How yoga became the latest #MeToo battleground: Women fight back against unwanted touching

When you’re contorting your body into challenging positions like the bird of paradise or opening up your hips in a reclining bound angle pose, sometimes a hands-on adjustment from your yoga instructor is a welcome intervention.

But with teachers essentially being given free reign to touch their students in an industry that is largely unregulated, does this pave the way for some practitioners to take advantage?

In the wake of #MeToo, discussions regarding consent within yoga when it comes to hands-on adjustments are gaining momentum – and it’s not a moment too soon for teacher Rachel Brathen. 

In November 2017, the 31-year-old studio owner, who lives in Aruba and goes by the alias Yoga Girl on Instagram, asked her followers if they’d ever experienced a ‘#MeToo moment’ during a class.

Sometimes a hands-on adjustment from a yoga instructor is a welcome intervention - but should students be given the option to provide their consent to be touched? Pictured: stock image

Sometimes a hands-on adjustment from a yoga instructor is a welcome intervention - but should students be given the option to provide their consent to be touched? Pictured: stock image

Sometimes a hands-on adjustment from a yoga instructor is a welcome intervention – but should students be given the option to provide their consent to be touched? Pictured: stock image

She claims she was flooded with direct messages from women who claimed they had been ‘taken advantage of and sexually harassed’ by men in a place of power within the yoga industry.

The 300-plus submissions led to her penning a blog post earlier this week in which she shared some of the stories of those that had come forward, which included tales of being touched inappropriately during a session, propositioned after a class, forcibly kissed in private meditation sessions and assaulted on post-yoga massage tables. 

One claimed a male instructor began giving her more ‘assists’ in class which she didn’t initially question, believing it was ‘yoga’.

‘They got more and more inappropriate,’ she said. ‘Then, one day in Savasana he sat above my head and stuck his hands down my bra and grabbed my breasts. I was uncomfortable, afraid, and did not know what to do. I thought, “Maybe this is just yoga?” so I didn’t say anything. After the class, I left as fast as I possibly could because I was so uncomfortable.’

In the wake of #MeToo, discussions regarding consent within yoga when it comes to hands-on adjustments are gaining momentum - and it's not a moment too soon for teacher Rachel Brathen, who asked her followers if they'd ever felt taken advantage of during a class

In the wake of #MeToo, discussions regarding consent within yoga when it comes to hands-on adjustments are gaining momentum - and it's not a moment too soon for teacher Rachel Brathen, who asked her followers if they'd ever felt taken advantage of during a class

In the wake of #MeToo, discussions regarding consent within yoga when it comes to hands-on adjustments are gaining momentum – and it’s not a moment too soon for teacher Rachel Brathen, who asked her followers if they’d ever felt taken advantage of during a class

She went on: ‘One day after class, after everyone had left the studio, he tried to kiss me and I told him that I had a boyfriend and wasn’t interested in him and he made me uncomfortable. He finally stopped giving me “assists”.’ 

Another told how she was accosted while on a yoga retreat: ‘On the first night, he took me to his room. I thought we were going to meditate,’ she said.

‘He started touching me and kissing me. My heart dropped and I froze completely. He asked me if I ever thought about him. I didn’t respond. He just kept going. He was naked on top of me when an older woman starting knocking on his door. She knew what he was doing.

‘The worst part about this story is that I didn’t do anything. I didn’t say anything. He told me not to say anything, so I didn’t. I swallowed it and thought, “If I have to deal with this in order to achieve more peace and happiness, then so be it.” I was so trained by him to think that he was the key.’ 

Speaking to New York Times journalist Katherine Rosman in an episode of The Weekly, Rachel suggested the reason many women have not spoken out before is to do with the ‘spiritual’ element of yoga – and a sense of responsibility that they put themselves in that situation. 

One student who contacted Rachel claimed a male instructor began giving her more 'assists' in class which she didn't initially question, believing it was 'yoga'. Pictured: stock image

One student who contacted Rachel claimed a male instructor began giving her more 'assists' in class which she didn't initially question, believing it was 'yoga'. Pictured: stock image

One student who contacted Rachel claimed a male instructor began giving her more ‘assists’ in class which she didn’t initially question, believing it was ‘yoga’. Pictured: stock image

She explained: ‘Once we’re in that kind of setting and something inappropriate happens, we’re really likely to believe that it’s because of something we did, right? I put myself in that position, so I needed to be adjusted that way. That’s why he put his hands there.

‘Or, I am feeling uncomfortable, but he looks normal, so I guess it’s normal.

