Could someone please tell me what an “assist” is?

Context, Conversation, and Consent- A Perspective on Touch and Teaching

I love that teachers and studios are beginning to acknowledge the importance of consent. Consent cards are a great first step, and far superior to touching without asking, but I hope the yoga world will take the conversation quite a bit farther. With much respect for my friends and colleagues who have been hard at work building awareness around consent issues in the world of yoga with various cards and chips, I’d like to see more communication about what this nebulous word “assist” actually means as well as more clarity about which types of touch a yoga teacher is qualified to offer, and in which situations. Without these additional details in place, actual consent is not possible, and we run the risk of creating the illusion of consent and respect in our communities in its stead.

As a person who was assaulted by a teacher as a teen, I purchased those first generation flip chips the moment I laid my eyes on them. But, once they arrived, it didn’t feel right to use them. While I had already long since abandoned all but the very occasional, and very gentle, hands-on guidance with consent, my intention had been to create an option for students to make an explicit statement about touch and to add some extra assurance that no one would be “adjusted” without permission. But I found that the flip side, the “yes, I want assists” side, undermined my aims in that it reinforced the notion that an “assist” is an agreed upon and universally helpful technique that one can or should expect in a yoga setting. This doesn’t sit well with me.

Because, let’s be honest. Can anyone really agree upon what an “assist” is, or what it is not, without a much longer conversation? “Assists” have been so many things to so many people, it can be impossible to know what one is consenting to without further clarification. Is it an energetic sweep, a forceful “deepening”, a corrective measure, a means of encouraging grounding, an aesthetically oriented adjustment, an ego boost, an attempt to meet emotional needs for one or both parties? All of these variations, and more, are common in yoga settings, but only some of them are healthy manifestations of touch, and there are few among those that most yoga teachers could appropriately and skillfully offer.

Before digging in much deeper, I think it’s important to acknowledge that, while many have used hands on techniques in safe, caring, and appropriate ways, this aspect of a yoga class is a relatively recent innovation, popularized in good part by Pattabhi Jois, who is now understood to have committed serious physical and sexual abuse under the guise of “assisting” for a period of nearly 30 years. One victim, Jubilee Cooke, offers a conservative estimate of 30,000 assaults over that time span. Some Jois followers even created a special name to justify a blatant form of digital rape, calling it a “mula bandha assist”. If this fact doesn’t inspire our yoga community to clarify what the word “assist” means, I can’t imagine what will! (*See below for more resources on this topic from Karen Rain, Jubilee Cooke, and Matthew Remksi)

Even the less obviously abusive forms of touch can cause significant and lasting harm. My first ever encounter with yoga in my early 20’s ended with a teacher pushing my leg to the ground in supta padangusthasana, without permission and well beyond the bounds of physical safety. Luckily, as a brand new student, I had not yet been introduced the idea of spiritual growth through surrender, so I was not hesitant to push back against this dangerous behavior; I knew my limits well by that point and was physically strong enough to resist. Not everyone is as lucky. I know scores of folks with lasting, sometimes permanent, injuries due to those “deepening assists”, and they are still common today.

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Beyond the most blatant examples of abuse and carelessness, four types of touch come to mind (and I’m sure there are others) that frequently occur in yoga settings and tend to be included in this broad category of “assists”. Let’s take a look at what they are, who could engage in them appropriately, and when they might be helpful:

PUSHING A STUDENT DEEPER INTO A POSTURE: This method often stems from, and perpetuates, the myths that a larger range of motion is inherently healthier and that the only barrier to being “healthy”, “free”, “open” etc. through bodily contortions is an emotional one.  These assumptions are dangerously problematic.  This technique may be helpful if the teacher is physical therapist or equivalent with specific training to diagnose and treat structural issues and had done a thorough evaluation of the situation, but only if the student has consented to receive that particular kind of guidance from that particular person in that particular moment. Impossible? Not entirely, but it does require some skill and effort to establish this type of consent, particularly given that a yoga practice is not a PT session, and not all students are interested in being “fixed” during their practice.

ENERGETIC, “FEEL GOOD”, OR MASSAGE-LIKE TOUCH: If a teacher has significant training in anatomy, physiology, and kinesiology; is trauma aware; has been trained in touch skills like massage or other bodywork modalities with clear boundaries and protocols; and has some degree of clarity around power, positionality, and transference, this might be an appropriate offering. Again, the appropriateness would depend on whether the student understands and has consented to what is on offer. Having heard from countless teachers and students through the years about the strangely common phenomenon of the prowling teacher offering random massage strokes to a “lucky”, chosen few, I’ve come to the conclusion that such behavior has more pitfalls and negative repercussions than possible benefits. (I do offer this type of touch- minus the prowling- very rarely, with students I know well who have repeatedly invited me into their space for a particular issue, and after establishing prior consent through a one-on-one conversation. It is possible to do this!)

