Jivamukti Yoga Claims Position “At the Forefront” of the Consent Card Movement
(With thanks to Karen Rain for her editorial suggestions.)
In this Triyoga Talks podcast (transcript excerpt below), Jivamukti co-founder Sharon Gannon is asked about why the Jivamukti New York flagship studio has started using consent cards. Gannon throws the question to studio director Jason Morris, who takes the opportunity to present some rebranding talking points.
For Morris, Jivamukti “has been a safe haven” historically, and offering consent cards is a way for the brand to continue to be safe, and to be “at the forefront” of the conversation on consent.
This is a revisionist stretch.
In 2016, JYS settled a sexual harassment lawsuit against lead teacher and trainer (Gannon was also named in the suit) in 2016. In an interview, the plaintiff in the suit suggested that a culture of implied consent in relation to adjustments was a factor in the harassment.
The 2012 book Yoga Assists: A Complete Visual and Inspirational Guide to Yoga Asana Assists authored by Sharon Gannon and her Jivamukti co-founder David Life does not contain the word “consent”, nor any substantive discussion of power differentials in teaching. The book is currently on sale in their shop.
The 2007 Jivamukti Yoga 300 hour training manual not only excludes consent language but tells trainees that when adjusting their fellows, “Your hands should almost never leave them.” (p. 89)
This same manual features Pattabhi Jois in the list of “Holy Beings and Saints to Remember”. The list includes God. Jois is described as a “Realized Yoga Master”.
Michael Roach makes this list, on the next page. Page 98 features a set of instructions written by one of Roach’s devotees about how to be properly deferential in relation to your spiritual teacher:
Ways to Keep a Precious Teacher in Your Life
- Honorifics (thought and said).
- Think, reflect upon the good they have done for others.
- Think, reflect upon the good they have done for you.
- Say thank you (mentally and out loud).
- Give little offerings.
- Take care of things for them anonymously.
- Ask them to teach.
- Ask them to stay in your life.
- Listen to them when they teach (don’t let your mind wander.) The more you listen, the more profound their teachings become. The less you listen, the more unimportant their teachings become. Take notes, record, transcribe.
- Serve their mission on the planet: Help them become enlightened. Become an extension of your teacher – teach what they teach. Practice what they teach. Do what they say. Reach the goals they are setting for you – become enlightened.
The 2013 Jivamukti Teacher Apprenticeship Programme manual tells apprentices learning how to give “In-Class Privates” that
“your hands become the tactile aspect of the teacher’s voice. Your touch (not your voice) should be constantly instructing the student and each private should end with a deep and thorough final relaxation massage.” (p.8)
Consent is not discussed in this text either.
At time cue 45:00 in the podcast Morris uses selected customer feedback to imply that Jivamukti is somehow unique in the area for offering consent cards:
“There are numerous messages on social media and um even emails to the center that have not only thanked us for making that, but also said that they were coming back because they had yet to find a yoga studio that gave them the opportunity to say no.”
But even a cursory survey on Facebook tells us that the NYC Yogaworks and Bodē (formerly Bikram NYC) chains use consent indicators. At least one indie studio does as well, and it appears that several teachers are independently bringing consent cards to their job sites.
At the end of his Triyoga spot, Morris flicks at upcoming Jivamukti products: “We will be hosting panels in the fall on consent,” he says, “and what it is to have authority in the yoga classroom rather than a dictatorship.”
It’s nice to look ahead, and fall in Manhattan is always lovely. But it won’t obscure the fact that, both historically and in the present, Jivamukti Yoga has not been “at the forefront” of any conversation around student safety, power equalization, consent, or scope of practice.
So who has been? A proper history of consent card usage has not been written, but I know anecdotally that women teachers have been using consent indicators like painted stones that can be turned over going back perhaps 20 years. Molly Kitchen’s beautiful cards are popular. In 2016, Theodora Wildcroft posted a now-classic argument for their universal use in all yoga spaces. Activist teachers like Tobias B.D. Wiggins connects consent card usage to a broader discussion of “consent culture”. And in the wake of the revelations of the sexual misconduct of Pattabhi Jois, some Ashtanga teachers like Sarai Harvey-Smith have led the consent conversation at front lines of a sub-culture that’s trying to both acknowledge history and reform itself. (This is only a fraction of the work out there.)
It’s good that Gannon lets Morris speak first, given that when she comes back on, she undoes his thoughtful references to trauma and empowerment. She dodges the interviewer’s question about whether the consent discussion challenges the tradition of devotion towards teachers to opine about the “good disciple”. The good disciple, Gannon explains, knows how to separate teacher from teachings, and therefore sort out what’s appropriate from what’s not. Thus: the theme of safety in teaching flips back onto the student, as per the well-worn pattern in yoga culture that leads to abuse victims being blamed.