‘Somehow in yoga it’s been almost like we’re conditioned in a different way, that all of this is spiritual. So things we would say no to with strong boundaries outside of the yoga class, we welcome.’

According to Mark Freeth, founder of the Freestyle Yoga Project and a senior yoga teacher recognised by the Yoga Alliance Professionals (YAP), one of the key problems is the number of ‘very average’ instructors in an unregulated industry. 

Mark, 59, from Tunbridge Wells, has been involved in physical disciplines including yoga, kung fu, wrestling and fencing for 45 years, teaching full-time for 20 and running teacher training programs for 13.

Rachel, pictured, claims she was flooded with direct messages from women who claimed they had been 'taken advantage of and sexually harassed' by men in a place of power within the yoga industry

Rachel, pictured, claims she was flooded with direct messages from women who claimed they had been 'taken advantage of and sexually harassed' by men in a place of power within the yoga industry

Rachel, pictured, claims she was flooded with direct messages from women who claimed they had been ‘taken advantage of and sexually harassed’ by men in a place of power within the yoga industry

‘I think it’s very easy for predatory instructors to take advantage of their position – and everything must be done to weed them out,’ he told FEMAIL. 

‘Their abusive mind-set isn’t helped by the problem of the predatory student – an issue that is rarely discussed. 

‘The problem is with this industry, the majority of the instructors are very average due to the poor quality of most teacher trainings, and there are as many dangerous instructors as there are phenomenal ones. 

‘This industry is unregulated, despite the efforts of awesome organisations like YAP. It will change – it has to – but it will take a long time.’

During his foundation program, Mark said he gives trainees the basic tools to successfully run a class that is ‘safe, logical, progressive and creative’

According to Mark Freeth (pictured), founder of the Freestyle Yoga Project and a senior yoga teacher recognised by the Yoga Alliance Professionals (YAP), one of the key problems is the number of 'very average' instructors in an unregulated industry

According to Mark Freeth (pictured), founder of the Freestyle Yoga Project and a senior yoga teacher recognised by the Yoga Alliance Professionals (YAP), one of the key problems is the number of 'very average' instructors in an unregulated industry

According to Mark Freeth (pictured), founder of the Freestyle Yoga Project and a senior yoga teacher recognised by the Yoga Alliance Professionals (YAP), one of the key problems is the number of ‘very average’ instructors in an unregulated industry

‘We still feel physical adjustments are useful – as long as they’re respectful, careful and safe,’ he said.

‘Part of the preparation for introducing trainees to physical adjustments is a long, detailed discussion on how to use them so the aforementioned elements are adhered to. 

‘We fully understand that not all students want to have hands laid on them – but equally, some instructors may not feel comfortable with certain adjustments themselves. Both of these scenarios are fine – there is always another way we can encourage a student to get the best out of the position/movement they’re working on.’

He added that should he be working with a group of students for the first time, he would always flag that there may be instances during the class where a physical adjustment may be useful – but adds that it is ‘perfectly OK’ if someone preferred not to receive one. 

‘Of course, Just because someone doesn’t speak up, doesn’t mean that they’re comfortable with the idea of an adjustment,’ he added.

A student giving their consent to be touched is apparently not a requirement of well-known teacher Jonny Kest (pictured)

A student giving their consent to be touched is apparently not a requirement of well-known teacher Jonny Kest (pictured)

A student giving their consent to be touched is apparently not a requirement of well-known teacher Jonny Kest (pictured)

‘This is where the long-term experience of an instructor will offer some insights into keeping an eye out for various signals that may hint that a student would prefer not to be touched – even though they’ve not said so.’

A student giving their consent to be touched is apparently not a requirement of well-known teacher Jonny Kest.

During a class filmed as part of The New York Times’ The Weekly, Mr Kest demonstrated some hands-on adjustments to his pupils, including one on a woman doing the triangle pose, in which he lunged one leg around hers and wrapped his arm around her from behind, laying his hand between her breast and collar bone.

He was called out by a yoga teacher from Columbus, Ohio – Catherine Derrow – who told him she’d be ‘very surprised’ and ‘not happy’ if a teacher touched her like that. It sparked a debate within the class, during which Mr Kest said asking a student if he can touch them ‘doesn’t really work’.

‘Let’s start with touch, press point – “May I touch you”, and then do a press point? It doesn’t really work.’

