Yoga Studios Are Supposed to Be a Safe Space—How Has That Changed in the Age of #MeToo?

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Ask any devoted yogi, and they'll probably liken their practice to a form of therapy; they'll head to the mat to work through the stresses of day-to-day life. Anxious about an upcoming presentation? A few deep breaths in warrior 2 might just snap you out of it. Feeling defeated after a bad work week? Nailing crow pose will bring out your inner badass real quick. Brokenhearted? Go on, cry in pigeon. (There's probably somebody on the other side of the room doing the same.)

But while yoga is really effective at clearing intense emotions from the body, its physicality can also unexpectedly dredge up lots of uncomfortable feelings from the recesses of our minds. "When people are coming into the yoga room and they're moving their bodies and working with the breath, they’re inevitably opening up psychological material, whether they realize it or not," says Ashley Turner, LMFT, a licensed therapist, yoga teacher, and creator of psychology-led yoga training program Yoga.Psyche.Soul. "Many times, people will have memories surface or just have an emotional release, and they may not even know what it’s attached to.”

When the news cycle is packed with stories of sexual harassment and assault, as it has been in the 15 months since the #MeToo movement first took off on social media—and especially if these stories mirror your own experiences—these memories or feelings are often bobbing just below the water line, ready to rise up at any moment. In this way, yoga can feel like both a refuge and a trigger.

Yoga can feel like both a refuge and a trigger.

What's more, if a student has been on the receiving end of unwanted touch or creepy comments (or worse) in the studio, getting an innocent adjustment from a teacher or being told to "stay calm within the discomfort" of a pose can be straight-up distressing. And the traditional hierarchy between yoga teachers and students can make it hard for students to speak up for themselves if something doesn't feel right.

In response to this new era of awareness, many yoga teachers have started making gentle shifts in the way they run their studios and classes. Their goal is to help yogis feel as comfortable as possible in a time when we're all thinking more about the boundaries around our bodies. “It’s important for teachers to understand how to help [their students] move through [their traumas and emotions]... to hold a very compassionate space where they can start exploring this material, or give them other resources to help them further off the mat," says Turner.

Teachers are indeed doing this in a variety of ways—and the changes they're making might just leave a lasting imprint on this ancient practice's future.

Read on to find out how the yoga landscape is evolving in the age of the Me Too movement.

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Photo: Getty Images/PeopleImages

The language in some yoga classes is changing

When I first started seriously practicing yoga about 10 years ago, my teachers talked a lot about the importance of pushing our bodies to realize what we're capable of, and learning how to breathe through discomfort. You know the drill—directives to stay a little longer in a muscle-burning pose or try one more time to kick up into handstand. But more recently, some teachers have started to stress a different narrative that's subtly linked to the Me Too conversation: Don't do things with your body that you aren't comfortable with.

"With verbal cuing, I'm not throwing demands at people," says Dominick Cole, a trauma-informed instructor at The Yoga Collective in Los Angeles. "[Instead, I'll say things like] 'If this feels good in your body, you might try this variation,' or, 'If you want to take it here, this is an option.' My goal is to assist people in feeling into their own bodies." Cindy Godell, who teaches at LA's One Down Dog studios, takes the same approach. "I encourage students, 'If the pose we’re doing doesn’t feel good in your body, you don’t have to do it. If you want to take a child's pose, do that,'" she says.

One Down Dog founder Jessica Rosen, a former therapist, says that this kind of messaging is really powerful when Me-Too-related news makes headlines and students might be triggered by memories of times they hadn't said no in situations—sexual or otherwise—that they weren't comfortable with. "It's about advocating for ourselves, taking care of ourselves, and getting to know ourselves better so we can strongly stand in our own power," she says. "Learning to connect with ourselves—what's okay and what isn’t, what feels good and what doesn’t—can help so much, on and off the mat."

According to Turner, acknowledging when upsetting events are in the news can help students process them on a deeper level. "I think it’s important for yoga teachers to name what’s in the collective field," she says. "Take the Brett Kavanaugh [hearings] for example—at the beginning of class, we could simply state: 'Today, we’re in a really volatile situation. You may notice that you’re feeling irritable or charged right now. I invite you to just grieve through it. This practice is a way to observe what’s coming up in your body, in your heart, and in your mind.' A lot of people may or may not be aware of [the way the news is impacting them], and just naming it might bring their awareness to it.”

