Permission Stones

Gwen Soffer, a yoga teacher and women’s/teen self-defense instructor, offers some poignant and powerful perspective on why yoga teachers should always ask permission to touch their students.

I, like so many other yoga teachers, was taught to give lots of physical assists and adjustments. The basic assumption was that EVERYONE wants adjustments, so for years, I would go around the classroom trying to offer them to as many students as possible. I considered it an individualized service, and I would enter the class with the intention of touching each student at least once. In the last couple of years, however, I have become more educated about how many people are dealing with various types of trauma. I have gained a better understanding of the potential harm that we can do as yoga teachers because we teach based on the assumption that everyone wants to be touched. I knew that I needed to integrate some of the concepts of trauma informed yoga into my weekly public classes, beginning with the most basic consideration, asking permission to touch, but I was unsure of how to do this in a kind and effective way.

It is estimated that 1 in 3 women and 1 in 6 men experience sexual/physical violence in their lifetime and this statistic does not even include the many other ways people may experience trauma. We need to first understand that there are many forms of trauma that are the result of many causes: physical or sexual assault (either experienced or witnessed), war, domestic or childhood abuse, extreme emotional experiences, natural disaster, car accidents, extreme loss, dog attacks, illness, national tragedies, bullying, working with traumatized communities, terrorism, family histories, and the list goes on. These students may not identify themselves to you and may not even identify to themselves in that way, and you may even have known them for years, but knowing the statistics, THERE ARE PEOPLE IN YOUR CLASS TODAY WHO ARE MANAGING TRAUMA!

Hala Khouri, Off the Mat into the World (OTM) co-founder, yoga teacher, and somatic counselor describes what trauma is in her Yoga Journal interview with her OTM co-founder, Seane Corn (Hala Khouri’s Trauma Informed Yoga Teaching Path, Jan. 6, 2015)

“On a very simple level, a traumatic event is anything that overwhelms our capacity to cope and respond. It leaves us feeling helpless, hopeless, and out of control. When we think about trauma we usually think about really big things like a car accident, abuse, or war, but trauma lives on a spectrum. We’re shaped by the big ones and the little ones. When we don’t have tools and resources to deal with traumatic events, they impact our physiology; they impact our bodies. When we’re not able to get ourselves to safety or say what we need to say, traumatic energy gets stuck in the body.”

Understanding that trauma is held in the body and is easily triggered by touch, touching students without permission is at best insensitive and at worst, highly harmful and damaging. As a teacher, it is most important to me that my students know that they are safe on their mat and that they have a lot of choice about their practice. Touching a student without permission has the potential of negating this in an instant and leaving the student in the exact opposite experience. That being said, you can bet there are students in your classroom that don’t want to be touched regardless of all of our good intentions. Creating a standard of asking permission alleviates the fear of unwanted touch and puts the control with the student instead of with the teacher.

I consulted Melissa Lucchesi, Founder and Executive Director of Voices, Inc., a non-profit organization located in Media, Pennsylvania, that offers services and programs for trauma survivors, about her opinion on touching students in yoga classes without permission.

“I feel that it’s important (to ask permission to assist/adjust a student) because we know the statistics. There ARE survivors in every class. To come up on a trauma survivor and touch them without asking, we are opening them up to re-victimization and trauma in a space that is meant to be healing. When yoga can be profoundly healing on every level and in every fiber of a survivor’s soul, it can be a scary, emotionally difficult and off-putting experience when adjustments and touching is done without asking or giving the choice to be touched or not.”

In surveying people about their opinion on this topic, I received feedback from one of my long time students who is managing Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. She shared her experience with me:

“Earlier struggles, where anything that made me feel exposed…I felt very intimidated and vulnerable. So, to actually just show up to class was an effort in itself. Therefore, I would always be in the back and just want to be left alone. Any opening adjustment like triangle or where a class member could “see” the adjustment would make me feel very unsafe. Unsafe in the way where I thought I was doing something wrong and also where I thought I was being the center of attention.”

Offering touch to students, whether they are dealing with trauma, are new to yoga, do not like to be touched or simply do not want to be singled out, takes the student out of the safety of their personal experience of being in their body, in their breath and on their mat into a public interaction with the teacher. I know many of us as teachers think it is our job to help the student “find” their pose and often we use physical assists/adjustments to do this. This may be helpful to some students, but for those that do not want to be touched, we are actually creating the exact opposite experience for them. With that in mind, the most simple, kind, ethical and effective way to address our students’ needs is to ASK PERMISSION.

