On Touch in Yoga

By Peach Friedman

First, we have to decide what yoga is for. If yoga is a movement form that has a particular agenda, either performance-related or educative, then touch can have a relevant place in the yoga classroom as a teaching tool. If yoga doesn’t know what it’s for, than the touch can’t know what it’s for, either.

Bear with me for a few:

My son is on a boy’s gymnastics team. The curriculum could not be more clear. They begin with certain skills, and as they move up level by level, a new set of skills are introduced only after the previous ones are achieved. All of the boys are training for competition. They know exactly what they’ll be judged on, down to each tenth of a point.

In gymnastics, touch is used primarily to (a) spot, (b) teach body placement for certain skills and (c) increase range in static stretches. We could include (d), to celebrate an important learning moment or accomplishment, as in the occasional high five or fist bump.

Examples of all of these: 

(a) Spotting: When my son was learning back handsprings, his coach held out his arm to catch his back if it was needed, and was positioned to help propel him to finish the back handspring if otherwise he could not have done it on his own. I’ll call this a spot, because as my son progressed at the skill, the coach’s hand rarely touched his back, but it was there just in case, like a safety measure. 

(b) Teach body placement: When the boys are working on pommel horse, they do drills to practice holding their body tight: legs together and straight, toes pointed, minimal spinal flexion or extension. They’ll practice holding the various shapes that they make on the pommel horse first on the floor, and coach will come around and tap their legs, move their hips back, etc. 

(c) Increase range in static stretches: Seated forward bend. Coach pushes on the boys’ backs. Love it or hate it, they do this, it has an express purpose, and nobody is confused about why coach is touching the kid’s back. 

And (d), Celebration: In competition, a boy finishes his routine and coach gives him a fist bump as he walks off the mat.

To be clear: I know that gymnastics isn’t free from misused and abusive touch. I know, in fact, that it is a sport fraught with this. And, I also know that when used appropriately and within professional scope, the reason for touch is clear, both for the coach, and the boys. This has, at least, been my personal observation for the past three years I’ve spent observing closely at my son’s gym.

In gymnastics, the goal is the same for everyone: routines are practiced for performance, and the aim is to get a good score. Nobody is confused about this. 

I’ll add that I have never once seen one of my son’s coaches hug an athlete. 

Now, let’s look at yoga.

What is it for? Well, it depends who you ask. I actually love to ask people this question all. the. time. I ask new teachers and experienced teachers and new students and experienced students and the lovely humans who work the front desk at yoga studios and people tell me everything from “I’m there for connection” to “I’m healing my injured knee.” Some people have told me “It’s how I experience God” and others have told me “It’s the best workout.”

The most interesting is when I ask teachers this question. I’ll say, “Hey I’m just curious — What do you think yoga is for?” I don’t mean to call anyone out, but a lot of teachers stumble through this answer. They straight up don’t know. Or they think they know, but they don’t know how to talk about it.

So then let’s be real, we don’t know what we’re doing, and our students are showing up for 5,000 different reasons, so how can we possibly use touch in a way that is both explicitly clear for the teacher and for the student?

(And, there are plenty of exceptions to this. There are teachers who are exceptionally clear on their teaching goal, and who have trained their students over the years to know what to expect in their class, and who can use touch deliberately to support their aim. These are the masters. They exist. They are not, however, the masses.)

Yoga is confused because very few systems of yoga have a clear or progressive curriculum. Some do: Iyengar, Ashtanga. And, most of the hybridized styles of yoga we see out there today filling up class schedules are “All Levels” classes mixing arm balances with standing poses and offering choices for three different backbends to the same group of students while simultaneously reading quotes from “anonymous” about the connection between love and nature. Mix that with the three students scattered around the room who are not even doing what the teacher is cueing, the Sanskrit chanting coming from the speakers, the woman in the back checking Instagram (all. the. time. people), the guy in the front reading his calorie burn from his smart watch and the injured older gentleman on the side by the mirror who has absolutely no idea what he should be doing. While all of this is happening, the teacher wraps their arms around your pelvis halfway through class in Downward Facing Dog and drags your whole body back with them, and you have no idea if this is meant to be (a) an alignment correction. Am I doing it wrong? or (b) a massage — it kinda feels good or (c) a sexual invitation — you’re sweating and wearing hot pink tight leggings and your teacher is breathing heavy while they do this and afterwards they rub your back and smile and nod. After class, you linger in the daze of feel good but don’t exactly know why, and your teacher hugs you goodbye.

I think before we can get clear on hands on adjustments in yoga classes, we have to get clear on what exactly we’re doing when we teach. And what exactly we’re showing up for as students. Intention for touch cannot possibly have a clear message if intention for teaching or practice is murky or muddied.

And, this scenario is not even addressing hands on touch as assault, or abuse. And that happens, of course, in both yoga and gymnastics. And, in every other industry and field. I’m speaking today to touch that isn’t clear assault, but that still may have no idea what its reason for being is. Touch with ambiguous point. 

And this, my friends, is exactly the conversation we aim to have with you, among many others like it, in September in Los Angeles. Noah and I are teaching four days of touch related topics in the scope of the yoga teacher’s role. A big part of what we aim to do is dive straight into the depths of the conflicts around touch, and resist any temptation to shy away from the hard questions and hard conversations. We’ll examine our roles as yoga teachers, and ask ourselves whether touch has a place, and if it does, why? How? When? For whom? We’ll practice various methods of asking for consent, we’ll try out different techniques for using touch, and attempt to marry them to what we consider our individual aim, or reason, to teach. We’ll give touch context and help guide you to clarity about your choices for including, or excluding, touch in your classes. Our aim is further this conversation, to get more yoga teachers thinking critically about it, and to help support your own clarity around this topic that is worth out valuable time.