That said, she adds that it's important for teachers to also have a list of mental health professionals on hand for referrals if a student shares that they need help navigating their emotions. "Unless a yoga instructor is a licensed therapist, that's not their scope of practice," she stresses.

Other teachers are choosing to more explicitly address things happening in the public sphere that might be affecting their students, sexual misconduct included. "We've had workshops themed around trauma—for women only, or for people of color only," says Chloe Kernaghan, co-founder of Sky Ting Yoga in New York City. One Down Dog has offered similar programming, holding a women's empowerment-themed class a few months ago to raise money for the Me Too movement.

metoo movement yoga
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Teachers are backing off the physical adjustments

If you've ever noticed a teacher gently lengthening your spine with their hands in child's pose, or guiding your hips into a square position in warrior I, they're doing it to help you feel the correct alignment for that posture. Pretty much every style of yoga includes these kinds of hands-on adjustments, because they can help you understand the experience of a pose in a way that isn't always possible through verbal instruction alone. "Manual assists can be so informative," says Kernaghan. "They can really bring somebody to the next level with their practice."

And while the vast majority of teachers have only good intentions when they put their hands on someone, many yogis have received an adjustment at some point that felt a little sketch—instructors included. "I never had any ‘bad’ experiences, but I have definitely felt yoga teachers using adjustments and their bodies to flirt with me in the past," says Sian Gordon, co-founder of Love Yoga in Los Angeles. "I think in light of today’s atmosphere, it’s not something that I would so readily accept or brush off anymore."

"I have felt uncomfortable in adjustments that are aggressive or really intimate, usually given by the opposite sex," seconds Yoga Medicine founder Tiffany Cruikshank. For her part, Cruikshank has always encouraged Yoga Medicine teacher trainees to think of physical adjustments as a last resort, focusing instead on verbal cues. This is especially beneficial in the Me Too era, when some students may be feeling extra sensitive to touch. "One of the reasons we use them as our last form of helping a student is because in a group class, where you can't really talk or interact [with individual students], it’s impossible to know what a student is feeling," she says.

The same is true in One Down Dog's teacher trainings. "I encourage teachers to use their voice and presence to adjust, rather than physically touching people," Rosen says. "There are a lot of ways to help somebody without physically touching them." Taking this idea a step further, she introduced consent cards to the studio last year: Students can grab one to set next to their mat, displaying for the instructor whether they want physical adjustments or would prefer not to be touched. Many teachers will also ask students to raise their hands at the beginning of class if they don't want to be touched, usually while they're relaxing in child's pose, so that no one besides the instructor can see their preference.

At some studios, however, physical adjustments are key to the style of yoga being taught. Sky Ting is one example: Its classes are based in Katonah Yoga, which incorporates lots of touch as a means of going deeper into poses and creating connection between people. But over the past year or so, Kernaghan and her co-founder Krissy Jones say they've started moving in a more hands-off direction. "Definitely since the Me Too movement, there’s been a general shift in how people accept and receive manual assists," Kernaghan says. Instead of instituting their own form of a consent card practice, she and Jones have chosen to stop adjusting students that they don't know well, and they're asking new teachers and subs to do the same. "In group classes, I’m only adjusting the students that are regulars in our community, so I know they’re comfortable with me going in and [touching] them."

Even if a teacher executes a perfectly professional adjustment, it can still be triggering for a student who's experienced some kind of unwanted touch in the past.

As you can probably imagine, male teachers, especially, are having to rethink the way they're approaching adjustments in their predominantly-female classes. "You can get away with all sorts of different adjusting if you’re a 70-year-old woman or even a 30-year-old woman, but not as much if you're a 25-year-old straight man," Kernaghan points out.

Cole, for one, isn't doing as many adjustments now as he was a few years ago. "Something in me has stayed away from them a little bit more," he says. "Maybe I've naturally responded to being a little more hands-off in the yoga room to give even more space to people there I don’t know. I don't want to step over people's boundaries or make them wonder if I was hitting on them."

Sky Ting instructor Patrick Foley says that he's always avoided physically adjusting students until he's built a relationship with them over time, but the need to do so is magnified now. "It's something I've been acutely aware of since my first 200-hour training—if anything, Me Too has made me a bit more careful and methodical in building that rapport before making adjustments," he says. "I think the Me Too movement has shed light on the fact that intent is not enough. I think a lot of men believe themselves to be well-intentioned, but you can't disregard the impact of your actions on someone else, whether they be a student, friend, or family member." Because even if a teacher executes a perfectly professional adjustment, it can still be triggering for a student who's experienced some kind of unwanted touch in the past.