I have heard many different techniques of asking permission, but none of them seemed right to me. Often times, it involves asking people who do not want adjustments to make themselves known in one way or another, which I did not feel comfortable with. Other times, it involved making a gesture like raising a hand or leg, but how would I remember who indicated what? Some spoke directly to students before class, but not only is this time prohibitive, but it also felt too much like putting people on the spot. Others quietly ask permission during class, but this on its own, at worst, can be highly triggering (speaking in a whisper in itself can be a trigger for many who have experienced sexual violence) and, at best, is ineffective since many people do not feel as if they can say no to the teacher. Besides that, it is distracting to the other students in the class when teachers stop teaching to have a conversation with one person. This also left the possibility of those not wanting to be touched feeling as if I might come over any moment to move into their space whispering, asking questions, and taking them out of their practice. Finally, after much consideration, I decided to use permission stones.

I was a bit clumsy at first, trying to figure out how to let students know about the permission stone without taking too much time away from the beginning of class. What works best is to set up a small container of colored stones (the kind that you can buy at any craft store that look like glass marbles but are flat on one side) and as students arrive, I have the stones by the check-in sheet with a small sign explaining that if they would like physical assists/adjustments, to put one at the top of their mat. I also keep an extra bowl in the back of the classroom making a short announcement before class. I let students know that if they change their mind, they can slide the stone under their mat or towel. It is important for me to be consistent so that my regular students know that this is always offered and new students know that they will never be touched unless they indicate this to me.

I have heard of asking people to put something on their mat if they did not want adjustments, but that put a lot of pressure on students to create the boundary for me. By asking students to put a permission stone on their mat if they WANT adjustments, I am acknowledging that the boundary already exists and that I need to be invited into someone’s space. It is the student’s choice to make, not mine.

What I have discovered is amazing. In some classes, about half of my students put stones on their mats and the other half do not. Other days, more do than don’t, and still other classes more don’t than do. Sometimes students that I have been adjusting for years don’t put a stone down, and students that I may have felt were resistant to touch, do. This confirms my concern, which is I don’t know who wants to be touched and who does not and this can change from class to class. It actually makes my job easier because I know now if someone has a permission stone, that the interaction is helping him or her.

I have been using the permission stones for about three months, and this is now a non-negotiable for me as a teacher. My default is always no adjustments unless I see the stone. Sometimes students come into class late and may not know about the permission stone or students forget to get one, but my default setting is still, no touch. Even if my husband is in class, and he does not put a stone down, I do not offer physical assists. The thing is, even students that like to be touched, may have a day that they choose not to be, and I would have no way of knowing this if they did not have a way to indicate that to me. If a student has an injury or is new to yoga, they may not want that type of attention, and now I can know that.

Since introducing the permission stone, I have had to get more creative and specific in my spoken language so that I can give verbal adjustments that are equally as effective as touch. This involves being very clear and concise in my language so that students that are not getting physical assists/adjustments can still benefit from the instruction.

In a conversation with yoga teacher Natalie Cummings about this topic, she referred to how we as teachers sometimes get “validation of (our) teaching through assists.” She continued to offer this important point: “ I feel that through our (yoga teacher) education, we are taught to look at the human body in an anatomical way, which for safety reasons, is great, but what about the BEING within the body? Not to neglect, but to evolve and teach to the individual not the body.”

I think this is a very important point that we need to address as teachers. How many times have we given assists because we think it proves how much we know about alignment without any consideration to the experience, and even worse, the damage, we may be causing the student? How many times have we given adjustments because we thought that that is what yoga teachers are supposed to do? How many times have we given adjustments that left a student confused or thinking they had done something “wrong”?

Even for those students not managing trauma, adjusts/assists can be confusing to many and steal the opportunity for the student to discover the pose on their own. We talk about being in our body in yoga, but how can we if the teacher keeps coming over to tell us we are not in our body correctly or enough? We need to ask ourselves if we are offering this touch to feed our own ego to make the pose “perfect” or to demonstrate how gifted we are as teachers that we notice every imperfection and rush over to fix it? Of course if someone is doing something dangerous, it is our responsibility to offer our expertise to our students, but we can do this without touching them if they have not given us permission to do so.

This space on the mat can provide a great deal of healing, but not if I as a teacher am sending mixed messages about boundaries and authority. Providing assists and adjustments is a very personal interaction that can be beneficial and healing to many but incredibly harmful and triggering to others. By asking students to use a permission stone, I am able to have a silent conversation with each one of my students about how I can be most helpful and provide the safest space for them. This gives the student the control, not the teacher, and makes me more effective in my classes for both those asking for assists and those who do not wish to be touched. It is so simple to do.

Gwen Soffer E-RYT is co-founder of Enso in Media, Pa. and co-founder of Trauma-Informed Lens Yoga (TILY). She is an MSW and trauma certificate candidate at Widener University, and in addition to her public classes, facilitates trauma-informed and trauma-sensitive yoga for groups and in agency settings. For more information about TILY’s Trauma-Informed Lens Certificate program, go to traumainformedlensyoga.com and for more information about Teaching Gentle Chair Yoga in Agency and Community Settings workshop, go to www.experienceenso.com.

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