Have you ever had a yoga teacher ‘help’ you in a way that was uncomfortable, embarrassing or painful? Have teachers touched or moved you physically without asking you first? And when they do ask first, often by saying something like ‘is it okay if I just…[whatever]?’ would you feel confident, or simply have enough time, to say “no, it’s not okay” before you were touched?
This year I am trialling the use of markers known by various names such as ‘assist chips’ and ‘consent tokens’. I began using these with my regular, longstanding yoga class members on Skye in January. From April, I will be using them in my new home town on the east coast, in a brand new class with people who have mostly not met me before. I’m writing this post partly for any of these students – longterm or new – who would like to know more about what we’ve talked about in class. I’ll be delighted to have feedback from class participants, and also from any others reading this post, about their opinions and experience of assist chips (via the comments box, email or in person) .
Read on for more info!
As a yoga teacher with a career background in the social sciences (in ethnography and in research with children, both fields in which ethics and informed consent are discussed and written about extensively), I think about these things rather a lot. I reflect on issues of consent, choice, group dynamics, and the fact that whether we teachers like to recognise it or not, the teacher/student relationship has a dimension of power imbalance to it. I try to be mindful of the fact I can’t possibly know how individuals would feel about me moving their arm slightly – it may be helpful, or no big deal, or they may be averse to it due to having had a bad previous experience with a yoga teacher pushing them forcefully into a position, or they may have a past trauma which could be triggered by something which seems innocuous to me. I try to be tactful, and of course I would never want to hurt anyone or make them feel foolish, or scared. Even so, in years of teaching, I’ve surely at some point unsettled or maybe even upset someone by doing something I assumed was clear, accepted and unthreatening – when it wasn’t, from their point of view – or simply chosen my words badly and made them feel uncomfortable or hurt.
In my classes on Skye over the last several years, I’ve repeatedly emphasised that ‘good’ yoga involves practising in a way that feels right for you, as an individual, on this particular day. That it’s about paying attention to how things feel for you, and doing what’s right for you, and never feeling you have to do something because the person on the next mat is doing it, or because a teacher says so. Regularly but much less frequently, I’ve let people know there is debate and differing opinion amongst teachers about whether and when it’s appropriate to give individual assistance in a class setting – physical or even verbal. I’ve explained that I personally find gentle physical assists very helpful, from a teacher I trust, and that I find it can be helpful to give them too, but I’m aware not everyone likes or wants this – and they should feel free to tell me so, at any point, whether in class, privately in person, or by email.
However, I felt I could probably be dealing with these issues better, and that I was not having to work out a way of doing so, because I was teaching small classes, in a rural community where I was well known in general. I was also mainly teaching ‘regulars’ who I knew pretty well – and I knew they wouldn’t still be coming to my classes if they didn’t like my approach. So, I’ve been watching the growth of debate about consent and touch in the yoga teaching community with interest, including the development of physical tokens which all the people in a class have and use to show whether they wish to be assisted or not – ever, or that day, or at particular times within the class.
Several months ago, when our (protracted) move from the west coast to the east began, it occurred to me now was the time to make some changes, because at some point in 2019 I would be starting from scratch, teaching yoga in a new community where I know and am known by very few people. My initial infants teacher impulse (yes, another past career!) was to make big tiddlywinks-style tokens which were green for go on one side and red for stop on the other. Then I realised it might be wise to read up on it a bit more. I came across two short posts by Theo Wildcroft which I found particularly helpful. You can read them here: More Chips Please! and here: Trauma Sensitive.
I really liked the sound of the ethos behind the chips developed by Eunice Laurel which are pictured above. They were designed in collaboration with survivors of sexual violence, who chose the colours in preference to that less than subtle green/red traffic light imagery I nearly went for. The chips have been thoughtfully designed and made, and all proceeds from their sale goes to Movement for Healing (making yoga available to women in London’s rape crisis centres). And the chips look great and are nice to handle, too.
Eunice was lovely to communicate with and order from, so if I’m ever in London I’ll certainly try to get to one of her classes! When her parcel arrived it felt like it was my birthday – it was beautifully packaged, with little extras and a personally written card explaining a bit more about Movement for Healing.
I used the chips during my final week’s teaching in Skye, and I’d like to say a big thank you here to all the regulars in those three yoga sessions, who listened to me explaining what it was all about, discussed with me what they thought of the chips (and the issues in general), and helped me learn how to use them, by flipping them over when I wasn’t looking! Yes, I did ask them to do that, because I was particularly concerned that I might not notice a chip had been changed to ‘no thanks’ and assist anyway – not a problem in this particular situation, but potentially very serious in another. Mostly, I saw the change in colour straight way, but one time I didn’t notice it – so that’s something I’ll have to be very careful about, when I use them in classes with people I don’t know so well.
These particular chips are not too light, but even so they moved around on the mats a fair bit during the class, so I’m glad I didn’t make card ones. Currently I’m thinking that when I do start a new class, I’ll put a chip on every mat with ‘no thanks’ face up, say only a little about it initially (because there’s always so much that could be said at the start of a brand new class, and who wants their yoga teacher to give them an hour-long lecture instead of allowing them to begin to move?!) but provide my cards too, so they have a link to this post for more info. And not do any assists initially until we’ve had time to chat about it more. I hope that will work. I’ve always been cautious, when people are new to yoga or new to me, about approaching them even with individual verbal assistance, because I know so many are quite anxious in their first classes that they may ‘do it wrong’ or ‘hold up the class’ – so unless they look at me with a plea for help with something, or indeed ask, I give them time and space to get accustomed to the atmosphere of the class and get to know me. Once the class is more established, the chips are a way to keep up an ongoing dialogue about issues around consent, choice and assistance in classes, and a reminder that it’s in every individual’s power to make as many choices as they need about it within a session. On a practical level, though, I’m wondering if some or many people will find them a faff – will the chips get accidentally kicked about the room? Will people inadvertently lie down on top of them?! Time will tell…
I’ve never been to a class where assist chips were used – so I’ve never had the experience of using one myself, or seeing how a teacher introduces them. If you have had that experience, or are a teacher who already uses them (or tried them, then decided you weren’t going to keep using them), I’d be really interested to hear from you. Either in the comments box below, or by personal/private communication. Thank you!