a selection of consent chips

Meeting up

One of the things that’s really changed in the last 18 months for all of us is the ways in which we feel able to come together with those we care about. There have been those we missed like a constant ache, yet didn’t feel safe being close to. There have been restrictions that all of us have railed against, even as we stuck to them. People have missed funerals and cancelled weddings, and not seen loved ones for months.

There have been a million smaller moments of lost connection too – the simple comforts of dropping into a coffee shop or chatting with someone in an office. We’ve moved online for so many events, and we have found there’s something gained but also lost in not being able to chat over lunch with new friends at a workshop, or be surrounded by a crowd at a gig. Of course everyone has a different story to tell about this – different things that they miss, and changes that they cherish. And the burden of loss has fallen disproportionately on the same populations as always. But besides this, I have long been interested by the connections between our sense of safety, and our consent to intimacy and proximity, and how all of that relates to largely unconscious human practices of co-regulation.

We come together with people we have something in common with, thinking that the event or the gig or the coffee or the chat or the yoga class is the point, when so much of what keeps us safe and regulated is happening in the act of coming together itself.

As most of you will know, in the couple of years leading up to March 2020 there had been a growing reckoning with abusive practices in yoga teaching, past and present. As part of that reckoning, yoga teachers began to reconsider the various ways that participants in classes, workshops, and courses give consent to be touched – clear, informed, enthusiastic, ongoing consent. The item that most represents that for me was the growing use of consent chips: handmade at first, then sold and branded and available in a diversity of shapes and patterns.

And then the pandemic happened and all of a sudden, we weren’t even in a room together to practice hands on adjustments. Immediately the most pressing issue was of a whole new concern for safety: how do we ethically hold space for students online? What do you do when an internet connection goes down? Is it safe for students to turn the screen off? Can teachers who rely on hands-on adjustments learn to teach verbally? Can we even really ‘see’ what our students are doing online? Does it even matter?

As we figured out the answers to those questions, we entered a new norm – where there is an increased intimacy in sharing our homes, our pets, and our untidiness with each other, but a screen firmly divides us. And I don’t think we’ve yet to truly and fully explore the difference that makes in the connections we build, which can feel extremely intimate, when we’re somehow not ‘bumping up’ against other people in the same way. We lose the unexpected and uncomfortable moments, the awkwardness of learning to be in a room together, and the private intimacies of sharing our experiences as students with other students. We are co-regulating in different ways.

Teaching online is not in itself new, and is in many ways safer, and more accessible, but it is newly dominant in how we teach yoga, and therefore what is lost in the process bears close attention.

The return journey – ‘back’ to physical proximity – is at least as difficult. This summer for many of us here in the UK at least, we are navigating back into spaces of group activity. Our journeys into those spaces are highly individual, and not necessarily linear or easy. We will have to continue to negotiate through such markers of intimacy and safety as who we hug or stand close to. We will be expected to draw boundaries not just as individuals, but as holders of group events, deciding how we feel about vaccine passports and lateral flow tests. And our government has made it clear that we will be making those judgements increasingly without official guidance.

I don’t want to debate the answers here, and certainly not on social media. But I do want to shine a light on that process. I want to remind us all that in many ways, our perceptions of what is safe, what is ethical, and what is intimate have diverged in the last 18 months. I have close friends already enjoying festivals, and others who have cancelled events for lack of safety or security. I miss the entire summers I have spent at one event or another so much, but I’m also not sure when or how I’ll be back. In the yoga teaching I still do, some clients and students I now see in person, others I see on a screen, and there are still more where I know our relationship is ended. I balance the needs of some against the needs of others, because the circle of those I feel safe to be intimate with – inside and unmasked, close enough to touch – has grown smaller.

Contemporary yoga teaching is a subculture that thrives on both proximity and co-regulation, but also depends on the ability to feel safe and at home together.

In the months ahead, we will have many opportunities to improve our practices of honourable, ethical consent, not just in when we adjust students, but in when we hug a friend or share food with family. We are learning that those moments are interconnected – we withdraw from close contact with strangers one week, in order to keep vulnerable loved ones safer the next. We make agreements within each relationship, navigating intimacy through negotiation. Our consent, our safety, our intimacy, is never clear and constant, but breathes in and out, ebbing and flowing with our own choices, and those of others.

May we feel our way forward with compassion and with caution, and holding a much needed space to express our grief and our fear, as well as joy.

Put simply, there is no one way to do this, and yet every decision we make impacts others. This, of course, is a lived reality that it has been easy for so many of us to forget.

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