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The Trouble with Touch

Adjustments can help you to gain a deeper understanding of poses, but they can also be misdirected and misunderstood. To get to the heart of this controversial topic, YJ talks to both teachers and students about the trouble with touch.

By Jennifer Barrett

An athletic 62, Loretto Maldonado doesn't shy away from physical challenges. The busy Boca Raton-based psychologist manages to squeeze running, two trips to the gym, and four sets of tennis into each week's schedule. So last summer, when a friend suggested that they sign up for a three-day yoga retreat, Maldonado was game.

Unfortunately, she found the course left her with more than just a renewed understanding of the practice. "We were in positions I had never tried before," Maldonado recalls, "and the teacher kept coming over and yanking on my legs, shouting, 'More, more-do it this way!' " In Trikonasana (Triangle Pose), the instructor vigorously tapped her foot, almost kicking it into the necessary 45-degree angle. Then, with the class positioned in Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog), she stepped on Maldonado's hand to get her palm to the floor-the same hand she'd sprained playing tennis a couple of months before. "I'd told her about the injury at the beginning of class, but it didn't seem to matter. I got more afraid the more she pushed." The weekend left her physically exhausted and more than a little unnerved.

It's tempting to write off this teacher as a lone case of ego-gone-awry. But ask around and it seems we're all one degree of separation from someone who's been hurt by inappropriate handling. "I get calls all the time from students who've been wrongly touched by their yoga instructors," explains Richard Miller, a veteran yoga teacher and clinical psychologist based in Sebastopol, California. "Sometimes the touch was physically rough; other times it was sexually inappropriate. Either way it can leave lasting damage."

Speculation abounds when it comes to touch gone wrong. Some blame inexperience or arrogance on the part of the instructor. Others point to the unmet sexual needs that some teachers bring with them to class, resulting in sexually charged touch. Still others identify students' willingness to put teachers on a pedestal, which creates an environment ripe for abuse. Whatever the factors involved, many in the yoga community feel that the time has come to explore the problem of boundary issues and address it decisively. For while some like Maldonado manage to heal and move on, other students aren't so lucky, sustaining injuries that can last a lifetime.

Contact's Impact

Marco Cattaneo (not his real name), a film producer, recalls the day that his Ashtanga instructor in Rome asked the class to try Gomukhasana (Cow Face Pose). With one arm reaching down past his shoulder and the other straining its way up, Cattaneo still couldn't manage to clasp his hands together behind his back. While other teachers might have offered tips at this point, or even a strap, this one favored a different approach. Coming up behind him, she grabbed his arms, yanked his hands together, and held them in place. "Ti prego! Ti prego!" he begged her, his shoulders and upper arms racked with pain. "Lasciami! Let go of me!" With a dramatic delivery worthy of an Italian opera, she finally let go, laughing in disdain (at his weakness, he felt) as he crumpled to the ground.

Judging by anecdotes told by chiropractors who treat yoga students, physically injurious touch may be the most common-though not the only-sort of inappropriate touch. Stories abound of overly eager teachers adjusting students in a way that leaves lasting damage. Donna Farhi, author of Yoga Mind, Body & Spirit (Henry Holt, 2000) and The Breathing Book (Henry Holt, 1996), tells the story of a woman whose ribs were broken in a fast, aggressive adjustment by another teacher. "You have to ask," she says, "whether that teacher was listening at all to her feedback-which had included screaming." She adds that the problem of injurious touch often stems from the assumption that "teacher knows best," which results in working on students instead of with them.

Sexually suggestive touch marks a second realm in the inferno of inappropriate handling. In some cases, the action is shocking and obvious. Farhi shares a story of a student whose teacher came up to her in Savasana and slipped his hands down the front of her leotard. However sexual intention can manifest itself in shades of gray as well. While certain areas of the body-breasts, buttocks, pelvic area-are sexual hot spots, a teacher with untoward intentions can touch an elbow or other "benign" area and still deliver a message. Likewise, a student who might have amorous intentions (or unresolved sexual issues) can wrongly interpret touch as sexual when it is not. "If a teacher is attracted to a student, it behooves him or her to steer clear of physical contact," affirms Max Strom, a yoga teacher and the director of Sacred Movement Yoga in Venice, California, "and likewise if they suspect a student has amorous feelings toward them."

