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.

HISTORY

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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BUSINESS PRACTICES

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).

#REFLECTNOW!

Do you recognise any of these from your experience as a student or as a teacher? 

INJURIES

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. 

CONSENT

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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  • Max freedo says:

    What a bunch of crap. Really.
    Almost 15 yrs of teaching yoga and not once has any of this been an issue.
    Wow

    • Richard says:

      As far as you know, at least.
      Wow.

    • Jane says:

      Wow, I wouldn’t like to go to your classes. Chances are some of these things have been issues for some of your students and you just didn’t know it. Just because nobody has had the confidence and courage to address something with you, doesn’t mean there has never been an issue. And if that’s your attitude to having things pointed out to you, it’s no wonder people don’t.

    • Courtenay says:

      This is absolutely absurd to think that we don’t have MINDFUL yoga teachers. People who always ask to raise a leg if they approve for assists or not. People who always ask if it’s ok if they assist. Teachers who consistently make alignment adjustment based on practical functionality of basic body movements. This is just another way to assert the ego of the publisher and the writer. Get off your high horse

    • Genaveev says:

      As far as you know. What about the students who came once and never came back? What about the students who came many times but never felt empowered in your presence to speak to you about anything that might have not worked for them?

      We are not omniscient as human beings, even as yoga teachers, spiritual teachers, or whatever height we feel we have achieved. Unless you have made space for feedback from your students, you may not be getting any that is at all critical of you or exposes a vulnerability in them.

      You will find ways that you can improve your flexibility as a teacher and open you to more meaningful contact with students. Maybe softening your judgment a bit would help.

  • Kristine says:

    Thank you Yonnie for continuing to speak out and write these wonderful pieces. You and Julie are lifelines reminding me I’m not alone!

  • Jill says:

    WOW Yonnie. Perfect list. I have shared it in many yoga communities to which I belong. Thank you. I teach trauma-informed yoga in a women’s prison and I am acutely aware of power dynamics and I love that we always emphasize self-empowerment through choice, guide through interoception and we are there in sharing the experience, not as the expert. Thank you so much!!!

    • Yonnie Fung says:

      Jill, thank you for your comment and support. I’m glad that someone with your background found this useful – it is as I had hoped.

      Yonnie

  • Courtenay says:

    This is absolutely disgusting to read. Leave your ego aside Yonnie. There has never been a time where a teacher has just come up and assisted me without asking. Most teachers are very mindful of when and how to touch and adjust students. If a student has an issue with being open to new experiences they should not be in a yoga class. Basic alignment functionality is in all teacher trainings. I really can’t get over how much garbage is in this article. Again, Yonnie get over your fucking self. What’s wrong with subjecting students to things they may be uncomfortable and unfamiliar with? That the whole point of yoga… to expand our horizons. To open our hearts and minds… this lady is full of garbage. The part about injuries is a joke. A teachers job is to have knowledge of basic alignment and movement functionality to provide proper introduction for safe movement. This article is such a joke…

    • Irina Simanova says:

      Thank you for your opinion. I deleted your other comments because they are rude. We’re all in this together to create a welcoming environment. Let’s treat everyone with respect and look out for each other. Healthy debates are natural, but kindness is required.

    • Kat says:

      Wow, what harsh words Courtenay! Not sure how useful your comments are when you degrade another yogi, are you in some way feeling threatened? Yvonne has very valid points and I, for one, really appreciate her suggestions! What happened to Ahimsa in your practice? Your kind opinion is one thing but cussing and demeaning someone is another story.

