December 29, 2015

Dear Yoga Teacher: Please Don’t Touch Me.

Sonja Katrina Patterson

Dear male yoga teacher: Please don’t touch me.

Dear male yoga teacher who decided that an appropriate hands on adjustment would be to stand behind me from a place where I couldn’t see you, reach around and place the full palm of your right hand on my stomach, between my diaphragm and my abdomen and then slide your hand upwards.

It was skin to skin, your sweaty palm on my sweaty belly…from behind.

I can only try to explain to you the feeling in my body in that moment.



My breath left my body.

It felt as though every cell in my body started to scream and cry at the exact same time—even though my voice was silent.

I felt like I couldn’t breathe.

Every part of me wanted to run from the studio as fast as I could.

Instead, I froze.

A few years back, I was fortunate enough to be chosen to teach yoga and meditation to a group of female youth who were incarcerated.

At the end of one particularly deep Savasana, one of the youth wasn’t waking up with just the sound of my voice, so I touched her gently on the shoulder as I said her name to try and help her wake up. This gentle touch on the shoulder was met with a blood curdling scream and her body immediately shooting backwards along the floor away from mine and slamming into a wall.

Shock and deep regret were present in me in that moment—I could only imagine what that felt like for her.

I had been through some trauma sensitivity training for my placement and I felt as though I should have known better than to touch her, even if it was ever so gently.

My intention did not match the outcome of the situation.

Today, I am forever grateful to that youth for the lesson that she taught me that day. Just because we don’t intend to harm with our words or actions, it doesn’t mean that our words or actions won’t create harm for the other person.

If it is our intention to serve the people who are in front of us, we need to truly seek to understand them.

Dear male yoga teacher,

I don’t think that the space five minutes before or five minutes after your yoga class is an appropriate time for us to discuss the moments in my life where trauma has manifested.

Trauma: An emotional wound or shock that creates substantial lasting damage to one’s psychological development. (Dictionary.com)

“Trauma is any experience where one’s ability to establish a sense of safety is overwhelmed. Experiences of trauma exist across a spectrum, have more to do with how experiences are felt and internalized than with a particular type of event, and can involve individuals and groups of people. Traumatic experiences can be single events or may occur over periods of time, and the effects of trauma can be passed on from primary trauma-survivors to subsequent generations. Trauma always involves the body, even when the traumatic event itself involves no direct bodily harm, because it is our bodies that mount survival responses. Post-traumatic stress occurs when the body/mind systems continue to operate in a survival response (fight, flight, freeze), even when the threat to survival is no longer present.” ~ Laura Sygrove, Co-founder/Executive Director at New Leaf Yoga Foundation

But male yoga teacher, I do wish that, as you walk along your path, you come upon this very valuable lesson along the way. I’m sorry that I was unable to tell you myself, but I did run from your class when it was over.

I cried on my way home, and never came back.

Dear experienced yoga teacher: Please don’t touch me.

Dear experienced yoga teacher, who has decided not to hear my request for no hands on adjustments.

I thought that my request was clear when I said “I prefer no hands on adjustments.”

When questioned, I explained about the many physical body injuries that I have suffered at the expense of hands on adjustments. But for some reason, “I prefer no hands on adjustments” has turned into, “Sonja is not a fan of the deeper hands on adjustments.”

I’m pretty sure that’s not what I said.

Improper hands on adjustments have left me with torn muscles, subluxated vertebrae, and bruises. But worse than the direct physical repercussions are those emotional-physical body memory scars which bring shock and panic when touched. Fear can course through me when a teacher stands too close, and sometimes tears fall from my eyes after class.

For me, hands on adjustments have a high potential to do the exact opposite of their intention and take me completely out of my yoga practice.

Dear experienced yoga teacher,

I want to be in your class. I love your pacing, your language, your challenging sequencing—but when you choose not to hear my request, it makes me feel small—that no matter how many years it has taken me to say the words.. and how much much courage I needed to find to say out loud that sentence..

“I prefer no hands on adjustments.”

It seems that it is not really that important after all, and maybe I don’t really know what I want or what I need.

…but you know 

what is better

for my body.

Dear brand new yoga teacher in her first yoga teacher training, 

Please don’t touch me.

I’m sorry for crumpling to the floor the moment your hands touched my body—I can see that I startled you. But I’m dealing with rehabilitating torn hamstrings, and I’m also dealing with some emotional scars that I just can’t get into with you right at this moment.

I realize that it is not you, but the teachers running this teacher training that sent you in to this class to do some hands on adjustments..

But where was the memo?

FYI: The class you are about to take, 15 trainees are going to be walking around touching you.

I paid for this? What?

I want to go home now. Can I please go home now?

Will I look like as much of an a**hole as I think I will if I just pick up my yoga mat and run out from this nightmare?

I realize that new yoga teachers need to learn hands on adjustments somewhere, sometime. I’m just not sure that 15 trainees at a time in a public class is beneficial to anyone.

I have seen this done differently before.

Eight years into teaching yoga, I am lucky to have studied with some amazing yoga teachers around the world.

Some of my favourite advice from teachers regarding hands on adjustments:

  • Learn to do everything else first.
  • Becoming skillful at hands on adjustments takes years, decades really. It is an art within itself.
  • Learn to give excellent, precise verbal adjustments first.
  • Learn how to mirror teach.
  • Learn how to work demos into your class without losing your pacing.
  • Learn your students—learn their names.
  • Study, so that one day you will be able to give the exact right hands on adjustment that is needed to the student that is in front of you.

And even if you do this, if the yoga student in front of you is dealing with trauma in their body, then until the time that they tell you its okay, the exact right hands on adjustment for them will be none at all.

Many classes I’ve been in lately it seems that the advice given to teachers must have been:

“Get out there and touch your students all over their sweaty bodies with your sweaty body because deeper is always better and everyone loves to be touched.”

Dear yoga teacher,

I have trauma in my body. Experiences that I am working on but that I haven’t wholly processed, that when triggered elicit fear that my brain can’t rationally make sense of. Yoga classes are one of the few places where by walking in the door, strangers hands can get near my belly, my bare skin, my thighs…

You probably can’t tell just by looking at me that I don’t feel safe.

If I say “I prefer no hands on adjustments today,” can you hear me?

Dear yoga studios that provide me with a little card that says “Yes Please” on one side and “No thank you” on the other for the corner of my yoga mat.

I am so tearfully grateful that you see me.

Dear yoga teacher that asks me to place my hand over my belly if I prefer not to be touched in final savasana,

Thank you, I feel safe now.

Touch is healing, Yes. But, if the intention of the hands on adjustment is to help me go deeper into my practice, but instead is triggering fear and panic—then the adjustment is missing its mark.

If the hands-on adjustment is to help me heal through the power of touch, then thank you but no thank you.

I prefer to decide where and when that happens.

Creating healthy boundaries is an extremely important practice for people like myself who are dealing with trauma.

Dear yoga students,

Please tell me if you want hands on adjustments today. I will do my best to accommodate you.

Dear yoga students,

Please tell me that even though you were okay with hands on adjustments last week, you’re not okay with them today. I will hear you.

Dear yoga students, 

Please tell me that you prefer no hands on adjustments. I will respect you.






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Author: Sonja Katrina Patterson

Editor: Renée Picard

Image: author’s own


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