Matthew J. Taylor: Inclusive Yoga – It Ought to Be a Touchy Subject

These remarks are based on my 17 years as an expert witness in yoga injury cases and yoga safety advocate. This is not legal advice nor counsel because I’m not an attorney, but reflects my understanding from working with attorneys as to what they look for and utilize in either defending or prosecuting a matter. These remarks also reveal my deep biases as a “recovering manual physio” and how yoga differs, at least philosophically, from other practices.   The Hot Topic of Touch and Consent in Yoga If there ever was a veneer of “purity” around yoga teachers and gurus in yoga’s reemergence in the 20th century, it’s now long gone in the first part of the 21st century… and “good riddance”! So much so, that touch and consent are now very popular topics in the yoga world. I won’t be covering the sordid details here. You can easily find them online. Rather, I want to spotlight the importance of both students and yoga professionals being clear how important having high standards around touch and consent are to making yoga inclusive. Let’s briefly look at how they influence yoga inclusivity, some points to consider in developing your own standards/boundaries, and a few take-away action steps to consider. May this fuel many deeper conversations… Touch & Inclusion: It Matters On the surface (pun intended), touch and consent to touch in yoga seems straightforward: Don’t do it unless you have consent and get consent every time so everyone is safe and feels welcome… both teachers and students. Ah, that it should be so simple. The tangle of issues beneath the simple surface declaration invites the deeper exploration of these topics that are beyond our short word count here, but need your attention:
  • What were the classical power dynamics around touch and how do those compare to your current culture and experience?
  • What is the intention behind the request to touch? And might there be a better, safer way to achieve the same effect?
  • Has touch ever been traumatic for the student or the teacher? It matters for both.
  • Given today’s emerging science around trauma and identity, and consequently the who, what, where and why of touch, there are now many layers fraught with potential to misunderstand/violate and therefore generate exclusion from yoga. Can you think of some instances?
  • What about the paradox of us group primates needing/craving touch and our individual/collective history of violence by inappropriate touch? How can we resolve or safely navigate that to keep ourselves or our students welcome and included?
  • Legally the issues are knotted around issues such as: Is touch by you or your teacher even legal where you live? Is it regulated and if so, how? Are you or your teacher aware of the limits? And, what might have happened in the past that is exclusionary and that generated the need for current limitations?
And that’s just the tip of the tangle. Can you sense though how important any one of these issues are for making yoga inclusive and safe? Revisit the opening italicized statement above… can you appreciate how inadequate that is as a guideline? Spend some more time reflecting on these questions, then read the next section. Establishing Your Standards and Boundaries for Inclusion The above hopefully invites you to not just wait for some collective response of guidelines around touch and consent, but that right now you need to create your own. Whether you are a student/consumer or a teacher. Grab a pen and paper, and jot down your answers to the above points. Don’t just “think them”… write them out as a practice to clarify your needs and the needs of those you serve, if you teach. Then jot down your questions about the “holes” in your understanding that became evident such as: How was touch used classically? If I have a history of trauma, how does it affect my use of touch and why? Or, maybe, how does not clearly communicating my touch and consent policies to every student create exclusion from yoga? Make your list. Then go do your research on those questions. Finally, construct, clarify, and act on your personal standards around touch and consent as either a provider or consumer of yoga… every time. Steps to Priming Your Yoga as Inclusive If you teach, further consider these steps for your practice:
  1.  Make your policies and practices known in your marketing, at your point of service, and verbally during your service. Every time.
  2.  Seek feedback from your current clients via surveys or group discussions.
  3.  Reach out to past clients to ask if there were issues around touch and consent that caused them to stop attending.
  4.  Join groups and opt in to receive updates around inclusion and accessibility in yoga as the topic is very fluid.
  5.  Do your personal practice. Self-study, explore as a community, and then reflect/meditate… over and over.
Together, let us bring yoga further along in being accessible and inclusive through smart, safe practices addressing touch and consent. After all, failure to address ahimsâ (non-harming) means whatever you are doing, it isn’t yoga. We can all do better… we will together.
Yoga Therapy as a Creative Response to Pain Matthew J. Taylor. Foreword by John Kepner Supporting yoga therapists to create a programme of care for those living with chronic pain, this guide brings pain science, creativity and yoga together for the first time. It includes the emotional, cognitive, social and spiritual in its definition of pain and acknowledges there that is no simple physical ‘fix’. 
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