Paperclips and Hands-on Assists

“We’re in the middle of a sea change,” said Jason. “Most yoga teachers now are erring on the side of not giving manual adjustments, and for good reason.” It was the second day of our two-week module (the first part of a 300-hour training), and the conversation had shifted from “How to give hands-on assists” to “Should we give hands-on assists?” As you might imagine with a room of 50 teachers, there were a lot of opinions.

I’ll admit it: I love hands-on assists. Most of the time, I have a difficult time relaxing (no, the irony is not lost on me), but when I receive a caring touch, I melt instantly. A sacral press in child’s pose, a thigh-bone pull in down dog, a hand on the back of my heart in tadasana – I love all of it.

But I also know that not everyone does. In fact, for some of us, touch in a yoga class, no matter how caring the intent, is a violation of space and safety. What if a student has an injury that will be aggravated by an assist? What if they’re recovering from physical or sexual assault? What if they have experienced abusive touch in the past, and any unexpected touch is a trigger? The last thing they need is someone touching them without consent. To teach yoga with a trauma-informed lens, we are told that we must ask permission before offering manual adjustments.

Partner childs pose

Most of us yoga teachers have heard this before, and most of us have also probably ignored it at some point. I used to think that I could tell whether or not a person was okay with hands-on assists, just by observing their body and yoga practice. I used to think that if I gave the right assist – caring, yet professional in nature; meant to feel good, not simply to “correct” a pose – anyone would enjoy it, because how could they not?! I thought for a while that this was the generous thing to do: because I loved assists so much, I wanted everyone else to experience them. Then at some point, I realized this was the same logic used by cat-callers: “Hey! I’m just trying to give you a compliment! If someone told me I had a nice ass, I’d be flattered!” Guess what, buddy: not everyone wants to be told they have a nice ass, especially by someone they don’t know or trust. And guess what, yoga teachers: not everyone who comes into our class wants to be touched; they don’t know us, nor will they necessarily trust us immediately (or ever!).

My friend and co-worker, Molly Boeder Harris reminded me of all this (and more) in her workshop Teaching Yoga With a Trauma-Informed Lens. In her workshop, we discussed teachers’ use of language, movement patterns, presence, and of course, their use of touch. She echoed the advice that I had heard and read from other trauma-informed teachers: don’t touch your students without asking permission.

The challenge with this is that, especially when we have large classes, it is dreadfully inefficient to ask each person individually, “Are you okay with hands-on assists?” before we offer one. There’s also the problem of the leading question. To ask “are you okay with…” implies that by saying “no,” that person is “not okay.” But to ask a more neutrally phrased question such as “How do you feel about hands-on assists?” is even more inefficient, as it warrants an essay response when there is really only time for a one word answer.

The solution? Many teachers have adopted the habit of saying toward the beginning of class, “If anyone doesn’t want assists, please raise your hand/ leg/ put your hand on your heart now.” The challenge with this (apart from the fact that it is again framed in the negative) is that who in the Sam Hill is going to remember who raised their hand/ leg/ put their hand on their heart?! Someone smarter than I, I guess.

So what are we left with? Flip chips? (Cool, but expensive.) Signs on each person’s mat? (A little over-the-top.) Telepathic communication?! (I’ll keep practicing…)

I was searching through the drawers at the studio one day, looking for something – anything – I could use for this purpose, when I happened upon a box of paperclips. img_5468I wondered: What if students secured a paperclip to one side of their mat if they like assists, and the other side if they don’t? Then everyone has a paperclip (no one is singled out), both options are presented neutrally, and students can keep them on their mats for next time they’re in class! (And if we lose a few clips, who cares – they’re dirt cheap!) It’s not as aesthetically pleasing as a flip chip, but at least it will do for now, I thought. And so it was proclaimed: take a clip, and put it on the front right side of your mat if you really like assists; front left side if you’d like to be left alone. (Or, as one student later said: “Right on, hands on; left for left alone.”)

A year later, I am still using this system. In that year, some students have asked, “What if we like assists as long as you warn us first?” We decided that placing the clip in the middle of the mat would remind me to alert them first (the assist continuum!). Many have also asked, “What is a hands-on assist?” which has led to a brief definition or demonstration of what one might expect in an assist. (What is obvious to us teachers is not always obvious to our students!) And just as this system has allowed students who prefer no assists to remain untouched, it has allowed students who love assists to receive more of them; I am no longer hesitant when I offer an assist, because they have already (and recently) given consent.

Touch can be profoundly healing; it can also be triggering. Skillful assists can illuminate a certain pose, part of the body, or movement; they can also disrupt. I do not want to stop receiving assists, nor do I want to stop giving assists to those who love them. I do want everyone in class to feel safe and cared for. Whether this safety and care comes through a confident and caring assist, or leaving a student be, the student must be the one to decide.

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Teaching What We Need, Because We Have To

“Well, I think anyone driven toward a lot of self-reflection is a little crazy,” he said as we left the theater and started to the bar.

I agreed. Then I reflected.

“I mean, I’m driven toward a lot of self-reflection,” I said. I paused, then laughed. “And it does make me feel crazy sometimes.”

“Totally,” he agreed, though I wasn’t exactly sure which part he was agreeing with.

