Yoga Adjustments: Consent in the #MeToo Era

In 2018, I was part of a Yoga Alliance working group tasked with reviewing the minimum standards for 200- and 500-hour teacher trainings. I had the opportunity to share discussions, reflections and opinions with a group of 15 well-known yoga professionals from across the world. We spent many hours discussing different areas to focus and also we were tackling specific and controversial subjects. The result was a report designed to help Yoga Alliance update the guidelines that uphold the standards for teaching trainings.

Yoga teachers play an important role in the society in which they live and teach. The tools they share can provoke a significant change in their students. Beyond the physical and mental wellbeing of the individual, these changes affect their attitudes and responses to life, and that in turn has a knock-on effect on their routine, their family, their community and, ultimately, the culture of that society.

How should the practice and techniques that yoga offers be adapted in the face of cultural change and the evolving ethical and moral landscape of our postmodern society?

Is it possible to create fixed guidelines for yoga teacher trainings to ensure their effectiveness in promoting the best for individuals and the world?

How should the latest thinking on biomechanics, neuroscience and quantum physics – as well as the new perspectives offered on the history and philosophy of yoga – be incorporated into the yoga teacher trainings that they receive?

What are the requirements of a human being in the rapidly changing society of the 21st century?

These are among the important issues that Yoga Alliance has to consider as it sets out to make unprecedented changes in its guidelines.

Yoga Alliance is not only informed by the working group in which I took part but by thousands of survey responses from practitioners, students, teachers and studio owners, as well as people from all the relevant fields that relate to the yoga world.

They have taken into consideration feedback from all these areas and collected perspectives at a very high level about there are issues never looked before at with such clarity and vigor and with such respect.

Personally and for my organization – the Escuela Internacional de Yoga – this review research conducted by Yoga Alliance has been a chance for significant reflection. Thankfully we’ve found a yoga community that, despite its diversity, is more united than ever in working towards the common goal of implementing change in an open, inclusive and transparent way.

On this journey, I’ve been pleasantly surprised and encouraged when considering the ethical conduct of yoga teachers. The truth is that the lion’s share of this thorough review of teacher training standards has been updating the guidance and resources required to guarantee the highest level of integrity when it comes to the issue of ‘consent’. And specifically how to ensure future yoga teachers are sufficiently prepared, so that standards of safety, inclusivity, diversity, accessibility, sensitivity and, accordingly, ethics in the teaching of yoga, can be raised.

There are a number of questions we have to ask ourselves about where we are currently and how we move forward.

How can we respect the practices and varying schools of thought of different styles, teachers, lineages and philosophy without compromising ethical standards or accepting, as we have until now, certain forms of assault, lack of respect, abuse or the invasion of an individual’s personal space on a physical, energetic or psychological level?

Are we prepared to change our behaviour? Can we develop ethical standards for yoga that move beyond traditional and essentially patriarchal interpretations of the Yamas and Niyamas? Can we become the epicenter of a new ethical, social, spiritual and compassionate paradigm?

There is no doubt the #MeToo movement has reached the yoga world.

It’s a social movement that is provoking legislative change here in Spain, albeit at a slow pace. In the past few years, across the European Union it’s been referred to as no less than a revolution. It’s from this standpoint that Yoga Alliance has been compelled to support a definitive and effective change in consciousness in the teaching of yoga. We owe the Yoga Alliance thanks for undertaking the responsibility for an initiative that is unprecedented in the history of yoga, and for approaching such a controversial and challenging topic in a thorough and timely fashion.

Yoga Alliance has even created consent cards (or ‘assist chips’) whereby the yoga student is invited to take responsibility for their own personal space and say no to adjustments from the teacher if they are unwelcome. The chip provides a way for the student to advise the teacher that they do not wish to be approached or touched during the practice, or that they authorize the teacher to adjust them in the postures as required. This revolution will influence the way adjustments are given, the verbal cues given by teachers and ultimately the way in which teachers share the tools of yoga. And there will be greater understanding about how touch can be intrusive, unwelcome and/or dangerous for many people.

Unfortunately, this is a problem in the yoga world, where in recent years numerous reports of abuse, including sexual assault and abuses of power,  have emerged. At the risk of upsetting or overwhelming yourself, you need only go online to see not only the number of accounts but also the manner in which these have been ignored or covered up for decades (probably centuries) in relation to certain lineages, gurus and well-known teachers.

There has never been a forum to report these abuses, and in many instances there were suspicions but people deliberately looked the other way. I personally have experienced many uncomfortable situations during my 25 plus years in the yoga world. Situations that have been at times heartbreaking – instances of sexism, self-interest, corruption and sexual abuse – and I have seen the very real trauma of many people hurt and deceived by yoga teachers. #MeToo

But it’s not only these serious incidents we should worry about; we must also look at matters on a much smaller scale. As yoga teachers and teacher trainers, we must focus on how we interact with our students, and how we set boundaries that demonstrate the appropriate respect for their bodies, energies and their individual concerns or problems.

The time has come to respond to the need for yoga teachers to be able to understand how to act with appropriate sensitivity when it comes to contact with students on both a physical and psychological level.

In Spain, we have a culture in which touch is part of healthy and understanding relationships. I would even say it is part of our identity. It’s wonderful, but maybe it’s one of the reasons why we don’t see certain ways of touching a student might be inappropriate. But times are changing, and today more than ever teachers must seek the explicit consent of their students, whether that is with consent cards or by other means. The manner in which consent is gained is of lesser importance. What matters is that this area, that until now has produced so much confusion, will now be studied as part of the basic requirements of yoga teacher training, alongside advances in other areas that are perhaps less revolutionary, but no less important. At the Escuela Internacional de Yoga we are already discussing all of these issues and evaluating significant changes in order to approach these ethical considerations in a conscientious way.

We owe our gratitude to Yoga Alliance. For bringing these issues to light; for its unprecedented support for the #MeToo movement; for its dedication to the best representation for the yoga community; and for supporting an agenda that will lead to a respectful evolution on many levels. This is the prelude to deeper and meaningful change. In all certainty, you have planted seeds that are destined to grow and grow. Thank you.

Mayte Criado

Directora y Fundadora de la Escuela Internacional de Yoga
Profesora de Hatha Yoga y Meditación

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