Hey, About Those Consent Cards

If you've taken a yoga class with me in the past year, you've seen these:

I usually introduce them by saying, "Please make sure you take a card and place it near the front of your mat. They have two sides, and I use them so that you can communicate with me about whether or not you want physical adjustments."

During the first few minutes of the class, as people are feeling out some preparatory movements, I take a walk around the room and look at the cards. I haven't taken precise tallies, but the overwhelming majority of people flip the card to the IT'S OK side. If I had to guess, 29 out of 30 people are comfortable with me walking up to them while they're practicing and applying some pressure to their hip, or helping their upper arm understand external rotation, or simply placing my palm on their back and asking them to breathe into my hand. For an overwhelming majority of those in attendance, a little hands-on adjusting is welcome, and I know many wish I did more of it. Regardless of the utility of the adjustment, the simple physicality itself is often of great value. In a culture of profound alienation, touch can be a vital nutrient.

Some regulars have noticed that almost all the cards are flipped to the same side, and they make jokes that call into question the purpose of the whole card system. A few people seem annoyed by the cards, and I get it: they are a bit of nuisance to keep track of when we move the mats around, they introduce more visual clutter into the room, and they add a layer of awkward formality to the transaction between student and instructor. And in most of the environments where I teach, it is not mandated for instructors to use consent cards, so people are very aware that I'm making a conscious decision when I hand them out. "I'm taking your yoga class," they must think. "Of course I want your help!"

If you are the one person in thirty who flips the card to the No Thanks side, this post is not directed at you. I'm really glad you're coming to my class, and be sure to let anybody you know who needs yoga but is touch-averse that I use consent cards when I teach. So does my friend Jessica and there's at least one studio in Chicago where the use of consent cards is mandatory in all classes.

The remainder of this post is directed at the twenty-nine out of thirty of you who don't need the cards.

Hello, overwhelming majority. I'm really glad you're coming to my class, too. I know that many of you understand what I'm about to say without me needing to say it. But this post is particularly for those of you who roll your eyes when I hand the cards out, and for those of you who think the cards are funny, or stupid, or ridiculous. This is particularly for a couple of you who refuse to take a card because you know that I know that you love adjustments, and also for the fellow who shook his head when he saw them and said, "It's a shame that it's come to this." 

I want to thank you for the way that you are contributing to the yoga classroom as a safe space. The term "safe space" has taken a lot of heat in the current political milieu, and it now conjures notions of catering to some impossibly fragile "snowflake." But the fact is that we all need safe spaces, and we need them all the time. You know when you aren't thinking about safe space and the concept itself seems laughably unnecessary? That's because, in that moment, YOU ARE IN A SPACE IN WHICH YOU FEEL SAFE. For those of us whose identities and sensibilities interface pretty seamlessly with mainstream cultural conventions, safe space is often effortless, and therefore invisible. But in the event that we feel threatened, vulnerable, or in danger, we come to understand what safe space really is; it is in its absence that we recognize its essence.

Take, for example, a hypothetical person named TwentyEight, whose name honors the 28% of U.S. youth between 14 and 17 years of age who report being sexually victimized in their lifetime.1 Because of their past trauma, TwentyEight has a very different relationship to touch than you or I. Touch is welcome for TwentyEight only in highly specific contexts with very close friends and intimates. Unexpected physical contact is violently triggering to TwentyEight's nervous system and can quickly promote agonizing levels of anxiety, fear, and stress.

TwentyEight has great need for the profoundly calming and grounding benefits of therapeutic yoga practice, but it is often impossible to find a suitable context in which to receive them. It takes extraordinary courage for TwentyEight to show up to a yoga studio since a typical class environment is treacherous: a well-meaning instructor might lay a hand on TwentyEight in the wrong place and provoke in them a psychological space that is the exact opposite of the intended effect of the class.

I really want TwentyEight to show up for class. I want them to be able to access yoga. Though I'm comfortable with touch, I have my own traumas that I've seen the practice support and transform, and I have a particular affinity for people who demonstrate the fierce passion for yoga that is often a result of needing it so profoundly.

So, I know the cards are a little annoying, particularly when you don't need them. Many of you take my class every week, and we've had coffee, and we've talked through some really personal stuff together, which makes the card seem absurd: don't I know that you would tell me if you didn't want an adjustment?

I do know that, I really do. As I'm handing you the card, I'm aware that it's probably an unnecessary exchange between us, and maybe it even feels like when you lean in to hug a friend and they extend their hand so you can shake it instead. I get it.

But please know this: when I'm handing you a consent card, and you place it by your mat, our actions are not in service of either of us. They're in service of TwentyEight, even when they're not in the room. We are creating our own convention, a foundation for safe space, and my hope is that the word eventually gets out to TwentyEight that they are welcome here, among us, where they can breathe and move and seek out a little peace just like we do. And because we want to make TwentyEight (and anyone who'd prefer not to be touched for any reason) comfortable, we all use the cards; I designed them so that the distinction between sides is subtle. If they need to flip their card to the No Thanks side, it's not putting them under a microscope. And that's why everybody has to take a card, and why your completely harmless jokes about them would be better left unsaid. We use the cards respectfully, unassumingly, so that we can support those who need them. We'll know it's working when your majority is not quite so overwhelming, and more touch-averse people are finding it comfortable to practice with us.

It takes tremendous skill to cultivate safe space. It requires the strength of character to be comfortable in one's own skin while actively supporting the capacity for others' comfort. For the manly men among you who practice with me, your arm balances are impressive, but the strongest thing you can do in my class is fortify and protect the room as a liberated learning environment for all manner of people. I'm so grateful for the way that you express and experience your physicality on your mat while holding the space with integrity for others to do the same. I want to thank all of you for hearing me out on this one. Thank you for acknowledging the value of diversity in our practice space, for all of us. I love the beautiful complexity of our community, and I believe our shared experience of difference is one of the most reliably inspiring aspects of what happens when we unroll our mats.

1 28% based on this data on Child Sexual Abuse Statistics

Addendum 3/5/17: This post got a lot more attention than I anticipated. Thanks to everyone for their thoughtful comments on social media. A few points I want to address:

1. While I use the example of TwentyEight here, the fact is that there are many reasons anyone might wish to say "no" to touch during a class. You might want hands-on help one day, and not the next. Not consenting to touch does not necessarily correlate with trauma experience. (Thanks to Joseph Teskey for feedback on this.)

2. It's inexpensive to make your own cards. If you like my design, you can download a print-ready file and print instructions in my shop. There are several great variations on this idea out there as well; thanks to Natalie Cummings for letting me know about permission stones and to Catherine Ashton for letting me know about Yoga Flipchips.

3. Not sure where we go with Jess Glenny's insight, but it's a good one:

"The problem is, I don't have a yes / no answer. I'm after the verbal and embodied dialogue. When I choose a card, I'm choosing with my cognitive brain, and that isn't the part that can actually give consent. It's all in how you approach, and what the interaction is. This emerges. There's a whole blog post in this. The consent card makes me panic. It overwhelms me with feelings. My authentic response to the consent card would be to tear it up and leave the scattered pieces by my mat."