33 ways in which we unintentionally harm students
Written by Yonnie Fung
Many of us who become yoga teachers and yoga therapists do so with good intentions, to abide by ahimsa - the ethic of non harming. We have inherited some behaviours and practices from past generations which are harmful in today’s context. Many are adopting business practices meant for commercial contexts which are incompatible with yoga. It is time to examine whether we hurt our students in how we share yoga.
This list is a reflection
...on ways we can unintentionally harm our students. It is based on my years of experiencing and observing harm in different yoga contexts: as a student, as a teacher, as a participant in online yoga forums and as an observer of the yoga community.
POWER AND AGENCY
1. Delivering information in ways that posits teachers as experts that know better than the class participant, undermining their sense of agency.
2. Offering advice on where others should put their bodies in ways that sound like instructions, directions or commands - interfering with participant’s ability to connect with their own felt experiences and reinforcing a top-down power structure which excludes the student from deciding what they might do with their own bodies.
3. Passing on information we believe will help participants with their bodies without respecting their broader mental and emotional needs.
4. Participating in power structures where students believe that the right to practice certain yoga postures belongs to, and is dispensed by, a teacher with absolute authority over what students may practice.
5. Not acknowledging the uneven power dynamics inherent in class rooms, and not actively redistributing power in favour of a student.
6. Perpetuating beliefs that a teacher can know a student’s body and its limitations better than the student themselves.
7. Using cautionary language which instils fear, helplessness and doubt in participants.
8. Suggesting how to feel. Negating a student’s actual experience with language like ‘be positive’ or ‘stay happy’. Undermining a student’s actual experience by asserting how yoga ‘should’ feel: deep, relaxed, calm, still, or good.
9. Remaining silent or neutral about various yoga communities’ recent histories of abuse.
10. Continuing to display images that are likely to trigger survivors of trauma. Referring to perpetrators in public communications in ways that don’t acknowledge the experiences of survivors.
11. Creating or participating in environments that discourage or dismiss critical thinking, query or disagreement.
SCOPE OF PRACTICE
12. Acting beyond our scope as yoga teachers or therapists. Diagnosing, or leading students to believe that we are competent to diagnose health issues if we don't hold professional licenses to do so. This includes suggesting possible pathologies or offering advice on nutrition juicing/fasting/diets/injuries/diseases when we are unqualified to do so.
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13. Marketing which implies that the most physically demanding yoga asana is ‘advanced’ yoga, and encouraging practitioners towards attaining these postures as the goals of yoga.
14 . Marketing that reinforces the commercial narrative that a narrow range of body types are ‘yoga bodies’ (young, able bodied, thin, white, hyper mobile) at the exclusion of other body types, encouraging feelings of inadequacy and reinforcing exclusiveness (just as the “beauty myth” does in fashion).
15. Persistent marketing and overt sales pressure.
16. Unclear and incomplete teacher bios, making it difficult for the community to make informed choices.
17. Promising unsupportable outcomes through yoga practice - ie, that yoga classes will 'fix your back', 'change your life forever’ etc.
18. Promoting yoga selfies during class, reinforcing focus on the external, distracting from internal experiences, and using class photos in marketing without explicit consent and releases.
19. Employing or ‘certifying’ minimally experienced teachers to teach, which increases injury risks. The combination of large classes and minimally trained teachers using physical adjustments also compounds injury risks.
20. Holding general public classes without the experience to handle the needs of a wide range of people (ie specialist training beyond most 200hr and 500hr programs, teaching experience, training, class content, physical access to venue).
Do you recognise any of these from your experience as a student or as a teacher?
21. Instilling fear by cautioning participants to not move in ways we believe are detrimental to their specific conditions, rather than guiding them towards safely discovering for themselves.
22. Offering practices that are beyond the abilities of students without options for modification, potentially leading to injury.
23. Teaching physically demanding asana to large classes, increasing injury risks by being unable to monitor every student or offer helpful modifications at the critical moment.
24. Exclusively encouraging people to explore their end range without equally emphasising the validity of backing off.
25. Praising demonstrations of athleticism in class, or moments of ‘achieving’ postures, without any idea of how it actually felt for the student.
26. Subtly ranking or diminishing language - ‘challenge yourself in a handstand’, ‘for a harder option try X’, ‘justrest in child’s pose’, or ‘you can simply rest’.
27. Wielding the flawed logic of ‘everything happens for a reason’ or ‘your thoughts manifest your reality’, compounding pain for people with histories of trauma and tragedy.
28. Assuming touch, even if skilfully applied, will be well received.
29. Not seeking consent for physical adjustments.
30. Not providing a timely, appropriate opportunity for refusing physical adjustments.
31. Not giving reasons for why we are touching.
32. Requiring students to touch each other in class without prior notice or consent.
33. Introducing new elements in class that were not advertised and participants had not consented to (eg trauma release, sound bathing, dance).
hi, i am Yonnie
Yonnie Fung is an Australian yoga therapist, yoga teacher, natural movement enthusiast and lawyer. Founder of Yoga with Yonnie, a Beijing based, yoga practice space where anyone, at any stage of life, can find yoga tailored for their specific needs. Yonnie loves the natural world, feeling dirt on her feet, and all cultures not her own. She is currently moving from Beijing to Washington DC. She is working on 2.0 of her website but in the meantime, you can find her on Facebook.
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