It was a first date, and we had been talking about yoga and yoga teachers. He had observed that many of the teachers he knew had gotten into the profession because of some momentous experience: a specific trauma or significant event in their own lives. Sometimes, he noted, their intense searching for inner peace came across as neurotic. This was a thing I had also noticed, but the fact that he had brought it up made me wonder: Do I appear traumatized? Are my neuroses so palpable that when I say, “I’m a yoga teacher,” people think, “Hmm… I wonder what happened with her…”

And they would be right to wonder, for the answer, of course, is a few things:

When I was 12, I was diagnosed with mild scoliosis; by 14, the diagnosis was upgraded to moderate to severe. For the next two years, back treatments were a central pillar of my life. If I wasn’t wearing a back brace, I was at the chiropractor or doing odd physical exercises. Over these two years, I threw regular tantrums, and spent innumerable hours looking at my body in the mirror, trying to stand in a way that made my shoulders even and my waist symmetrical. Despite the efforts I put into caring for my spine, it did not seem to care for me. And just after my 17th birthday, I yielded to surgery – the thing I had been trying so desperately to avoid – and immobilized my spine for good.  

When I was 16, my father was diagnosed with nausea and vertigo. Two weeks later, this Kraai family Christmas 2001diagnosis was upgraded to an aggressive brain tumor. For the next two weeks, hospital visits were the central pillar of my mom’s and my life. My sister and brother-in-law flew home from California. My aunts and uncles drove and flew in from everywhere else. We sang to him. We rubbed his toes. We cried regularly. Despite the efforts we put into caring for my father, his brain did not care for him. Two weeks after his brain tumor diagnosis, he was dead.

Soon after I got to college, I decided that I was not attractive. By January of my freshman year, this decision had developed into body dysmorphia, and I began exercising twice a day. Under the guise of environmental concerns, I became a vegan, severely limiting my diet. For the next two years, I tried to make myself vomit after eating what I felt was too much. I did not tell my family. I wrote depressing poetry. I cried regularly. Despite all the hours I exercised, despite what I ate or didn’t eat, I could not accept my body for what it was. I did not care for it, and it was no wonder that it did not care for me. 

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Photo by Nam Chantepie

Then, at 23, I began practicing yoga regularly. Throughout each class, my teachers would remind me that yoga was not about the physicality of the pose; it was about how we breathed in the pose. It was not about overcoming our bodies; it was about harmonizing with them. It was not until then that I began to feel at peace with my body. At 25, I had an epiphany: I would become a yoga teacher. So thankful for what I had learned, I needed to share it, to help others find peace with their bodies and selves. And it was not until I started teaching yoga regularly that I began to feel at peace, not just with my body, but with my life. I began, slowly, to accept that I cannot control the world around me (or within me), that the best I can do is treat myself and those around me with love and care.  

Last week in a yoga training, my teacher, Jason Crandell, in his hilariously cynical way, asked our room full of yoga teachers the following: “Can we all agree that we are in this profession because we’re all a little crazy? That we, in a sense, have to teach?” We all yoga is self-acceptancelaughed, perhaps a little too hard, and I was comforted to know that I was not alone.

As I laughed, I thought back to my date. Perhaps he had not meant to be rude or coarse. Perhaps he was simply noticing that people who dedicate their lives to yoga and meditation do so, in part, because they have strong personal connections to the subject. Indeed, it is this intimate knowledge that makes us fierce and impassioned. We know what it’s like to feel pain, and we also know that sooner or later, everyone else will, too. It is not our job to rid others of pain, to help them avoid trauma or stress. It is our job to help them endure, to give them the tools so that they (and we) do not actually become imbalanced. If that makes me crazy, I don’t want to be sane. 

 

When The Speaker Shuts Up

I haven’t written since I ran the Boston marathon.
And I haven’t written since my cousin got married.
I haven’t written since I took a five-day yoga training
or since I decided to make my teaching simpler.
I haven’t written since I got into a new improv troupe.
I haven’t written since I decided to teach English.
I haven’t written since my friend killed himself. He would have been 30 last week.
I haven’t written since my sister and brother-in-law put their house on the market and started applying for jobs in a new city (my city!).
I haven’t written since I got into a relationship I thought would last a long time.
I haven’t written since I ended that relationship.
I haven’t written since I fell off my bike.
I haven’t written since I heard a podcast on explaining death to children
or since I decided to teach yoga for trauma
or since I cried about my dad for the first time in too long.
I haven’t written since I started teaching yoga to a 12-year-old with scoliosis.
I haven’t written since I read about a new scoliosis surgery that doesn’t use rods or fusion
or since I cried about my back for the first time in too long.

I haven’t written in four months
despite there being so much to say.

I want to say I can’t wait for my next marathon.
I want to say congratulations, Will, for marrying one awesome lady.
I want to say I think marriage is weird.
I want to say thank you, Jason, for reminding me how simple yoga is, and for making me so pumped to keep teaching.
I want to say thank you, improv, for reminding me to laugh. And listen.
I want to say I’ll pay more attention.
I want to say Happy Birthday, Chris. I miss you.
I want to say I’m sorry.
I want to say I miss you, Papa.
I miss you a lot.
And I want to say I think of you, Papa, and of you, Mama, whenever I see my 12-year-old student, and we talk about crooked backs and braces and surgery.
I want to say, fuck you, rods and screws and bones that don’t allow my back to bend.
And I want to say thank you, rods and screws and bones for holding me together
even when I’m angry.
I want to say I love you.

I want to say that I’ve learned something – a lot of things – since I last wrote.
I want to say that I have something to show for it.
But instead of a thing to show
instead of a moral
or a lesson
or a thing to say
I’m left just feeling
with very little to say
and very little to do.

What I really want
is to listen.
What I really want
is to watch.
And what I really want
is to be.

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