Ahimsa. No, really. Back off.

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You know how there are buzzwords that have their hey-day in popular culture for a while and then fade away? People use them so often the meaning tends to get diluted. For example, there are folks who claim to “eat clean”. You know that likely means plenty of fresh, unprocessed whole foods, but then it quickly becomes attached to a marketing ploy to get people to buy bullshit boxes of “detox slimming tea” for $30 a box. (You have kidneys and a liver and a very smart body to remove impurities from your body. You don’t need a bag of tea to do that. Also, tea can’t do that.)

In the yoga world, “alignment-based yoga” keeps getting thrown around as if that were 1. a new concept and 2. unique to a particular style, lineage, studio or teacher. In my opinion, if you’re teaching yoga, you should automatically be teaching alignment, no? It’s what all yoga teachers do. There may be differences of opinion about alignment,  but explaining where and how to move a body in, out and through an asana is a teacher’s job.

I’ve been teaching yoga full-time for 6 years. I’ve been a practitioner of yoga for 20 years. As a practitioner, I have never liked hands-on physical adjustments. I can count on one hand, not using all 5 fingers, the number of times I’ve received an adjustment that helped me learn more about a posture. Even way back in the late 90s when I was in my twenties and less out-spoken, I’d tell teachers to please not touch me, but to instead tell me what I could do with my body to understand a posture more fully.

I’ve had teachers mash me into a shape I could never attain on my own and severely hurt my spine, and later, my knee. I’ve had teachers try to lay on top of me in Pashimottanasana and I quickly shirked them off as I immediately felt painful nerves spasm in my hips. I had an Iyengar teacher literally smack my tight left shoulder in a hand-bound Prasarita Padottanasana as she complained it wasn’t equal to my right shoulder. I had been waiting table for years and that was my far-stronger (less flexible) shoulder because that was my plate/tray carrying arm. I always felt like there was maybe something wrong with me for hating unwanted, unasked-for physical touch in the yoga room (even though it’s completely unacceptable treatment in every other part of my life). I came to learn and to practice asana, not to be molded or molested.

After I gave birth to my first child, I fell in love with midwifery. My birth experience empowered me and I wanted to learn how to do the same for other women. It was the autonomy of my body and it’s process of growing and birthing a human that I fell in love with. I deeply respected the women who created space for me to move freely during birth, doing the unique dance necessary to bring my baby through my pelvis and into my hands. This freedom helped me appreciate why I didn’t like the authoritarian, pushy nature of past yoga teachers who felt it their right to put their hands on me. An asana practice is very personal and intimate, to me, just as intimate as labor. An unwanted hands-on adjustment that comes without consent feels as jarring to me as a rough pelvic exam.

I was fortunate to be a student and apprentice midwife to three wonderful midwives who taught me a lot about consent. During a prenatal visit with a pregnant mother I was taught to say things like, “I’d like to get your blood pressure. Is it okay if I do that now?” Or when it was time to palpate her round belly and listen for fetal heart tones to ask if she were ready for that. If yes, then I’d say, “I’m going to put my hands on the sides of your belly first. I’m sorry they’re a little cold (always!).” As I’d palpate, I’d explain what I was feeling of her baby’s position, and then I’d ask her permission to listen to her baby’s heartbeat, either with a fetoscope if she didn’t want ultrasound waves or a Doppler if she wanted to hear the beats too. This degree of explanation and consent acquiring builds a special relationship between  midwife and mother so that when the time comes to birth, the mother knows that the midwife will continue to ask consent before any touch or procedure. This trust allows the mother the time and space to explore her own intuition and unique anatomy, as well as to give the midwife valuable information about what she’s feeling from the baby’s movement during labor.

One of my midwifery preceptors, mentors and dear friends was/is Mickey Sperlich. Before and all during my apprenticeship, Mickey was piecing together her years of independent research on the effects of physical and sexual trauma to women in their childbearing years. Aside from teaching me how to hold space and care for countless women who were survivors of such abuse in our own midwifery practice, Mickey shared a lot of wisdom and compassion she had gained through 15+ years of research and practice. In 2008, Mickey and her dear friend and colleague, Julia Seng co-authored and published the fruits of their labor, Survivor Moms: Women’s Stories of Birthing, Mothering and Healing after Sexual Abuse.

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This book is a hard, but fantastic read for those who are interested in trauma-sensitivity. Despite it being specifically about women in their childbearing years, it helps those who’ve not experienced past trauma understand how touch, sound, smells, sensations, etc can trigger people in a number of ways.

When I weaned myself from midwifery to teach yoga, I brought my midwife brain of physical and emotional awareness and respect with me into my teaching. I have never taken a trauma-sensitivity weekend workshop because being trauma sensitive was literally what I did 24/7 for 13 years. That’s not to say I’m an expert, but my students can trust that I will never manipulate their bodies into a yoga pose. I will never lay on them or smack them! I find open-ended communication that leads the practitioner into self-inquiry -SVADHYAYA- a much better method to help them find what’s right for their body, on that given day. Asking people to contemplate what they’re feeling in a pose as opposed to telling them what they should  look like is my first method of getting them to come back home so to speak, to their own body. Realizing that every human has very unique anatomy makes space for their bodies to look very different from each other in every single yoga pose. Clearly, if someone is attempting to hold something that seems unsafe or unstable, I’ll tell them to adjust in a specific way to lessen the chances of injury. If I have a student who has been coming to my classes for a while (i.e., they know and trust me), then I will on occasion give the slightest physical adjustment if I see it could help them. This could be a quick two-finger pad touch to the hip in a Parivrtta Parsvokonasana to get them to bring their hips back to the midline or a light shoulder touch to get them to relax their shoulders. As practitioners become stronger and gain body awareness, they will automatically begin to integrate the verbal cues that have been given since their first class but perhaps were not able to access yet on their own. As long as they are moving safely, I leave them to explore the subtleties and nuances of each pose. The “Aha!” moments come time and time again as they find the right space to be in for their body. Each practice yields new results, sometimes micro, sometimes macro.

When I’m wearing my yoga teacher hat, this is the epitome of the first Yama, Ahimsa. The practice of non-violence. Do no harm. I vow to honor where each student is in their practice. I vow to not place my hands on them without consent. I vow not to force their body into a shape it could not attain on its own. I vow to not humiliate them. I vow not to tell them their practice is less-than.

In my yoga room, the student is their own guru. They know their body and mind better than anyone else. I’m there to hold space and to give guidance that they can take or leave. I don’t want praise. I don’t want a pedestal. There is a fantastic line in the Tao of Woman (Metz & Tobin, 1995) pertaining to the midwife’s job: When the child is born, the Mother will rightly say, I did this myself.

Every yoga practitioner should say the same of their practice.

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