Consent and Tactile Cueing in Yoga and Pilates

Episode 17

Movement teachers have the power to help people move their bodies in a way that makes them feel alive! Joining us today is Rebecca Sebastian, a yoga therapist with more than 20 years of teaching experience, a yoga studio and apothecary owner, and the host of the Working in Yoga podcast to discuss tactile cueing and consent. Tuning in, you’ll hear all about Rebecca’s entry into yoga and teaching, how a lot of peoples’ ‘why’ for doing yoga has changed recently, enthusiastic consent, Rebecca’s take on ‘brave spaces’, the importance of getting to know your students, and so much more! We then delve into all things tactile cues and consent before discussing the pros and cons of touching your students and ultimately, why Rebecca has decided not to touch them in group classes. Our guest even expresses why self-advocacy and being mindful of your body is important in movement practice. Finally, Rebecca shares how she creates a liberating environment in her studio. Thanks for listening in!


Key Points From This Episode:


  • Introducing today’s guest, yoga expert Rebecca Sebastian. 
  • How being born with hip dysplasia got Rebecca into yoga. 
  • Rebecca shares her reluctance to become a yoga teacher and how she fell in love with it. 
  • The importance of enthusiastic consent in any movement class and what that means. 
  • Why you need to make sure you truly see your students in a movement space. 
  • How the motivator for entering a yoga environment has changed recently. 
  • Why Rebecca thinks ‘safe spaces’ are a myth and why she prefers ‘brave spaces’.
  • The multitude of benefits that come with getting to know your students on a personal level. 
  • Rebecca tells us about her concept of a ‘trust cup’.
  • Our guest’s experience with tactile cues and how touch and consent in yoga have changed. 
  • How touching students make your verbal cues lazy and less effective. 
  • When touching is needed and when, instead, it makes clients less confident in their abilities.
  • Why we do not touch our students in group classes. 
  • The importance of self-advocacy, autonomy and being in touch with your own body in yoga. 
  • Yoga as a liberation practice and how Rebecca embodies that in her classes. 





[00:00:00] HT: I am thrilled to introduce to you Rebecca Sebastian. She is a yoga therapist, a yoga studio owner, an apothecary owner, 20 plus years as the yoga teacher, and she’s the host of the podcast, Working in Yoga. Go check that one out. We’re going to be having some really important conversations about teaching, and not only the yoga space, but the Pilates space, the movements space. If you are dealing with bodies, or just humans, this is a conversation that you really want to be listening into. All right. Let’s begin. Rebecca, welcome to the podcast.


Welcome. Stick around if you want to learn about the art and philosophy of beautiful movement mixed with evidence-based exercise science. We’ll be having tough and inspiring conversations with other coaches, experts, artists, and athletes. Our goal is to challenge myths, explore concepts, and engage in healthy debate, as we dive deep with intrigue and curiosity. 


I’m your host, Hannah Teutscher. I’ve been teaching dance, Pilates, and yoga for over two decades. What I’ve learned is that movement can be the joy that integrates us all together. When we can trust and express ourselves through our bodies, we are unlimited in our ability to change ourselves and our communities for the better. We, as movement teachers and coaches have the power to help people experience this for themselves. Okay, everyone, let’s dive in. Exchanging ideas and changing people’s lives one session at a time. This is The Pilates Exchange. 




[0:01:44] HT: A moment ago, I just told our audience a little bit about your background, Rebecca. I’m just so excited to have you as part of this podcast because I think your voice is so important to add to the conversation. I would love to start off with just a brief little – tell me about how did you start yoga? What was your first class like?


[0:02:05] RS: I started yoga because I was born with hip dysplasia. For those who don’t know what that is, it is the ball and socket joint of your hip are not connected when you’re born. As a baby, you don’t have muscles to hold the ball and socket in place. A lot of people actually know this. Young baby girls and dogs get hip dysplasia a lot. People be like, “I’ve never heard that in people, but I know if my dog had it.” As a baby, because we don’t have muscles built, so you are braced. I’m 45, I don’t know if the tech is different. But I was essentially put in a giant plastic diaper as a baby. At 19, I had horrible hip pain, just what you would consider to be chronic hip pain. I was in college, I was going through college, and I was having trouble sitting through classes.


