Learning About the Need for Trauma Sensitivity Is a Little Like Learning About White Privilege
A few days ago I critically Faceposted an infomercial featuring a Jivamukti Yoga School teacher demonstrating a series of assists on a fellow teacher as she glides through a sun salutation. Presented as appropriate for all teachers, the technique was classic Jiva, featuring hovering, intimate, near-constant touching. It was totally consistent with what’s presented in the 2014 manual Yoga Assists, co-written by Jivamukti founders Sharon Gannon and David Life along with Michael Roach.
Also consistent with the book, the video opens with and sustains a key omission. It offers no contraindications for the body-contact-heavy encounter. There is no discussion of individual needs or student consent, and no indication of any formal attention paid to the fact that touch can traumatize or re-traumatize as much as it can facilitate healing. Thankfully, unlike the book, the video doesn’t get into how the teacher should read the students chakras and use these assists to help them purify their karma.
The video may not be the best PR move for a company dealing with the fallout from a recently-settled sexual harassment lawsuit. Especially when the plaintiff claimed in an interview that the advances of the sued teacher weren’t limited to the bedroom, but also communicated through intimate adjustments in class. But the criticism in my post stayed away from all that, to focus on the simple absence of basic disclaimers.
I tried to be careful not to implicate the presenters directly. It seemed clear to me that they were doing exactly what they were trained to do. The video gave me no reason to doubt their good intentions. They were competently and artfully offering a technique that is standard across the Jivamukti platform, as many commenters confirmed. I was taking aim at the message of the presentation, not the presenters.
What does that message communicate? The absence of any framing language indicating who this technique is for and not for, combined with the grungetrification aesthetic and the unwavering confidence of the instruction, suggests that its content is ancient, tested, natural, hip, progressive, wholesome for everybody and harmless.
More seriously, the omission of contraindications and any discussion of consent serves to repackage a basic wound at the root of modern yoga history: consent and equality has never been part of the deal. This is a big problem for the population of practitioners who are coming to practice for healing, and are marketed techniques like this with the suggestion that they’re healing in their essence.
The history of power imbalance in modern yoga is both broad and specific. The long story involves echoes of largely misunderstood premodern Indian guru culture appropriated by the entrepreneurs of a globalizing industry who use it to spiritualize their charisma and financial hierarchies. But more intimately, there’s the fact that most of the key Indian evangelists of modern yoga learned their art in highly coercive, colonially-influenced, performance-based environments in which forceful physical interventions, including corporal punishment, were standard. Teachers like B.K.S. Iyengar and Pattabhi Jois handed down softer versions of their inheritance in different ways, and their students – at least those who didn’t simply imitate them – have struggled to sweeten that legacy further, both consciously and unconsciously.
On the conscious side are students like Donna Farhi and Judith Lasater, who both wrote books that distanced them from Iyengar’s demeanor. On the less-conscious or more hidden side are the students who wouldn’t dare touch their own students as their teachers did, but when you ask them why, they’ll say it’s because they aren’t skilled enough, not because it was wrong.
Most changes in yoga pedagogy are unconscious, often following trends in the broader culture. This happily allows the yoga industry to maintain its self-image as eternally beneficent. This may be part of the reason that the Jivamukti assists feel to many who give and receive them as though they just naturally and forever communicate love and care, and nothing else. And for those lucky enough to not be triggered or injured by them, they just may. The triggered and injured students won’t show up in the advertisements.
Adjustments like this won’t – can’t – work for everybody, because without clear consent conversations, they extend an old power imbalance that combines spiritual surrender with public-school discipline to entrench a basic patriarchal premise: the job of the teacher is to correct/heal/bless/mold the body of the implicitly consenting student, because Daddy knows best. (Regardless of gender, for of course this can be internalized.) For the one in four human beings who are trauma survivors (I always think that’s low), this type of power differential – especially when cloaked in the language of spirituality – can be toxic.
What happens when you suggest to an entire subculture that they have been promoting and profiting from a patriarchal approach to the body and somatic education, and that that approach can stand in the way of developing real trauma-sensitivity?