    • Katie says:

      I have witnessed handfuls of yoga teachers who have inadequately certified themselves on Yoga Alliance and proceeded to run teacher trainings at the prospect of pumping out new teachers for their yoga studio and, unfortunately, for profit reasons. I have been in yoga classes where I am not asked permission for hands-on assists. Even when the question is posed, some may feel uncomfortable opting out because they don’t want to single themselves out even if they have a traumatic background or simply don’t want to be touched. Yes, yoga is to expand our comfort zone and try new things but everybody’s degree of that experience is different. A student of mine told me she prefers public classes because she has a really hard time getting out of the house. So her comfort zone is expanded simply by getting to class… Not everyone is seeking the same experience that the teacher feels is “appropriate”. In an ideal world, all teachers and students would be educated in class etiquette and their rights, but that’s not the true case.

      • Anneke Sips says:

        Thank you Katie,
        Yes, I know that public classes can motivate people to get out of the house, I’ve heard this many many times. Also, I hear several times, that they ‘drag’ themselves trough class ‘trying to get through the class’ because they hear everywhere yoga is good for them and they should leave the house. Potentially both of true, but with all this mindful awareness, great samskaras can be build in yoga class, that are not helpful when in a journey towards inner peace and balance. It’s not an easy issue, but we hope that at least through posts like this for example, some awareness is created.

        Warmly,
        Anneke

    • geneveev says:

      Why the toxic anger?
      Those of us who have been practicing yoga for 40 or 50 years remember teachers who did adjustments without asking, who touched
      inappropriately and used their power as a teacher to violate personal boundaries of students.
      This came out of traditional teaching styles from Asia and the teacher- student relationship that that was espoused in Tantric teachings in India
      You may never have experienced any of this but many others have and that is why articles like this are being written.

      Nastiness and name-calling are inconsistent with the spiritual basis of yoga, so maybe it’s time to work on yourself and find out where all the rage is coming from. The forms of expression you use are inconsistent with our ethics as practitioners of a non-violent, spiritual practice.

  • Anneke Sips says:

    Thank you Yonnie for your bravery to accentuate very important topics. It offers a lot to reflect on, which is amazing.

    I want to and also do truly believe, that yoga teachers do their best and people do not want to hurt anyone intentionally. But, from my own experiences, I unfortunately must say that I’ve had some painful experiences myself with yoga teachers. From feeling ‘not good/ strong/ flexible/ balanced/ dedicated enough’ to full on sexual harassment.

    Especially in yoga, where we are creating DEEP latent impressions by mindfully involving our WHOLE being (our body, mind, breath.. we devote our time, our trust, it becomes a way of living for many of us), it’s very important to be critical towards a teacher AND (line of) teaching. It’s an amazing opportunity to stand up and express a clear NO to anything that does not support our personal alignment. We owe it ourselves and each other that our yoga community is a safe place for everyone.

    Thanks again Yonnie for sticking your head out. The barriers and obstacles are real and sometimes fierce. But what i’ve learned is, that as long as we name them, stay curious and keep showing up they don’t have the power to stop us from being courageous.

  • Valerie Baltzer says:

    I found this article informative and accessible. I imagine in our competitive world of titles and degrees the new term Yoga Therapist has alot of Yoga instructors on edge. Do I spend the money do I not spend the money… After reading this I have to say that the way I was taught to teach, and they way I have incorporated those teachings Yoga therapy is pretty much what I do. My classes are small so I am able to read and change the class depending on where the class is that day when they walk in. Especially with my private students. Obtaining the YT Certificate has been on my mind.

  • Ramdas says:

    “17. Promising unsupportable outcomes through yoga practice [ . . . ] ***’change your life forever’***”

    If yoga is not/has not changed your life and the lives of your students, what you are practicing/teaching is not yoga and it’s unfortunate that the teacher who taught you claimed to teach you yoga. They did not.