I went to a doctor and a doctor said, “Oh, you’ll have your hip replaced before you’re 40.” That’s what happens to girls like you. Of course, 19-year-old me and terribly dramatic too, that’s my personality. I’m like crying, like, “Chronic pain is my life. It’s going to be horrible.” A friend of mine said, have you ever tried yoga? And so she went with me to my class, it was a yoga class, unlike any yoga class you have ever experienced. It was 95 minutes, there was 35 minutes of asana, yoga movement. There was about 30 minutes of a Kriya or an alternate practice. In that class, I learned walking meditation, breath work, I learned [nali 0:03:44], which is the saltwater bath in your nasal passages. Then, there was 30 minutes of talking. It’s a class that no one – this class doesn’t exist in our industry anymore.


[0:03:57] HT: No, it doesn’t. That’s amazing.


[0:03:59] RS: It was the greatest yoga class I think I’ve ever been to. At the time, I didn’t appreciate it. We all sat around in a group, and it was all these college kids. They were just like, “How are you feeling? How’s your heart feeling? How are you processing life?” It was amazing.


[0:04:17] HT: I got chills.


[0:04:19] RS: Yes. That was it for me. I mean, this was the nineties, so this was the mid-nineties when I found it. Yoga was definitely in a counterculture place versus now when it’s very mainstream. Yes, that was my first yoga class. After college, I moved to London, and I was in every other class I could find. Came back and found this bizarre yoga studio that was 47 stairs up, in three-storey building, with no air conditioning, and random cats running through. It was very counterculture, right?


[0:04:57] HT: I love it.


[0:04:58] RS: That’s how it just had me. It had me from day one. I am 45, my hips are both mine. I’ve not had a hip replacement. I had two babies naturally. Yoga helped me. I came for pain, recovery and relief, and that’s why I was first there. Yes.


[0:05:18] HT: That’s incredible. At some point, you decided like, “Hey, I really like yoga,” to teaching yoga. Then, I know that your background now is in also yoga therapy.


[0:05:30] RS: Yes. I actually didn’t decide either of those things.


[0:05:34] HT: Whoa. Whoa. Whoa. What do you mean you didn’t decide?


[0:05:36] RS: I am the most resistant yoga professional you will ever meet, ever. 


[0:05:42] HT: I knew it, that’s why I like you.


[0:05:46] RS: Originally, when I started teaching yoga, I had a friend who ran of all things a theatre. They were doing local theatre performances, and they had theatrical classes, and they were just opening up. This was 2001, I think. They said, “We want to have yoga here as like an extra class for our theatre. It’s going to be mostly actors and people who want to use yoga to help focus and calm down.” They had a yoga teacher lined up. The story goes that the yoga teacher walked into the room and said, “Oh my God.” This is the most yoga story ever, Hannah. And they said, “The vibes and the energy of the space weren’t right, so they couldn’t teach yoga there.”


[0:06:34] HT: Oh my God. Okay. Yeah, that is the most yoga ever. 


[0:06:36] RS: I know, right? It’s terrible. My friend called me up and said, “Hey, I know you practice yoga. Can you teach this class?” I was like, “No, I cannot.” This was a conversation we had probably five times going back and forth until this person’s wife called me and his wife is a very close friend of mine. Essentially flexed and was like, “Will you do it as a personal favour for me?” I was like, “Damn. Okay.” I had no training, nothing. 


[0:07:11] HT: Oh my God. I love that. Okay. When you write your book, can you title it, please, The Reluctant Yoga Teacher because I love that. All right. The other I think is so interesting is that – I know later, you went through all sorts of different trainings and stuff. Maybe that start is what changed your – I mean, there’s many things that influenced the way that you teach right now, but I love it, that you are on maybe the fringes. I am a little bit. We’re pushing for change, and because we’re taking a look at sort of the things that are going on in our spaces differently than what the mainstream is doing. Am I right about that? 