A lot of folks get really insulted – personally, individually.
It makes total sense. Of course they don’t feel that they’re forwarding the echo of an age of non-consent, personally. Of course they are personally trying to communicate empathy and service, regardless of what their tools actually do. They’re quite sure, from personal experience, that the adjustments are good and healing — so why shouldn’t they be that way for everyone? Add to this the harsh fact pointed out by veteran yoga teacher Kristen Krash that physical adjustments are viewed by many yoga studio owners as an essential part of the yoga class experience, where touch is commodified consciously as an aid to alignment and strength, but unconsciously as a sexynotsexy type of intimacy.
The critique is heavy, because it tells a whole generation of yoga teachers that a basic thing they’ve been trained to do, told to do and are paid to do is really problematic, and may have the opposite of their best-intended effects. It also challenges a basic assumption about how this part of yoga works: if adjustments have been pleasurable or informative to you, it is not because of their essential goodness or even how sensitive your teachers were, but about how you personally responded to them, based upon your conditioning in that moment of your life. This is not to say that the adjustments can’t be sensitive and that sensitive teachers can’t build trust with students over time, and that an adjustment that was once intolerable/innappropriate might become helpful or even healing. But there are no guarantees, because other people are in other places that we personally never have total access to, which is why understanding and then building a culture of explicit consent is crucial.
The vehemence with which some reject the structural critique of implied consent in yoga adjustments is a sign of the guilt that comes from taking it personally. But it’s not personal. It actually can’t be. Personal critique implies that the person knows what they’re doing, and by and large we yoga people don’t, because there’s been a lot of improvised authority – not to mention smoke and mirrors – in yogaland, right from the beginning.
For instance: a lot of us yoga people have spent years engaged in a practice culture that presents itself as a private religion to the exclusion of also being a multi-billion-dollar industry that tells consumers what they should want. Few of them are clear about the coercive shadow looming in modern yoga history, which, combined with too many scandals to name, makes consent culture all the more crucial. I run into people all the time who think that learning asanas with Krishnamacharya in 1930s Mysore was fun like Boy Scouts. And few people are aware of how Jois and other prominent teachers regularly crossed boundaries with female students. Why? For decades, the stories have been ignored or actively suppressed.
Extending a culture of non-consent wasn’t something we yoga people knew about, or chose to do. It’s just what we found ourselves doing. It’s not our fault to have inherited this murky history. It’s not even our fault that we might be really attached to what this culture asks us to do because we’re professionals in it, and we paid tens of thousands of dollars in an unstable economy to be trained in it by people who ask their students to look on them as being “holy beings”.
But if we should catch wind of the problem, it is our responsibility to try to learn about it so that our conscious participation in the culture helps to transform it into something better than it was.
Now, about the title of this post: what does learning about trauma-sensitivity have to do with learning about white privilege? They aren’t equal by any stretch, but they can share a similar arc of revelation for neurotypical white people like me who possess structural power we think is just normal. Perhaps they can inform each other. So to my white readers mainly, I suggest the following:
Inheriting and benefiting from and professionalizing yourself within a patriarchal somatics that performs authority over students’ bodies while believing that because it works for you means that it’s just fine for the bodies of others is a lot like being born white. It’s just a dumb-luck circumstance that happens to work for you (or so it seems) by hurting others in ways you can’t readily see. It only becomes a moral failing – something you could justifiably feel guilty about – if you learn about it and fail to course-correct. It’s not your fault, but it is your responsibility.
Being told you have white privilege is not an assessment of your personal character. It’s a description of your place and agency in an historical power dynamic. But if you’re like me, you won’t hear it that way the first thousand times or so. You’ll probably lose all that cool-headed observational skill yoga is meant to confer. You’ll probably feel the garlicky heat of guilt rise up – the red flag that you’ve taken it personally – and then wind up spending more time thinking about your self-image than about justice. You may spend more time asking “Am I really like that?” than, “Huh, that’s unjust, and I’m participating in it. What can I do?”