    *** 30 years of depression & suicide attempts => Now 10 years depression free (me) 7 years of “yoga” (did little), three months of Yoga and depression was gone.
    *** Student attended 1st yoga class ever, was able to enjoy a movie at a theater for the first time in his life (ADHD) later that day [extreme example]
    *** Student lost 160 lbs over 2 years (has a metabolic disease which causes weight gain) and has kept the weight off for 7 years now
    *** Same student as above, discovered they are worthy of love for the first time in their life
    *** After three months student went off depression meds with doctor’s approval due to Yoga Nidra practice
    *** Student with PANDAS (https://www.nimh.nih.gov/…/publications/pandas/index.shtml) showing up as anxiety and OCD asked if it’s normal to have no anxiety after attending 1 week’s worth of classes because she hadn’t experienced any for the whole week. Four years later, anxiety is now a rare thing and not a daily fight.
    *** New student (this month) has been practicing for 20+ years and attended a weekend retreat with me (this last weekend). She realized she had been carrying trauma from when she was 5 and felt it fade away. She also recognized why she feels so annoyed with teachers: They make vague statements about how yoga can help but never back it up with verifiable, repeatable experience. She had to let go of that annoyance before the end of the retreat.

    These are just some of my students’ life changing experiences that they directly attribute to their sadhana and none of them practiced for decades and lifetimes to experience it. I can give such details on any student who attends my classes regularly.

    This is also why my classes are small. How could I hope to guide 30-50 people through such things by myself (it’s also why I have mentors at all our retreats, each person has someone like those above to work directly with them).

    Most teachers hope their students have a happy accident during class that brings freedom because that’s what happened for them. They can’t help their students to intentionally set the stage for such events to happen, they just have to hope the stars align. This is not the fault of the teacher but of the teacher’s teacher. This is why such outcomes are “unsupportable.”

    It’s not because such things don’t happen, it’s because the teachers lack the skill to support such transformation and have to trust to luck. This is because they have been taught the exercise called asana rather than the spiritual discipline known as yoga.

  • Romy Ma says:

    Thank you for that really long list and of course not all the things happen at the same time to one teacher or his/her classes. But I also think it is always good to talk about, what should Yoga do for us, in which way, for what reason. Always reflect ourselves as teachers what we want from our students or not.
    I had a couple of injuries in Yoga classes, which is of course half Teachers and half my own failure. But thats why I really think the atmosphere we create should allow EVERYBODY to choose whatever suits them best in that moment. But also of course for that opinion I had to practice myself and have some years of teaching experience to find out. For a beginner in teaching it is just difficult to be aware of everything. And even after years mistakes happen. But posts and discussions like this help dealing with this hot topic. Because I think its not just about hurting people in yoga class, it’s about the whole society and the way we want to live in it. What values we transfer.

  • Yogi Bear says:

    I am a yoga student. I have experienced many of the things that are described in this article. I think it is GREAT that yoga teachers are aware of these pitfalls and am grateful to the author for bringing them to light. I am honestly quite shocked by some of the earlier comments. You never personally experienced these things so it didn’t happen??? And then personal attacks and baseless insults against the author?? What is with that. I am telling you that as a student this stuff is REAL, it happens and it damages and it hurts. My only concern is that many of the teachers who make these mistakes are blind to them because they are so convinced that their good intentions mean that they are automatically doing no harm. p.s. I am writing this as someone with a chronic illness who has experienced highly offensive and distressing comments from yoga teachers relating to illness, as well as teachers who present themselves as all-knowing, all-seeing gurus who know our thoughts and feelings better than we know them ourselves.

  • Elisabeth says:

    Thank you Yonnie for sharing this List. I am currently in teacher training and this weeks topic is about how we interact/adjust students in class- going over some of the things that can and have gone wrong for the students to experience a safe practice. I shared your article with the other teachers. Very useful. Thank you for taking the time to share your perspective.

  • Mary Schnorrenberg says:

    Hi Yonnie, thank you so much for sharing this! Ahimsa is a huge one for me, one of the Yamas and Niyamas that I strongly use as a reference point in my practice on and off the mat.. Have written myself about it and 4 others recently;
    https://www.elephantjournal.com/2019/03/5-ways-to-undo-hypocrisy-in-the-wellness-world-using-yogas-moral-code-of-ethics-mary-schnorrenberg/
    Hope it resonates..x

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