Keep Your Hands Off My Asanas: Letter to Yoga Teachers from Sexual Assault Survivor

Even if your intentions are pure, and you want to give me “free” body work, back off. Honestly, I’d be happiest if you stood in the front of the class for the entire 60 to 90 minutes and never left that space.

 “That’s a bit extreme,” one might think, but consider the fact that 1 in 5 college age women are victims of sexual assault while at college or that 20% of all females are survivors of sexual abuse of some sort and I say, that’s a lot of people. I’m not asking you to customize a class for one person, but a decent percentage of the population.

We may never identify ourselves as survivors, in your class, but will reward you by returning to your class, often, and telling others to do the same, and we’ll be ridiculously grateful.

Someone, such as myself, paying for yoga doesn’t want to experience a flashback or to be triggered by your not knowing that getting too close, walking from behind, moving quickly, hugging goodbye or anything too touchy feely can hijack my nervous system.

You might mean it to be nice when you rub my head or shoulder, adjust my posture or spray lavender overhead or water droplets from a blue zone, but it is not always experienced as an act of kindness. 

Even if you think I might hurt myself, and are compelled to adjust me, unless I’m doing a headstand with no hands in the first forty seconds of class, I would rather be injured learning to listen to my body than be triggered by your unwanted approach. Plus, saying “”Excuse me,” is as effective as getting grabby.

To be touched, when I have not asked to be reinforces the notion I got that my body is more accessible to you than it is to me. It reinforces the concept that my permission, consent or desire is not required to manipulate my form.

I realize this is not your fault or doing, but let’s challenge the culture that treats women’s bodies with less respect than museum sculptures.

Let’s honor bodies and personal space using the boundary of say, a mat… Some people, and I am one of them, go to yoga only to instructed in yoga.

I’m sure you think, “I’m a sensitive yoga teacher,” and if you are reading this, I commend you for at least being curious.

However, no yoga teacher thinks this is directed at them. You are wrong. This is directed at you.

Thank you for still reading.

I realize your motivation in becoming a yoga teacher is to make others more calm, healthy, enlightened or flexible. It is not a well-paying job. I want to appreciate you fully. However, my intention might simply to stay in my body longer and dissociate less today than I did yesterday. Let’s respect each other and keep yoga class about yoga.

Being present is a challenge for everyone, but for a trauma survivor having symptoms, being present in the body can be like walking into the center of a cyclone. It feels threatening and scary.

Because of that, I’m jumpy. It’s not your fault. But I’m assuming you do want to know and do not want to do any harm.

Trauma survivors are often hyper vigilant, jumpy and may have been attacked by someone sneaking up on as in our beds, homes or while we felt perfectly safe. It can be hard to turn off the alarm system that gets activated whenever we’re with other humans.

Even though you might only be offering a blanket, is there any reason you can’t ask students, at the start of class, to get all props before class starts?

Speaking of speaking up, can you ask people to raise their hands if they WANT a hands-on assist rather than if they do not? Could you start with the assumption that people who don’t want to be touched and who are body conscious and have been victims of crime, don’t want to be the center of attention and might not be comfortable asking for special treatment. Could you instead require the students who wish for assists identify themselves? I would so wholeheartedly thank you and forever come to your class.

I’m there for yoga, only yoga, and would appreciate not having to make a fuss about that fact.

Also, please don’t comment on clothes, hair, jewelry or bring attention to objectifying in any way. I realize you mean it as a compliment but again, the self-conscious thing is hard as I may only be just making peace with the fact that I do have a body that might be inhabitable. It may be what brought me to yoga, the desire to be with my physical self.

Even if I don’t say, “Don’t touch me,” assume I don’t want to be touched. If you adjust me, and I don’t speak, it might be because I am zoning out or have left the scene of the crime, which is me. It’s not your fault but when you come up too close to me, get in my space or ask me to pair up with another student I can assure you that will be the last class I ever take with you and might end my yoga practice entirely for a week or a decade.

Also, please keep the overpowering scents or religious bells or gongs out of the class. They might calm and center some but they can trigger and irritate others, especially those abused in a religious setting, which sadly isn’t a tiny number.

If you want to dim the lights, try not to make the class pitch black even at the end. People can cover their eyes with their own pillows or masks, but few people will have a flashlight and the confidence to use it during class. I never want to be in complete darkness with strangers or people I’ve known only in a yoga class, ever. Sometimes I don’t want to be in complete darkness when I’m alone.

Again, I know my problems aren’t your problem, but if you want to consider my needs, I will be a grateful and loyal student with a life which might be improved greatly by a yoga practice.

Even if I’ve been to your class a lot, don’t assume I trust you. I was assaulted by someone who said they loved me. I may trust no one, including myself, and may be in yoga to rebuild that trust. Assume I do not trust you at all and approach me accordingly.

Do not hug or touch or get all touchy feeling at the beginning, end of or during a class. Again, my smile is not an o.k. to touch me. If you feel the need to offer TLC, love and affection, make yourself available for such when people greet you but please don’t make it part of a class.

I went to a class last December, the teacher was warm and friendly, bubbly, and to help me deepen a stretch put her hands on my ass to push me down deeper into child’s pose. I did not feel afraid of her and she didn’t hurt me. I didn’t say a word in class. Instead, I froze and haven’t been back to yoga outside of my bedroom since. That was six months ago.

She is not a horrible person but she crossed a boundary, as a teacher, and pushed some buttons I don’t want pushed again, which is why I’m writing this piece. That deepened pose was not essential to my yoga that day. The negative effect was far worse than the benefits I gained.

Don’t assume your intentions are enough to make whatever you do o.k. I’ve heard yoga teachers say things like, “It’s all about intentions” or worse, that positive touch can be healing (and it may be, if initiated by a student or in a voluntary body work setting), but my body may be processing memories and sensations as well as assessing your energy and intentions. That making peace with my body and symptoms might be the most I can possibly bear.

“Aren’t all yoga classes trauma sensitive?” one friend asked me.

Honestly, few classes are even a little trauma sensitive. However, with a few simple adjustments, and changes in approach, it could be more so.

I can’t wait until there are trauma-sensitive classes, easier to find, because I’d love a place, outside of a support group or 12-step group, to meet other survivors of sexual violence who are reclaiming their bodies, as I am. It would be powerful to just be in that process together, knowing we aren’t alone but not needing to talk about the details.

And hey, one day I may not even need trauma sensitive yoga, but until then…..

Please keep your hands off my asanas.

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