[0:07:59] RS: I think so. I mean, now that you’re saying that, I do think there’s an element of, I have nothing to prove to anybody. I barely want to be here. In a way that I can’t quit this job, because I do truly love being a yoga professional. I love all of the things that yoga has brought to my life. I will say this often. I can’t believe I’ve been in this job for so long. It’s dumb that I’ve been here this long. I mean, the story of a yoga therapist is actually really similar for me. I was a yoga teacher, and at the time, when I tried to be a yoga therapist in 2010, I was also a single mother. It was me and my very, very young son. He was one year old.


I frankly was just trying to figure out how to make more money per hour, because I had to utilise my time. I didn’t have 40 hours a week to work. As you know, I mean, I’m sure Pilates is the same way. There’s not 40 hours’ worth of work for us anyway. I mean, you teach 40 classes, you’re just flat. You’d be – you couldn’t do that, there’s not that much work. I was like, I just need to know how to make more money per hour. My thought was, if I could charge money the way that a massage therapist charges money, I would be building a sustainable living. That was in 2010. 


Now, 2023, going into 2024 because I’m about to raise my prices again, but I’m about $150 an hour right now, which is wildly more than most massage therapists charge. It did work. It took me a while to get there, but I didn’t feel this like great call to share yoga with the world or anything. I was just trying to get paid better, to be quite frank.


[0:09:49] HT: Yes. Well, I appreciate that honesty. In the way that you’re doing, and also with the type of honesty and authenticity that you have draws people to you. I think that’s a gift in itself, in helping your client too. Would you call it clients or patients?


[0:10:06] RS: We call them clients.


[0:10:08] HT: Okay. Super interesting. Now, part of the conversation that I love to have with you, because I think I’ve also started in the yoga industry before Pilates, and there is some stuff in there.


[0:10:23] RS: So much stuff. We don’t have that kind of time.


[0:10:25] HT: So much stuff. This is going to be the longest podcast ever. I’m not talking about – we don’t need to do today, I think, unless it comes up. We don’t need to tear down the entire industry, unless we want to, and then fire it up. But what I’m noticing is that the more time that I’m sort of on the fringes, when I’m looking back into is the things that have just been accepted by our moving industry altogether. Whether it’s yoga, Pilates, and dance, all of these things. That we’ve accepted a sort of power dynamic, accepting of different ways that we’ve been queuing movements for a while, and touch in the studios, that I think is countering – I don’t know if counterintuitive is the right word.


I think it’s the antithesis of what we should be doing as teachers. Correct me if I’m wrong, or lend your opinion to it. I as a teacher, I want to create a space where someone can experience movement in their own bodies. I’m a guide for that, but I don’t make them do anything. They get to do the thing. What do you think?


[0:11:36] RS: I agree. I think consent, in all things, movement-oriented. I’ve said this before, enthusiastic consent is something we look for. It doesn’t matter if it’s in a movement classroom, or if you’re moving in a fun way with someone outside of movement classroom. Enthusiastic consent, as you take a walk, as you go bike riding. I think the thing that I like to deconstruct here is what people are actually consenting to when they walk into our spaces. I’ll speak from a yoga perspective of, are they consenting to your lecture on the environment? We love to lecture in yoga. We love to be very morally superior in all of our spaces. Are they consenting to your comments about their body? Are they consenting to – the touch thing I think is an interesting, maybe – I mean, touch and consent are very intertwined. But also, I can talk about touch alone for an hour.


Words even, before we even talk about touch, words like – the fact is, if people are coming into our spaces to move to feel well, our words should not make their heads and hearts sick, just so their bodies can feel well. I had a yoga teacher a long time ago, and this was probably my most toxic yoga teacher. I referenced being a single mom. I was married, and my ex-husband left our relationship. At that time, it was an incredibly stressful time, I had a small child. I remember my yoga teacher coming up to me, and patting me on the waist. I’ve never – weight’s never been something where I’ve thought about dieting, or diet culture, or anything like that. I’ve been lucky to be a very, the slim side of average as far as body type goes. 