There’s a lot going on in this podcast. The way I see it, here are four most important points.
1) The conflict of interest that blends an “issues discussion” with corporate marketing in the mainstream yoga industry is on full display here. Triyoga is hosting Gannon for an event in September.
2) For Jivamukti to frame itself as a leading institutional voice for consent and to now pursue the trauma-sensitive market is opportunistic. As per usual in our unregulated sphere, co-optation gets to monetize the integrity of others. We see this with body positive policies and marketing themes, enthusiastically picked up by the very mainstream companies that made them necessary.
Co-optation isn’t just cynical. It steals attention and money away from researchers and teachers who have been doing their work for a decade or more. Consent cards are visible in the culture because hard work has already been done by women, many of whom have been victims of sexual misconduct in the yoga world. They have walked the walk and students can have confidence in them. In effect, not platforming them withholds resources from their future work.
3. Unearned platforming can endanger students. It draws a halo of safety around an organization that has not shown its work. It perpetuates the harmful idea that knowledge of “yoga teaching” naturally intersects with education in consent and student agency.
4. The notion that Jivamukti is now “at the forefront” of this discussion because one of their studios is using consent cards obscures the fact that the cards only work within the scope of a broader educational initiative.
For more detail on #4, I reached out to trauma-informed yoga teacher Tiffany Rose, Donna Farhi, author of Teaching Yoga: Exploring The Teacher Student Relationship, and to Anneke Lucas, the founder of Liberation Prison Yoga. Their nuanced answers speak to concerns that sink way deeper than the branding attempt to be on the right side of a trendy issue. Creating a culture of consent in yoga is itself a practice, undertaken across disciplinary and experiential lines. There is as yet no consensus on how to best do it.
“Consent cards are the very least that yoga spaces and teachers can be providing to ensure a basic answer to the problem of power dynamics,” writes Rose by email.
But, there’s a problem.
“Many yoga companies will use consent cards,” Rose continues, “as a CYA (“cover your ass”) solution to avoid accountability for less obvious abuses of power, sexually predatory behaviour and continued ignorance of the subtle layers of consent.”
Donna Farhi brings up an additional complication. “I’m not a great fan of consent cards,” she writes, “because I don’t think students can possibly know what they are saying yes to and what they are saying no to with an unknown teacher.
“For instance, a student can turn up the ‘yes’ side, but without knowing the teacher’s underlying assumptions, they may be consenting to being moved beyond a safe threshold.”
Unfamiliarity would, of course, be the context of the majority of drop-in classes. (Jivamukti’s daily schedule features a high percentage of drop-in slots.) Farhi also questioned whether the card could express a continuity of consent — not only within the span of a class, but within the moments of a single adjustment.
Lucas’ stance is pragmatic. “To me, any motive is good to introduce consent cards,” she writes. They are “a great first step.”
But she also emphasized the deep personal and collective work that has to stand behind any effort to empower students.
“Teachers become guides,” she writes, “who introspect to uncover any personal, unconscious need for power they may have, which would cover over unresolved trauma.”
[Time cue 42:07]
Genny Wilkinson Priest (Triyoga Director):
So you talk about yoga students being like children and, and children need protecting and we seem to have this growing movement in, in yoga world, for lack of a better word, of the kind of shifting in terms of the, of the power inherent power imbalance that sits within the student teacher relationship where students are receiving more attention and encouraging to be more empowered. And this is seen in the use of consent cards, which as I understand is becoming quite common in the US. And I know that recently moved to New York, began using them in which a student can place a card on their map that either declines of physical assist or and adjustment, and it’s actually something that we hear at trigger also that to introduce. So I’m curious about your experience of it. Why did you introduce consent cards at Jivamukti New York?
I’m going to, um, call Jason Morris because Jason is our director here at the Jivamukti yoga school in New York City and um, he’s very involved with the consent cards and the various reactions that we have gotten since we started using them. Hi Jason.
Genny Wilkinson Priest
Hi. So why Jason, did you guys introduce the consent cards?
So um kind of historically, Jivamukti Yoga in New York City has been a safe haven for so many different types of people from actors and performers to businessmen. Um, and with that comes their own history, their own experience, their own dharma and all of that is confronted on the mat. And so as a continuation of making sure that we are addressing a safe space for all of the students, we started to give the students an option to put a card down that, you know, “Today is just not a day that I feel comfortable being touched. I just, I want to be on my mat and practice. I need to be consistent with being truthful and honest with everything that I deal with. But today I’d like not to be touched.” So we just gave them that option. And of course with the #metoo movement, it just seemed a long overdue conversation that the yoga world needed to address and we wanted to be at the forefront of that conversation.