A third type of touch presents a subtler, but equally damaging, problem. For instance, consider the case of Grace O'Connell (not her real name), a physically fit 31-year-old writer who was living in New York: "I was in Malasana (Garland Pose), struggling to keep my butt off the floor and still maintain my balance. In an effort to help me, the teacher went to lift my butt up with her hands. Suddenly I heard this 'Aruggghhh!' It was her, gasping and straining, as if she could barely stand the weight." Though O'Connell was neither physically nor sexually compromised by the incident, her self-image took a hit. This touch delivered a message that her posterior exceeded acceptable standards for weight and breadth. With or without any accompanying groans, a teacher's approach to adjustments can impart negative information about flexibility, strength, body type, or other yoga "ideals," leaving the student demoralized.

There's no denying that, like their students, yoga teachers are only human. We also have to allow for the fact that what happens in yoga class reflects what happens in the rest of society, for better or worse. But because we regard yoga class as an oasis, a sanctuary from the hectic pace of our daily life, emotional or physical injuries at a teacher's hand become all the more unacceptable. Fortunately, teachers and students have begun to pinpoint the forces behind inappropriate touch, offering insights that can help bring about prevention and change.

Deconstructing Touch

Any discussion of touch in yoga must examine the nature of the teacher-student relationship. Like the therapist, spiritual leader, or professor, the yoga teacher often takes on a special significance for the student, especially if a student has experienced deep healing or a spiritual awakening with that teacher. "People in positions of power can be very seductive," says Ana Forrest, owner and founder of the Forrest Yoga Circle in Santa Monica, California, who teach- es workshops and teacher training courses internationally. It's for this reason, Angela Farmer, a veteran teacher and subject of the video The Feminine Unfolding, makes it a point to caution her students against putting teachers up on a pedestal. "Students are not inferior and shouldn't look to teachers to tell them the answers to life," she explains. "They already have everything they need to unfold to their full potential." When students understand that they have their own power, she adds, they are more likely to speak up in those instances of impropriety.

Miller finds that it is helpful to compare the yoga teacher-student relationship with that of a psychotherapist and client. "In psychotherapy, transference happens when a patient begins to project unresolved needs onto the therapist. The therapist thus becomes the father, mother, lover," he explains. "If the teacher doesn't understand that this relationship is already about transference, he or she treads down a path that leads to problems."

Even our legal system weighs the nature of the student-teacher relationship when considering cases of inappropriate touch. As Noreen Slank, a Southfield, Michigan-based yoga student and practicing attorney-she also has a master's degree in social work-explains, "A therapist comes into contact with people who are vulnerable. That condition and the patient's affection for or dependence on the therapist can create a willingness to become sexually involved with the therapist. Is the sexual relationship consented to or is it predatory on the part of the therapist or the teacher? Most legal experts would say it's predatory." And because a yoga teacher often takes on a similarly authoritative role, the same rules would apply.

The net result, quite often, is a situation in which teachers become dominating or predatory in their touch-and students, in too many cases, endure the injury without complaint. But it doesn't have to be that way, as evidenced by the vast majority of classes conducted without incident. For their part, teachers of integrity can take several approaches to creating boundaries so as not to hurt their students:

Ask first. The problems surrounding touch diminish when a teacher adheres to a set of personal guidelines for instruction. Some teachers ask permission each time they touch a student; others request permission only when dealing with intimate areas of the body. And Still others briefly discuss their use of physical adjustments at the start of class, giving students the chance to decline. Many instructors, including Max Strom, don't approach new students the way that they would a longtime student with whom they have rapport. "I touch brand-new students minimally, if at all," he says.

Be grateful. By not taking their class for granted, a teacher will be less likely to treat students recklessly. "I feel incredibly privileged as a teacher to have beautiful souls in my space for a while," says Farmer. "It is always so gratifying to see people opening up." This translates into a desire to help students rather than control them.

Check your intentions. "When we approach a student with the need to change that student in some way, we are already in conflict and violence," says Miller. This can lead to the kind of adjustments that Maldonado and Cattaneo were unlucky enough to experience. "Touch should help students open to right where they are-not to where the teacher thinks they should be," Miller adds. In that way, "students meet themselves at the moment, and change comes organically from within." Farmer points out that firm adjustments can bring quick results, often to the joy of the student who isn't able to achieve the position on their own at that time. However then the student is dependent on the teacher, when the teacher's role, states Farmer, should be to remove himself or herself gradually from the process, letting the student do his or her own work.

Be open. If a student gets up the nerve to question an adjustment, be willing to listen. "Let them talk and really be there for them," Farmer advises. "If someone feels like they've been touched wrongly, it builds up inside. If they can open up and tell the teacher and that teacher lets their barriers down, very often the healing will take place right then and there." But if the teacher enters into the conversation with defenses already drawn, resolution becomes all the more unlikely.

