I've been teaching yoga for nearly two decades. Since 2016, I have been using permission cards in my classes. I have learned that hands-on assists can be very helpful, informative, even enjoyable, but not always and not everyone wants them. If you come to one of my classes, you will find a pile of cards by the entrance for anyone who wants hands-on assists to place by their mat. If you change your mind during the class, you can hide the card under your mat.
Why Hands-on Assists?
There are many good reasons to offer hands-on assists: helping with stability, Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Feedback Stretching (PNF), applying traction, etc. Verbal cues are also helpful, but in no way a substitute for the reasons mentioned above.
What's the Problem?
Well, where to begin? Perhaps the most important concern is that no two bodies are exactly the same and therefore optimal alignment might look very different from one person to the next. When I first started teaching yoga teacher trainings, I started showing Paul Grilley's Anatomy for Yoga DVD to inform teachers about the unique limitations of each body due to the skeleton. In it, he demonstrated why people with certain bone structures will never be able to do contortionist postures like lotus, no matter how much or how they practice. Unfortunately, many teachers and practitioners have never seen this video and have possibly injured themselves and others thinking that they just weren't trying hard enough. Although contortionist postures can be fun, they are not central to the 2,800 year old tradition of yoga, nor are they even important. According to Mark Singleton's book Yoga Body (2010) they seem to have become popular in the early 20th century thanks to teachers like T. Krishnamacharya.
One of T. Krishnamacharya's students, K. Pattabhi Jois, taught yoga with many contortionist postures for nearly over 70 years with sayings like "With heat even metal will bend," and "Practice, all is coming," which is also the title of a book by Matthew Remski (2019). The book interviews several of his students who were sexually assaulted and injured under the guise of hands-on assists. I went to India to study with Jois in 2003 hoping to find my Guru, instead I found very tired man who seemed way more interested in money than my enlightenment. Although I learned a lot from the experience and many people there from all around the world there, I was not impressed with Jois and moved on to Kerala to study other styles of yoga. Had I known that he was sexually assaulting women, I would have steered people away from him and never mentioned him in my bio. Instead, I assumed that it was my failure to see him as a perfect Guru due to my distorted mind and bad luck.
In 2007, I took a teacher training with Sharon Gannon and David life, co-founders of Jivamukti Yoga. In it, I learned many of the hands-on assists I use today. However, I learned that I had to modify what I was taught right away. When I asked them about Paul Grilley’s Anatomy for Yoga DVD and how to best assist with each person’s unique anatomical differences, David told the entire group that the DVD was B.S. and claimed that yoga can also change our bone structure over time. I did learn a lot from them, but with caution as they disregarded anatomical differences. Although they were adamant about never touching anyone inappropriately, they held K. Pattabhi Jois upon a pedestal and never mentioned anything about his inappropriate touching or sexual assault. Perhaps they did not know? They have recently retired, but I hope they weigh in about these issues.
Jonny Kest was my first yoga teacher. He not only inspired me to teach yoga, but to attend a 10-day Vipassanā Meditation retreat which I found unbelievably hard and rewarding. He founded the Center For Yoga in Birmingham, MI and became the director of yoga teacher trainings for Lifetime Fitness in 2011. Recently, he taught a Hands-on Assists workshop at the Asheville Yoga Festival that I attended. In it, he taught some questionable assists and when confronted he claimed that in his years of experience permission cards don't really work. Now that his statements have been in the New York Times and all over the internet, an executive from Lifetime Fitness said that they will be reviewing Jonny’s teaching methods and require their yoga instructors to start using permission cards at their 150 locations.
I teach a Hands-on Assists workshop once a year at the Asheville Yoga Center called Yoga Sparśana. In it, I aim to inform the participants of the benefits of hands-on assists as well as respect for the variety of anatomical differences and feelings around them. I also emphasize the necessity for always asking permission first. Though some people will ask their students to raise their hands in the beginning if they don’t want them or make them grab a card if they don't want them, this is no where near as effective as asking people to pick up cards if they do want them. Cards are even possibly even better than directly asking them for permission each time, as they might feel pressured into it in the moment. People carry trauma and may not be able to say no when confronted. I certainly do not have all the answers and have much, much more to learn...but feel compelled to offer what I have learned thus far.
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