There could be a small benefit to a brief whiff of guilt, if it makes a privileged person feel in their bodies a dose of the nausea of oppression. But it’s taken me almost thirty years of being an ex-Catholic to understand that guilt is usually a bait-and-switch. What happens is that you act in way that you’ve been taught to act or that feels natural to you because it’s modeled for you constantly. Then, somebody in power says YOU’RE BAD, and so you believe that you’re bad, personally, instead of asking “Why is power organized this way?”
The internalizing avoidance tactic of guilt not only fails to relieve you of self-obsession, but sets you up to be a good participant in things like capitalism, in which the response you’re coached to have about things like slave labour and climate change is to become a guilty and slightly more virtuous consumer of fair trade coffee and recycled toilet paper. Rather than, say, joining with indigenous peoples in building communities of resistance. Rather than chaining your body to logging trucks. Power wants you to feel guilty, instead of zealous about injustice.
The difference in the white privilege discouse is that BLM and others aren’t in power, and they aren’t telling white folks that they’re bad people. They’re saying that white people are born into systemic advantages they believe to be normal and that can make them blind to the circumstances of others, while depriving them of the empathy than could make them feel more human.
Likewise, advocates for trauma-sensitivity in all service environments – not just yoga – are not telling people who haven’t had the right training that they’re bad people. They’re saying that service environments often carry a patriarchal, invasive, patronizing, isolating, power-imbalanced, non-listening vibe in their history, methods, and infrastructure. They’re saying that these factors create blind spots that cause insensitivity. They’re saying that resistance to trauma-sensitivity training is a common response of the neurotypically-privileged – a group that includes people who aren’t recovering from trauma. (Membership in that group is complicated by those who manage trauma in part by believing they’re not suffering from it.)
I can’t remember what struck me first: realizing I was trauma-insensitive and had been teaching yoga (and adjusting people with implied consent) as though I knew what everybody needed, or the much more serious, existential bolt of seeing that I had white privilege, and had spent my entire life chalking up my general safety and good self-image to hard self-work and the meritocracy. What I do know is that guilty defensiveness was my first reaction in both cases. It didn’t help in either, and I’m still getting over it.
What I also know by looking at these two issues together is a little bit more about what the multi-racial feminist movement has been calling “intersectionality” for decades. The term is used to describe how various layers of disadvantage – being Black, female, poor, queer, trans, disabled – intersect within individuals in such a way as to be structurally dominated by various layers of my privilege – being white, male, straight, neurotypical.
And here, intersectionality also seems to map out a yogic learning process – if “yoga” still implies connection – by which peering into the overlapping causes and conditions that make life what it is without our knowing it is a very fast way of allowing the connectedness of suffering to reveal both deep pools of sorrow that provoke humility, and wellsprings of love that simply must be put into action.
CODA (or, I am not so smart):
After posting the video and curating a discussion about its messaging in which several commenters (mis)directed criticism at the teacher in the video, I got a sharp piece of feedback that I think is good to conclude with, because, just like exploring the breath, there’s really no end to this stuff. The commenter said:
“This yoga community exists in the broader American cultural context. We as a culture are hurting, but mostly Black America is hurting. Yoga is a hobby that is predominantly filled with white folks–those who can afford it at that. And you chose to cherry pick one rare video of a black male teacher to instigate a public thread about hyper-sexuality in yoga. You may not have done this intentionally, but social media is largely based on images out of context. Couldn’t you have critiqued the method without making a black man your poster boy?”
Ouch and shit, that’s a really good point. My first thought, of course, was defensive – to explain I’m often in the position of being accused of personally attacking people by criticizing their public/professional work, so I’ve developed a thick skin about it, and pride myself on the capacity to “depersonalize”. But then I realized that I didn’t even consider the racial implications of the optics of my post. Had I done so, would I have posted? I don’t know. With a different intro? Not sure. As the curator of the post would I have deleted comments that unfairly targeted the teacher? Maybe.
The point is I was blind to the issue.
So here I am, trying to expose patriarchy in somatic education and, ironically, link it to white privilege, all while missing the possibility that I could be fuelling another unconscious racial prejudice.
I guess that’s why they call it practice.