Genny Wilkinson Priest
And are students using them?
Students are using them. Yes. We do have a lot of longtime students who um, how you, you’d give express consent and they love being touched and they want as much China Gel on them as possible. Um, and then there are a longtime students who, you know, are dealing with trauma in their lives and every now and then you’ll see them just flip that card because they want to be here, they want to practice, but they just need a little extra space and we provide that and there are numerous messages on social media and um even emails to the center that have not only thanked us for making that, but also said that they were coming back because they had yet to find a yoga studio that gave them the opportunity to say no for any period of time.
Genny Wilkinson Priest
I think this is a great development for yoga schools globally, but I do wonder, can you really achieve meaningful consent when the conditions of inequality that are inherent in a learning environment? Authority is crucial for things like spiritual and philosophical development. So is this really something that is meaningful?
Well, it’s, it’s beyond meaningful. And I think it also takes the practice a step further. Um, we ask students to confront everything when they set foot on their mat and some of that’s also their relationship to power to authority. And, and embodying their own sense of power. So maybe today they don’t use the card in a way that we want them to and in a way that they feel comfortable, but maybe they see someone else doing it and you know, sometimes too people need to check out a studio and make sure that the teachers are skilled and have experience. And so maybe they start the class with that “No”, and they checked the teachers out, they watched the adjustment. They see how sensitive we are to every student’s body. And then they flip the card over to yes. Um, I do agree with you that there is a position of inequality because there is a position of power in the room, but this is that next step towards equalizing that conversation.
Genny Wilkinson Priest
But should it be equalized?
I think that there are two answers to that question. I think that it should be equalized in the sense that everyone should be owning their practice. Yoga is a personal practice. The Guru is supposed to help take you from darkness to light, not tell you what to do. And have you experience their version of truth. Um Sharon told you earlier that we don’t want to define in any way someone’s experience of Samadhi. We want them to experience it and have their own revelations about what it is to be, um, in any way elevated on their path. So if we are using things like consent cards, it’s just giving them another step on that journey.
Genny Wilkinson Priest
Thank you, Jason. It’s really good to know that, you know, it’s working for you and then people are using it because, because I guess as we introduced this here at Triyoga, I’ll be really interested to see, you know, what proportion of students are, are seizing this opportunity because at least here in the UK we’re a little bit behind the US in terms of awareness of trauma sensitivity, but it’s definitely something that is being, uh, you know, really carefully thought out. So it’s, it’s nice to have Jivamukti leading the way in that, in that front. So thank you for introducing these consent cards.
Thank you for talking about it. I think it’s, again, it’s something that needs to be talked about instead of shied away from, um, and also stay tuned. We will be hosting a panel is in the fall on consent and what it is to have authority in yoga classroom rather than a dictatorship. So stay tuned because that’s all. That’s all. We’re working very, very hard to open this conversation up and I’m going to hand you back to Sharon.
Genny Wilkinson Priest
Fair enough. That’s okay. Thank you. Thank you. Hi Sharon. Hi there. Thanks for passing me on to Jason. It was interesting to hear how the consent cards are being used in practice. It does kind of bring me to the next question and maybe the final one. You once wrote that “Gurus demand total surrender from disciples. “Disciples,” you said, “have an irrepressible need for the gurus approval. This is one subtle driving force in the relationship.”
So consent cards kind of tip the balance of total surrender. So is this an example of eastern philosophy colliding with Western ideas and can eastern philosophy and western notions ever really coexist without one side, giving in something to the other?
Well, I think the, the word disciple actually means someone who is disciplined and that implies a person who has gone deep into the practices and have come to some realization. A blind follower uh is different than a disciple. In, in the yoga world, in the yoga terminology, traditionally. Of course these days, uh, as we’ve already talked about earlier, this in this conversation, uh, not all teachers and not all students are even familiar with the traditional practices of yoga or devote themselves or discipline themselves to those practices. Um, and so it’s kind of like if we look at the words themselves — surrender — it is asked that the disciple surrender to the Guru, meaning the Guru is the enlightenment principal. Now the enlightenment principal maybe coming through a person like a human person, but uh, someone who has studied and practiced and it is a good disciple, understands the difference between the person and the enlightenment, the force of enlightenment, and would know, you know, when, uh, when something is appropriate and when something is not appropriate.