Yet, despite the fact that many teachers are starting to think twice before making adjustments, it's unlikely physical touch will be phased out of yoga altogether. Turner points out that some people are kinetic learners, and touch can be the way that a pose finally clicks for them. "But still, it's very important as yoga teachers to ask before touching, since we are working with the body, and there’s trauma held in all of our bodies," she adds.

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The playing field between teacher and student is leveling out

Of course, we can't really talk about the Me Too movement without mentioning that the yoga community itself has seen its fair share of sexual abuse allegations over the years. In the past decade alone, Bikram yoga founder Bikram Choudhury was sued for sexual assault and harassment by six of his former students and his one-time lawyer; Anusara yoga creator John Friend stepped down from his post amid allegations of sexual misuse of power; Pattabhi Jois, the late founder of Ashtanga yoga, was recently accused of sexual misconduct by several of his former students; and many women, like Yoga Girl Rachel Brathen, have come forward with stories of sexual misconduct at the hands of instructors, photographers, and businesspeople in the yoga world.

So why is this kind of behavior so prevalent in yoga, specifically? "There are a lot of power dynamics at play in the yoga room [between teacher and student]," explains Turner. Adds Cruikshank: "You want to please the teacher, especially in a guru sort of lineage like Ashtanga, where there's this reverence for the teacher and there's a big power differential. Like Pattabhi Jois—no one’s gonna say no to him."

This power differential is something Rosen has always tried to minimize at One Down Dog. "I've always made it a really important part of the business that neither the teachers nor the staff are put on a pedestal," she says. "That's something that was very common in guru culture—teachers are put up high, and whenever someone’s put up high, someone else is put down low."

"Never be shy to tell the teacher what you're dealing with or what your preferences are, because we’re flexible and open to all different types of people." —Krissy Jones, co-founder of Sky Ting Yoga

When she introduced Ashtanga classes to the studio's schedule, for instance, the team spent a lot of time considering whether to even call it by its given name, because of the recent scandals involving its founder. "It’s that tricky, fine line of, 'How do we honor and respect those that are doing wonderful and amazing work with those teachings and not taking advantage of students, and also acknowledge that this stuff happened and is not okay?'" she says. In the end, the studio kept the name "Ashtanga," but now describes the class on its menu as "a new take on an old practice, with a fresh perspective and evolved understanding that embraces a culture of consent and empowerment."

At Sky Ting, teachers make it clear to students that they are their own gurus. "I think across the yoga communities all over the world, that’s the vibe—never be shy to tell the teacher what you're dealing with or what your preferences are, because we’re flexible and open to all different types of people," says Jones. And this climate is leading students to be more outspoken when something doesn't feel right, adds Kernaghan. "Within the last year, we’ve gotten emails from students that are new to the studio who have said 'Hey, just so you guys know, the adjustment I received in class yesterday was a little bit alarming.' It wouldn’t have necessarily been an adjustment that was extreme in our eyes, but people are starting to openly have a dialogue around these kinds of things and to feel more comfortable voicing how they feel. Which is great!"

And it's important to remember that yoga teachers, themselves, aren't immune to sexual misconduct in their classes, directed towards them from their students. It's happened to Gordon from Love Yoga, and she's also become more vocal about speaking up for herself in recent months. "In yoga, the feeling of threat can go both ways," she says. "Because of the Me Too movement, I felt empowered recently to tell a male student who made me uncomfortable not to come to my class anymore. I don’t think I would have done that before."

And the more we can draw boundaries and advocate for ourselves—especially in the safe container of a yoga class—the better off we'll all be. "I think one of the great teachings of the Me Too movement is that it’s helping all of us, but particularly women, to find our voice," says Turner. "As a collective, we found our voice, and we’re not taking it anymore. We're [discovering] all of these micro-ways that we can create our own empowerment and boundaries." And yes, taking savasana in the middle of a sweaty flow totally counts.

Here are a few genius alternatives to those yoga poses that you don't feel so great in—and two moves to do at your desk when the news agenda has you feeling extra tense.

Tags: Yoga

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