True consent is justice in action

To heal we all need:

agency over our own choices to create…

individualised strategies to gather…

personalised resources for…

self-regulating our nervous systems with…

time and space to integrate them.

What worries me most about yoga as an adjunct therapy right now, is standardisation, and the rise of the expert voice. I’m hearing about more and more trainings in trauma-sensitive yoga in particular, that are giving teachers alarming advice.

I meet teachers who tell me that after a few days of training, they know what I need as a survivor of trauma.

They tell me that survivors will never close their eyes, but that you, the teacher, should close yours and never open them during teaching.

They tell me that survivors should never be touched.

They should never do yoga nidra.

They should be told how to breathe – to impose a specific, counted ratio of inhalation to exhalation.

I checked with others to be sure, and most of the survivors I asked would never return to classes that followed one or more of these rules. Now I know that working with a highly vulnerable population with active PTSD is different from making a general class a little safer. But given that the only common symptom of trauma is the loss of personal agency, yoga teaching that is not based on co-constructed content can never be appropriate.

In short, I’m hearing more and more stories of survivors having adverse reactions in yoga, and being told ‘but this expert told me it was safe’. And I want to know why those trainers aren’t telling teachers to ask their students about what does and doesn’t work for them.

Theo with sword

My only formal treatment was three years of talking therapy in my early 20s. This did nothing to regulate my nervous system. I found my way by instinct into dance and martial arts, contact improvisation and yoga. And although I wouldn’t recommend it, I also found MDMA and psilocybin, and I credit all of these as part of my personal recovery.

So now that we are seeing research that explores the use of movement and mindfulness, psilocybin, and MDMA in the treatment of trauma, I need to remind you that survivors have been using these techniques for effective recovery for much longer than therapists and yoga teachers have been reading Bessel van der Kolk.

At the heart and centre of what we do, we need to start teaching yoga as a therapy of empowerment based on the principles above. We need to flatten our hierarchies when we come together in practice, celebrate differences, and ask what our students need from us, and what they already know how to do. It’s about a quality of relationship far more than the tools we can offer. Yoga is a toolkit for liberation, that has too often been appropriated both for oppression, and for well-meaning disempowerment.

My trauma, my survival, my healing, is not a resource for you to extract. It is inseparable from the relationships that shaped me, and continue to hold me.

Just as yoga teachers are turning to a post-lineage model, not to replace traditional teachings, but to build a safer context around them, perhaps we need to reclaim yoga therapy from medicalised, standardised spaces. We need to connect in shared authenticity, and humility, meeting in the practice as equals, not just experts and clients.

collection of consent chips

It will be an imperfect, flawed experience. We will continue, in our enthusiasm, confusion and fatigue to make assumptions about who we can hug, and who wants us to pat them on the shoulder after class.

Worst of all, there may be people waiting to take advantage of our vulnerability to abusive ends. When this happens, may our policies and practices, our culture and our community, be there to help us heal and learn from these mistakes. And may none of us be too badly scarred in the process.

Above all, consent is not a shield we use to protect people, or a tick box to be checked before the work can begin. Instead it is the key to the many ways in which we can heal and evolve together.

True consent is justice in action.

This post contains extracts from my forthcoming talk at the Network Yoga Therapy conference in Amsterdam, May 10-11th. Tickets are still available.

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