I had a friend once describe to me one of the greatest challenges in her relationship: occasionally, when she was intimate with her boyfriend, she would experience flashbacks to her sexual trauma from a few years prior. This would take her out of the present moment she was sharing with her boyfriend as a consenting adult, and she would relive the terror, helplessness, and violation she experienced at the hands of her abuser.
Before I lay my hands on anyone, this is what I try to remember.
It’s not about us or even this very moment for some people. Some people have experienced traumas so severe and depraved, that even a loving touch from a safe and caring friend – or an innocent touch from their yoga teacher to correct their alignment – can bring back haunting memories and cause them a great deal of distress. Add to this natural trigger that yoga is a deeply spiritual and emotional practice for many, and this can be exponentially more sensitive for survivors of physical and sexual trauma.
As yoga teachers, it is our responsibility to our students to ensure that our classes are safe places for our students. In a world where sometimes home isn’t even secure, our mats certainly should be. And this is why I use consent clips.
The concept is simple: if you’re okay with touch for alignment and during savasana for a little forehead and neck massage, you place the clip on the edge of your mat with the blank side facing upward. If you’d like to have your personal space respected, place the blank side downward, with the words, “Safe Space” facing upward for me to see, and I will not invade your privacy.
I found the clips on Etsy; they’re simply customized clothes pins, and were very reasonably priced. When I first got started teaching, I used cards. I ordered coasters off of Vistaprint with a logo on one side and left the other side blank. For touch, I instructed them to leave the logo side up, and to be left alone, to place the logo side down, revealing the blank side.
Usually, however, I will still offer the instruction, as my students are settling into savasana, that if they would prefer not to receive the massage, to place a hand over their belly and I will quietly pass by and respect their wishes. I do this for two reason. One, I use oils during savasana and not everyone likes oils or wants them on their face or in their hair. But most importantly, two, sometimes people change their minds about it. Maybe they invite alignment changes but don’t wish to be massaged, and that’s fine. But due to the nature of yoga being connected to our emotional and spiritual beings, sometimes things come up during practice that they weren’t feeling when we got started, and now they need a moment to be left to work through whatever that feeling is.
Often, this is a non-issue in my classes. Some instructors choose not to offer consent cards or clips due to the infrequency of physical alignment correction, and that’s their prerogative. I also scarcely use physical touch to correct alignment, usually being able to give verbal queues that do the trick. So, even though touch is welcomed by 99% of my students, it’s not often I have to take them up on it for that reason. However, I frequently offer touch during savasana, so in that way, I find it to be crucial to have their consent before making my way around the room. And having consent clips and/or having them place their hand over their belly if they’d like to refuse that offering ensures that I do not have to break the still, meditative environment I like to create for savasana in my classes in order to obtain consent verbally from each student individually.
Others have expressed concerns over how students perceive correction in class, as it could take them too far into perfectionist thinking and therefore taking them mentally out of the practice and taking away from our opportunity to empower them to make good choices for themselves. With this, I do agree, and is again why I usually don’t resort to physical adjustments until I’ve had a student a few times in class or if the student expressly asks for assistance. Typically, I will offer verbal queuing to the entire class as a general instruction, and most of the time, that suffices to remedy an issue. Regardless, however, it’s my personal feeling that giving someone with trauma from past experiences the power and permission to own their space and their body, to say, “no” to being touched, and to respect that declaration is a greater priority for me.
Ultimately, I hope to lead a grace-filled and safe class for each person that comes to their mat before me, and I think that should be the goal for all of us as instructors. It’s not about the poses and it’s not about us. It’s about our students, their practice, and their space. They deserve our respect and honor and commitment to their safety and security.