Please Don’t Touch Me – Trauma & Consent on the Mat

Please Don’t Touch Me – Trauma & Consent on the Mat

Today’s guest post comes from a student in the STL community who wishes to remain anonymous – her story is incredibly valuable and important. The impact of trauma, complex trauma, and PTSD is very real, and admittedly, many yoga teachers do not have training in the biology and physiology behind the impact trauma has on the brain and body.  Our guest blogger’s story is a reminder that as students, it’s important to know you are not alone, and that you have permission to make requests and set boundaries with your teachers.  As teachers, it’s a powerful insight that we never know who will be in our class, or the challenges they have survived.  All good intentions and well-meaning aside, our actions have an impact, and that impact can only be determined by each individual’s life experience.  – elle


I am writing to all the yoga teachers out there about hands-on touching for adjustments. I don’t know how to put into words the amount of trauma I have had in my life, the sexual abuse, the physical abuse, the emotional abuse and all that I have witnessed and was a part of during my time in Iraq…I can’t write it all out in depth without traumatizing you so I will write you a letter as to why I am not appreciative of being touched, not only so my space is honored but so all people’s spaces are honored. May we all be respected, honored and loved just as we are….imperfectly perfect.

Dear Yoga Teacher,

First, I want to say, WOW!!! I am in an actual yoga studio!! Do you know how long it has taken me to work on myself and my fears just to step in to this space with you? Well, it has taken me years and I am still a little nervous. I am a little nervous about my yoga outfit and feeling a bit awkward in it…I know how to do the basic yoga poses but I am scared you are going to go fast or single me out verbally if I don’t do a pose right, and I am terrified that you are going to try to correct my pose by touching me. I know, I know it is your job to keep us yogis safe and it must be hard to see me struggle in a pose. But you know, I want to experience the pose myself and be allowed time to work with my body to come into full bloom in the pose; I want that for myself, I want to know what it feels like to open up. I may not even open up in a pose until a few classes in but I want that experience.

Not only do I want the experience, I want my boundaries to be respected and I want to feel safe in a yoga class. You see, the first memory I have as a child is being sexually abused by a family member, I was also beaten by this family member. I was sexually abused and raped and neglected and beaten until I was 17. I ran away from home at the age of 17 into the arms of a man I barely knew but it was much better than my parents’ home, well, he beat me, too. I fled from him and began a career in the military where I was physically assaulted, sexually assaulted and survived a deployment to Iraq where our base was mortared almost on a daily basis. Heavy stuff, right? Well, imagine the world through my eyes and through the eyes of survivors and veterans out there. Just walking into a yoga studio has taken every effort of courage and mindful breathing exercises I have learned.

Just walking into a yoga studio has taken every effort of courage and mindful breathing exercises I have learned.

So, you’re probably wondering why even attend a yoga class, right? I can only hope my bravery will uplift other survivors and veterans to experience yoga as form of self-care, healing, and community interaction. There are so many people who are confined to their homes because of fear of being singled out verbally in a yoga class or touched that they stay home bound. This was me for many years, I was home-bound and I had an amazing home yoga practice but I was longing for communion with others; I was lonely, I was yearning for community and connection. When I did venture out to my first yoga class, it was with my massage therapist who is also my friend now. She encouraged me to go to a studio so I went. I loved it so much; I went back again and again. I became so self-confident with yoga that I practiced out of state when I went on vacation. I then wanted to see what other yoga studios were like and that is when I learned that not all yoga studios are the same.

My first visit to one studio, I was touched several times during a floor pose, the yoga teacher touched me from my back side and my brain triggered. I started the mindful breathing, my heart raced, I kept telling myself I am safe, I am good but I was triggered, and I have no idea how I finished the class. I didn’t go back to any yoga studios for a while. Then after some time passed, I went back to the yoga studio where I started, the yoga teacher and I were comfortable with each other and she began to correct me with touch.  I didn’t mind sometimes because I had gotten to know her, but on other days, it was a real trigger. I didn’t know how to tell her that it ruined my yoga practice when she made adjustments.

I never did tell her, too ashamed of not being like everyone else in class welcoming the adjustments, I felt like there was something wrong with me, like I was too damaged to be like the other yogis’ and just too embarrassed to let her know that I didn’t want to be corrected. So, I cultivated a strong home practice but then that yearning for community would come up for me, so I would bravely venture out to practice yoga in various yoga studios. I was surprised how some places would respect personal space and others would not. Being in down dog and having my hips pulled into a deeper position almost made me fall to my knees in horror that I was being touched this way, it seemed so offensive to my body and that I had no boundaries – it left me feeling powerless. I just wanted to go to class to move my body, flow with spirit and free my mind, not be re-traumatized. I just want my body to be free to be just how it is in any pose… I want my body to have the freedom to open up when I am mentally and emotionally ready, not for my body to be adjusted and demanded into a pose. I just want to be imperfectly perfect as I am in this moment, whether or not I have the perfect down dog or side angle pose…it will get there, let my body savor the opening, not forced into opening.