Do your inner homework. Strom adheres to a golden rule when it comes to touch: Assume the student can read your mind. This means, of course, that your mind has to be clear of domineering thoughts, amorous intentions, and judgment. Strom takes a moment before class to pray that he becomes a channel for Spirit; doing this, he feels, helps him do the right thing. But inner work can also come after the fact. Miller tells the story of a teacher accused by students of sexual impropriety. He quit teaching for two years, went into psychotherapy, and slowly went back into teaching. "Today I would only have high recommendations for him," Miller says.

Students should communicate concerns and also set their own boundaries. Years back Farmer was taking a class with B.K.S. Iyengar when she saw him slap a student's leg by way of adjustment-and the woman slapped him right back. "The surprising thing was, he laughed," she recalls. "He clearly enjoyed the direct exchange of energy." The tale speaks volumes about the power of sticking up for oneself (although verbal communication is probably preferable).Unfortunately, this is many times easier said than done. Maldonado voiced her concerns to her teacher during and after class, but Cattaneo didn't, deciding instead to abandon the practice altogether. ("Yoga's not so fun," he says today. "I'd rather play tennis.") Because of the terse response she'd received regarding a previous concern, O'Connell said nothing either. She simply began studying with a different teacher. "It's important to let the teacher know, however," advises Miller. "Yoga classes are a two-way street that requires feedback from both parties. When there's a closed loop and the student can not give feedback to the teacher, we have a problem."

When discussion leads nowhere and the student truly feels victimized by serious injury or sexual impropriety, the legal route, however long and costly, is available as a last resort. "If students are told, or shown, what kinds of touching form a part of the practice, and if they still choose to practice, then they choose to be touched," Noreen Slank explains. "But the law obligates a yoga teacher, just as it obligates a brick mason or a doctor, to act with due care. If due care has not been taken, so that the adjustment was performed negligently, then our system of tort law will hold the teacher answerable for the harm. Consenting to an act does not mean consenting to injury."

The Midas Touch

Homing in on the downside of touch may lead some to question why teaching yoga requires touching at all. After all, some teachers get by with very little touching, relying instead on verbal cues and examples. But if touch has the ability to harm, it indeed has the profound power to heal as well. "Touch is one of the most powerful healing modalities in the world," affirms Strom. "It's the most profound resource there is, especially when you hold as your intention not just ahimsa, or nonharming, but also the firm belief that you can impart healing energy as well. Then you run this energy from the heart right to the center of your palms."

For many teachers, touch helps facilitate the unfolding that lies at the heart of yoga. It presents an aspect crucial to practice: "Touch is not so much about 'correcting' the physical body as it is about helping a person to more deeply encounter where their patterns of resistance are so that they can open up those places," says Miller. For it to be deeply effective, the act of physical touch necessarily reflects the end result of a fine-tuned, multilayered process. As Forrest describes it, "I first look at a student, noting any areas that show a general dullness, weakened muscle tone, or diminished vitality. Then I look deeper and see, for example, that a certain set of nerves seem irritated." Indeed at this point, when a teacher does touch students, he or she encounters them after having gathered information through a heightened level of observation. Farhi also compares the art of therapeutic touch to wine tasting: "When you have tasted ten thousand wines, you become skillful at guessing things like vintage or the location of origin. When you've touched thousands of people, you literally gather information in your hands. This is how a masterful teacher can touch someone's hand and immediately know there's a problem with the shoulder."

This level of keen awareness stands in great contrast to inappropriate handling and is the reason why touch can prove so transforming. Rather than tossing the baby out with the bathwater, many advocate proactive approaches such as more practical training in teacher certification programs, a more sophisticated examination of boundaries, and even mandatory ethical regulations similar to those found in professions such as law or medicine. In the meantime, teachers and students need to create these boundaries for themselves so that they can derive value from appropriate touch. "I couldn't teach yoga without physical contact," says Forrest, echoing the sentiments of many instructors. "When someone is blocked or in pain, my hands want to go to that spot and do what they can to help. I can work with someone for one class and have them feel the benefits for the rest of their lives. Of that I'm absolutely certain."

Contributing Editor Jennifer Barrett is editor of The Herb Quarterly and lives in Connecticut.


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Reader Comments

Allie

Yes, it appeared in the April 2003 issue

Kumari

I think it's April 2003

marie fortini

Can you please tell me the date of this article? I cannot locate it. Thanks

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