To give consent is to give permission for something to happen. Consent is a basic human right, and there is an ethical responsibility held in many fields to ensure consent is given; the field of law requires consent to enter into a contract agreement; healthcare requires consent to medical treatment; scientific and social research requires consent to participate in research studies; and consent in a sexual relationship.
No matter what context or situation, one common factor that individuals face when they choose to consent, is that they are choosing to trust someone else. This trust is especially important in roles from which harm can occur if one betrays this sense of trust.
In yoga, consent plays a vital role, particularly through the act of physical touch in assisting. Assisting can be very beneficial to a class when implemented properly, as it allows the practitioner to go further into their asanas. It can also help correct misalignment, preventing injury. Assisting can also be a gentle touch that reminds the muscles that they can relax, making a pose more comfortable. It can feel wonderful to a practitioner when assisting is done safely and correctly. Alternately, this trust can be lost if they are caused pain or felt violated while being assisted.
Touch is a form of communication. One example is the tradition of shaking hands with someone, a common etiquette in western culture. Long ago, when two people would meet, they participated in this greeting to show that they were coming in peace, and were not holding a weapon in their hands. This tradition now symbolizes a breaching in a divide between two individuals, forming unity. A hug is another form of touch that is a nonverbal communication between two people. A hug from someone can feel nice, and can cause the brain to release oxytocin, which psychologists say can promote feelings of devotion, trust and bonding. Touch is intimate. It can elicit a sense of vulnerability and an emotional reaction.
Because our bodies respond to the sensation of touch so strongly, it may also be triggering for those who have had a traumatic history. Some individuals may also prefer not to be touched out of their own personal boundaries, and their freedom to choose this should be honored and respected. Practitioners can still benefit to the verbal and suggestive cues in assisting without having to be touched.
The way to determine whether a practitioner consents to being touched requires a thoughtful approach. If asked verbally, some may feel a social pressure to say yes, even if they’d actually prefer not to be touched. As a teacher that offers physical assists in a class, consider using means of asking for consent in yoga through a token system, a method of consent in which a student can opt in or out to their preference of receiving an assist at any time. Another method can be by asking while cueing the class through childs pose, a pose in which the students heads are down, and allow them to raise a hand to opt out in that moment. These are two great non-verbal methods for consent that may feel less uncomfortable for the student to respond to the request for consent without feeling pressured.
Written By: Aileen Quinn