to get more intimate. Hands in places they didn’t need to be, lingering for longer than necessary. I was losing focus and even tipping out of some positions which is really not like me. It was really bothering me and I began to feel like I must get deeper or more accurately into this pose so he didn’t have to come and adjust me. I’m not an expert by any means, but I know my warrior one from my warrior two and I can fold into child’s pose like a piece of paper. But in all these positions, I was being ‘adjusted.’ Except now, even though his hands were on me, he was not giving a push or pull or a verbal explanation with the contact to indicate what adjustments needed to be made. They were just there. On me. His cold, stranger, teacher hands on my sweaty body for absolutely no purpose whatsoever. Now I began to really pay attention to how he was adjusting the other women in the class. The other two women in the class he was barely giving any attention to even though there were times when I could see that they needed some guidance from him. But he was hyper focused on me and my friend. I was already completely uncomfortable, to the point of tears by now.

Why didn’t I say something? Why didn’t I just tell him I didn’t want to be adjusted? Why didn’t I tell him to take his f*cking hands off me?  I always imagined that was the type of person I was—that if somebody touched me like that I would fiercely tell them to back off. I did and said no such thing here. I needed more confirmation. I looked to my left, where my friend was. We were all in shoulder stand. I really turned my head to look directly at what he was doing (which in shoulder stand is probably not advisable or comfortable!). I saw him pressed completely against her ass and legs using his entire pelvic region and legs…… Now, I have been adjusted in shoulder stand many times and reached what I and other teachers have considered pretty perfect positioning with their guidance but none of them, NONE.OF.THEM pushed themselves against me like he was doing to her. Okay, so I was not totally cray cray. This was real. He was so far past the line of appropriate adjustments he couldn’t even see the line. I had more of an urge to say something for my friend than for myself. I am definitely one of those fawns. I had so much self doubt that I could not bring myself to tell him to stop and my friend, for her own reasons was not telling him either. Then he looked at me and saw me watching him. ‘Close your eyes,’ he snapped. Wow……he knew. He knew I was on to him and that what he was doing was wrong.

Even if what he was doing was fine for him, or even anyone else….it wasn’t fine for me. I felt really horrible. And vulnerable. The way the studio is laid out, absolutely nobody can see into the class from anywhere without making their presence known. On top of that, it was a late evening class with nobody else in the studio. Just us 4 women  and him. So many questions ran through my head…’maybe this is normal?’, ‘maybe I’m being oversensitive?’, ‘it can’t be bad if he’s doing it in front of other people?’, ‘it’s just his teaching style, it’s okay’, ‘I don’t want to cause a scene, I just won’t come back to this class again.’

After we had done some shoulder stands and moved on to some head stands, we all folded over into child’s pose. I’m used to sometimes having hands on my back to push me down further so I was half expecting it. But I certainly was not expecting him to lie on top of me. Face down. Over my back while in child’s pose. Without asking or telling me his intentions. And after every way that he had already touched me, this was way too much. I felt his d*ck against my ass, his full weight on top of me. At this point the tears were real. I don’t know how long he stayed there, it felt like an eternity. Long enough for multiple tears to roll down my nose and drip onto my mat.

Eventually he got off, the class finished. Everybody rolled up their mats and dispersed. In the changing rooms it was just my friend and I and one of the other women from the class. I had to know. Was it just me? Was I being too sensitive? The other woman said she really noticed he was on me more than anyone else and that he was lingering on me for too long. My friend also confirmed this in addition to him doing it to her directly as well. I felt nauseous. We were going to walk out of there without saying a word. So he had gotten away with it. Exiting the changing rooms to leave the studio, I could not look him in the eyes. Outside the studio we talked about it a bit more. What were we going to do about it? We wanted to avoid that ever happening again, of course.  Our solution: none of us would be going back to that place again, despite loving the studio and the yoga style itself.

I asked around among my friends here including some qualified yoga teachers. This was not his first time, not the only studio, and shockingly, not the worst he had done in a public class. I put in a complaint. I emailed the owner telling them the truth, without being harsh or accusatory. I also mentioned the other accounts that I was hearing so they were aware it was not an isolated incident. I even gave suggestions on how this type of situation could be avoided in the future including asking the class directly when in child’s pose (so nobody else knows) to raise their hand if they would prefer no physical adjustments during the class, or using cards like these to lay next to your mat, clearly indicating if you want to be physically adjusted or not.

The owner spoke to the teacher about the complaint and committed to making it mandatory for all their teachers to take the Art of Adjusting course. Best case scenario is that the teacher really takes it on board and doesn’t behave like that anymore.

Ever since it happened I have really been trying to dig deep and figure out why I didn’t say anything at the time, why I ‘allowed’ something to happen to me that was far beyond acceptable to me. I’m learning more about the 4 types of response to trauma, fight, flight, freeze or fawn and it is eye-opening. I am getting a much better understanding of my response in that situation and really working on making sure my response will be different if faced with something similar in the future. Part of me wants to go back to the class and find out if things have changed. But also not really…not yet. But I will. One day. One day when I’m confident I could stand up for myself if necessary. Watch this space…

Also by Rose: Yoga Saved Me From Body Dysmorphia, But Confidence Is Still A Process, Not An End

I Stopped Eating Grains For A Month. Here’s How It Changed My Body & Mind

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Photo: Rawan Yasser on Unsplash; Rose Findley

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Originally from England, Rose has been living in Barcelona, Spain for the last 6 years as a kindergarten teacher. A lover of health and fitness, she can often be found training for her next physical challenge which she writes about in her blog @plantpoweredminimalist. Rose is now also writing content on topics including veganism, zero waste and minimalism.

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