I would like to feel empowered and feel as though I have choices when I practice at yoga studios. I would like to see yes/no cards at yoga studios that allow me the choice to be touched for adjustments. I like this idea the best out of all I have researched. It is so easy and quick and can be kept with the yoga supplies for class. These cards are great not only for trauma survivors and veterans but also for those who are sensitive touch for their own personal reasons.

yogaflipchip 2

So, yoga teacher, you see why I would rather you not touch? I really do like you and admire your wisdom and the way you make yoga look so graceful and beautiful. I want to get there and I will in my own time, I want to experience the unfolding of it all my way. I look up to you and want to continue to this journey with yoga with you. Now that we have gotten the touch thing out of the way, let’s flow. See you on the mat!

 

With Admiration & Respect,

Your Yoga Student


If any of this sounds familiar to your own experience – my hope is you will feel empowered to ask your teacher at the beginning of a yoga class to refrain from any hands on assists. No need to give any explanation. You can also bring a tool of consent as mentioned in the letter, such as the Yogaflipchip, to use as a reminder for your teacher to skip the hands on adjustments. You can also have custom-made wood chips created by STL-local woodworker, Christopher May.

 

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8 thoughts on “Please Don’t Touch Me – Trauma & Consent on the Mat”

  1. I am in the process of becoming certified in Trauma Sensitive Yoga and this letter is an excellent example of the problems many trauma survivors experience with regular yoga classes. Trauma Sensitive Yoga doesn’t not involve touching the students in any way. Ever. Empowerment develops when a person controls every aspect of her body’s involvement inside the peace and warmth of a yoga class. I personally practice Ashtanga and generally appreciate adjustments, but to a trauma survivor they can bring up the horror of another person controlling the survivors body. Check out http://www.traumasensitiveyoga.com to learn more or find a class. Do note that all kinds of yoga classes with the word “trauma” in the title are not created equally. TCTYS facilitators are passionate about psychology and yoga, so they will always be happy to share information regarding their classes. I don’t know if the writer of the letter will ever see this, but to her I’d say 2 things: Thank you for sharing this letter and issue. Most yoga teachers simply don’t know. The fact that I came across this a year after the posting shows that you really have reached people with your letter. If you’re ever looking for a career change, you might be a great TSY facilitator!

  2. I’ve been a Kundalini Yoga teacher for over 45 years. Most of our teaching is pretty much hands-off. Sometimes a gentle touch can help with a posture. However, I ALWAYS ask for permission to touch anyone. Hopefully, all yoga teachers will get the message that permission is always required if you need to touch/adjust anyone and that respecting personal boundaries is more important than a perfect posture! There are many ways to communicate!

  3. I guess I just want to say that people should be able to disclose what they want and have that respected instead of creating rules for all people with a trauma history. I was also abused as a child by close family members. I grew up in an incredibly unsafe home in a violent dangerous city. I had many early losses and periods of severe neglect. However, I also always wanted more kind, safe touch than I got. In fact, a touch deficit has been a recurring theme in my life.
    I have been going to the same yoga studio for a year and a half (following a divorce and several deaths in the family). Without telling anyone or ever mentioning trauma, I feel like the yoga teachers there conferred and decided I was traumatized. They then either stopped adjusting me entirely while still adjusting every single other student in the class or approached me zombie-style (very slowly while staring at me) or if they did touch me, made sure to just use the tips of their fingers. For me, this treatment has been incredibly triggering. I feel unworthy, unlikable, and disgusting and that they must not like/value me as much as other students and perhaps want me to just leave the studio.
    I watch other students receive all these lovely adjustments, this kind touch/connection, and hug the yoga teachers hello and goodbye and feel like again the trauma is keeping me from a kind of connection I crave. I get that I might be hard to read and they are probably trying and doing their best. I can’t help that my muscles are chronically tight, that I sometimes startle (with verbal triggers, almost never with touch), that I don’t always feel like making eye contact or it’s not easy to do, but being treated differently from other students feels like a punishment and like I’m being singled out.
    It’s always meant a lot to me when a kind teacher reached out to me and made a physical connection with me and it has actually never been a trigger for me. Opposite of this person’s experience, I actually feel that touch in yoga is grounding and helps me come back to the present moment, feel worthy, feel less shame, and feel part of a group (whether or not it actually helps me with a pose even!)
    Having this studio “decide” I was traumatized and “decide” to treat me differently without EVER talking or listening to me has felt terrible, and it’s also felt like something I can’t talk to them about or call them on since nothing was ever said. I feel like I have to swallow the pain of it because how do I say – “hey, um, you all seem to go around adjusting every other person but me? I don’t have leprosy, FYI.” I don’t know what the answer is except that making room for HONEST conversations or using those “I welcome adjustments/I don’t welcome adjustments” cards would be good practice for every teacher I imagine.

    1. I am really sorry that’s been your experience, and I really appreciate you taking the time to reflect and share here. I absolutely agree that there is no one “right” way to support students who have experienced trauma, and it’s hard to know someone’s intent without there being open dialogue between teachers and their students. I think yoga teacher and somatic therapist Hala Khouri puts it best when she says, “Trauma-informed is PEOPLE-informed.” Creating space for conversation rather than making assumptions is, in my opinion, a more trauma-informed approach than a one-size-fits-all “do this but don’t do that” prescribed approach, and that is not generally a skill taught to teachers in a conventional 200-hour training. Thank you for sharing!

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