PRE-DETERMINED ADJUSTING FOR EVERY STUDENT: I’ve encountered and heard about this type of touch, and I honestly don’t understand it. Does anyone actually like this? While it might make it easier to manage expectations for students in class, I always felt that I was on some kind of assembly line with this approach. I have no interest in giving or receiving arbitrary touch with no relationship to what is happening for the individual in a given moment. To me, this method appears to address the teachers’ needs more than the students’ (meeting some kind of touch quota or ego need perhaps?).

A CORRECTION FOR POSSIBLY INJURIOUS POSITIONS OR UNCLEAR MOVEMENT PATTERNS: This type of touch could potentially be very helpful for students, and relevant to teachers of all levels, including those who are new or less experienced. Every teacher I’ve worked with genuinely cares about their students and wishes to help avoid injury when possible. If we are clear about our intent, this might be a place where chips and cards are most useful, especially in larger classes where a longer conversation may not be possible. I’ve recently created the following statement for use at my studio, following consensus from every yoga teacher who uses our space:

Out of respect for our students, and in honor of the individual learning process and pace, we do not offer hands-on adjustments, with a few exceptions. If you are struggling or appear in a precarious position, and other forms of instruction have not met your needs, your teacher may, with your permission, offer gentle, hands -on guidance. If you would prefer not to receive this type of guidance, you are welcomed and encouraged to place a colored chip at the top of your mat.

In this way, we are giving the option to give a blanket “no”, but not a blanket “yes”. Consent is still asked for without a chip, every time. (I realize this does not make room for the strategy of asking everyone to take a chip in order to normalize the process of setting boundaries. I’m still considering using a “yes” chip too for this reason, though we would still ask and explain in the moment).

However one chooses to use cards and chips in this context though, it’s still important to remember that the learning process is inherently messy. Not all students who haven’t mastered a “perfect” shape or transition are in danger of injury. Far from it in fact! Trial and error is an important part of the learning process. It must be allowed for in order for a student to grow to embody new movement patterns. Learning how and when to avoid intervening is an important skill for teachers to cultivate.
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I know there are some who would say that learning styles differ, that some students do need touch guidance in order to improve, and I wouldn’t argue, to a point. After two decades of teaching movement of various kinds, I have indeed seen a few situations in which touch is the most helpful form of instruction, but it is not particularly common. (One example: I currently teach 75-100 yoga students per week, and I feel it its necessary to give, on average, one touch correction per month or so).

If my aim as a teacher is not to impress, correct, ‘”fix”, or make a better performer of a student (and I firmly believe that it is not) nor to encourage extreme ranges of motion (again, experience has taught us no), then respectfully getting out of the way is a wise strategy indeed. If my aim is to facilitate an inner dialogue in support of greater awareness, autonomy, compassion, skill, and insight, then what right do I have to push my agenda or personal aesthetic onto a student’s process without careful consideration? And if a hands-off approach also produces more favorable results in terms of movement skill (from a motor learning perspective, I would argue that it often does), then moving beyond this current paradigm of dubious “assists” is not only a more respectful choice, but also a potentially more effective one.

As we continue this necessary conversation, it’s important to remember that we are not talking about “being careful”, nor are we talking strictly about safety.  This is a conversation about respect, about honoring those who have trusted our guidance, and about creating a clear container to allow for optimal growth and integration.  Like lanes on the highway, the boundaries aren’t the purpose of the journey (and certainly not the destination), but they sure are needed to get you where want to go in one piece.

 

 

* for more information about the abuse mentioned above:
-From Karen Rain and Jubilee Cooke: https://yogainternational.com/…/how-to-respond-to-sexual-ab…
-From Jubilee Cooke:http://www.decolonizingyoga.com/why-didnt-somebody-warn-me…/
-From Matthew Remski: http://matthewremski.com/wordpress/books/wawadia-main/

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About the Author

Kate Pousont Scarborough is a yoga teacher and studio owner, a Zero Balancing practitioner, a lover of movement and nature, and a dedicated cheerleader for her college-aged son. She lives with her partner in Western Massachusetts.

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