Jonny Kest was called out by a yoga teacher from Columbus, Ohio - Catherine Derrow (pictured with Mr Kest) - who told him she'd be 'very surprised' and 'not happy' if a teacher touched her like that

Jonny Kest was called out by a yoga teacher from Columbus, Ohio - Catherine Derrow (pictured with Mr Kest) - who told him she'd be 'very surprised' and 'not happy' if a teacher touched her like that

Jonny Kest was called out by a yoga teacher from Columbus, Ohio – Catherine Derrow (pictured with Mr Kest) – who told him she’d be ‘very surprised’ and ‘not happy’ if a teacher touched her like that

He added that he ‘doesn’t really like’ the idea of consent cards which Catherine has in her classes, because ‘then you’re telling everybody in class you don’t want to be touched’.

‘It is a risk whenever you give any kind of hands on adjustment, how to limit it? I guess Xs and Os could be a way, asking permission of who wants to be adjusted… I don’t do any of that, and I’ve had, over the years, someone yell in front of the whole class, “Don’t touch me!”, but that’s happened like once or twice in 30 years.’

He added that placing his hand on a student’s chest has generated ‘bubbles of joy’ in some, and left others feeling ‘violated’.

Mark said he too has called out a popular instructor for his behaviour during a class – and claims he was ’rounded on’ for doing so. 

‘In my time teaching, I’ve heard of so many “celebrity” instructors who’ve acted inappropriately and their career has been ruined,’ he said.

Yoga teacher and mentor Mary Beth LaRue, pictured, has employed consent cards in her classes which she believes works well

Yoga teacher and mentor Mary Beth LaRue, pictured, has employed consent cards in her classes which she believes works well

Yoga teacher and mentor Mary Beth LaRue, pictured, has employed consent cards in her classes which she believes works well

‘In fact, one time I spoke out and highlighted such behaviour of one particular globally-recognised instructor and was rounded on for doing so, only for the whole world to eventually realise what was going on.’

It does seem that a growing number of instructors are taking greater care to ensure their students are comfortable with being touched – with some introducing consent cards to their classes.

This is a technique yoga teacher and mentor Mary Beth LaRue has employed, which she believes works well.

‘In the past I’ve been taught by some teachers that unless a student tells you they don’t want to be adjusted, you can assume they do,’ she told FEMAIL. 

‘That being said, my perspective has now changed. I teach at a yoga studio in Los Angeles and we use consent cards. Students can place the card near their mat. One side tells the teachers you want to be adjusted where as the other side says you prefer not to. 

According to Roxanne Pryor, a conscious yoga teacher at Adira, communication with students is key

According to Roxanne Pryor, a conscious yoga teacher at Adira, communication with students is key

According to Roxanne Pryor, a conscious yoga teacher at Adira, communication with students is key

‘I love this because it allows the student to inform the teacher without having to explain. If they want to explain, I encourage students to tell me what they are working with – whether it’s being newly pregnant or having suffered a trauma where they prefer not to be touched or have their eyes closed. I do think this is something other studios should implement.’ 

According to Roxanne Pryor, a conscious yoga teacher at Adira, communication is key.

‘Always ask at the beginning of practice and before adjusting someone if they are happy to be adjusted,’ she told FEMAIL. 

‘Prior to bringing on a client ask them to check a box to say whether they are happy for hands on adjustment or not and ensure the teachers are aware of individuals who have checked no.’

Roxanne said it works best to ask who is happy to have hands-on assists at the beginning of the class, when people are in Shavasana with their eyes closed. 

Liz Joy Oakley, 32, a MoreYoga Instructor from Hornsey, north London, said issues of consent regarding touching are discussed within a teacher's training, but ' perhaps not in enough depth'

Liz Joy Oakley, 32, a MoreYoga Instructor from Hornsey, north London, said issues of consent regarding touching are discussed within a teacher's training, but ' perhaps not in enough depth'

Liz Joy Oakley, 32, a MoreYoga Instructor from Hornsey, north London, said issues of consent regarding touching are discussed within a teacher’s training, but ‘ perhaps not in enough depth’

‘If you are going to do assists at the end as well then one should ask again,’ she said. 

‘I always gathered feedback from individuals at the end of class. In addition, sending out anonymised surveys can be useful to assess the level of contact people feel comfortable with as people feel more inclined to express opinions when they are not confronting a person face to face.’

Liz Joy Oakley, 32, a MoreYoga Instructor from Hornsey, north London, said issues of consent regarding touching are discussed within a teacher’s training, but ‘perhaps not in enough depth’. 

‘In our advanced teacher training, which we offer our teachers through the MoreYoga School of Savadyaha, we are striving to address this issue with the depth it deserves,’ she told FEMAIL.

‘It’s up to individual teachers but also businesses where they teach to monitor behaviour and ensure clients have a voice to express feedback or share any instances where they do not feel comfortable.’