She just patted me on the waist and she said, “Well, it looks like you’ve lost a little bit more than an ex-husband now. You look great.” I remember thinking to myself because she’d commented – I dropped about 30 pounds very quickly during that time in my life. If you’re wondering what my recipe was for that, it was crying myself to sleep every night, and being so poor, because I didn’t know how I was going to pay my bills that I was eating one hard-boiled egg and half a cup of cottage cheese every day. That was literally all I ate. I mean, I was trying to support me and my son on yoga, which is a notoriously low-paid gig, right?


[0:14:12] HT: Rebecca, there’s another podcast that I did just recently because I had an angry flip-out on someone that had made a comment about someone’s body. “Oh, I haven’t seen you in a while, you look great.” Knowing in the background, like what I know about this person of similar situation. It was just a shitty time in this person’s life. Skinny doesn’t mean healthy. Skinny doesn’t mean happy. I’m sorry that you went through that. When that yoga teacher said that, could you say something back or was the power dynamic so –


[0:14:50] RS: Definitely not. I mean, she was not only my teacher. We all know power dynamics mean that that teacher position, that person of leader in the room is very likely not to be questioned. We were in a public space, so there were other people around when we had this exchange. The public nature of our conversation meant like, I’m not going to call this person out who’s literally in charge of all these things. I’m not going to tell her, “Gee, that was crappy to say” or whatever else. I felt very unseen by her. I think that’s something that’s really important for us, as the leaders in any movement space, is that we are actually seeing our students. We’re seeing their experiences. I felt so unseen. Also, I was working for her. She was my boss.


[0:15:44] HT: Oh, double. Oh, my gosh. Yes. I think there’s that layer where unless you have a very conscientious teacher that is thinking about all of those biases that we have, unknowingly we haven’t, right? That’s the unconscious part of it, is like, we’ve been fed certain ideas for a really long time. We got to unpack those as teachers. Sometimes it comes out, I think. That was a pretty direct, awful thing to say. But I think sometimes it comes out and this might be more Pilates than in yoga. Who knows? But like, oh, this exercise will tone your arms. This one will do this for your body, and all of it has something to do with changing the shape of the person with the assumption that that shape will make them more happy.


[0:16:35] RS: Yes. Yes. We have that in yoga too. We sell fitness in the yoga space, just like any other movement does. Partially, because fitness is easier to sell, even if that’s not actually what we’re doing. Some yoga modalities, that is what they’re doing, and it’s a very fitness style of yoga movement. But frankly, fitness is easier to sell. Now, what’s interesting, from a business perspective, what we have found in the last six months, the reason why people are coming in to yoga spaces specifically, and movement space at wellness spaces, in general. The underlying motivator has changed. My friend, Nicole was telling me this the other day that it used to be, people came to look good in a bikini. Now, they’re coming to us for their mental health in stress management, much more so than they ever have been before. Their why, our students’ why is different. They no longer want you to tell them how to get a beach body. They want us to tell them how our movement will help them sleep at night.


[0:17:43] HT: Right. This is a lot of what I’m saying always in our education program, is finding out what is the person’s motivator. what’s their goal, and how can we support them reach that goal? That may look different for every single person. The words that we’re choosing, and the movement session that we’re setting up should be in accordance to what they’re trying to achieve. Mental health, I mean, gosh, we all need more of that.


[0:18:09] RS: Yes. Yes. True story.


[0:18:13] HT: But we’re not talking about it in a way where this pose or this exercise will make you be healthy in your brain. We’re not talking about giving medical advice here. We are talking about something totally different. This is creating a safe space, and we could talk about that word too, creating safe spaces. But creating a space where there’s freedom for that person to experience what it is that they’re after, not dictating the experience that they should be having.


[0:18:46] RS: I think Pilates is likely a whole lot like yoga, especially certain lineages of yoga. It’s a very sort of dictatorial structure, right? Nobody questions that person in front of the room. That person is the person who has all the say, and all the power, and all the knowledge, right? But what we know based on moving bodies is not all bodies move the same. Not everybody’s motivator for being there with you on that day is the same. Of course, not. I mean, people go to the grocery store for a thousand different reasons. They’re just all selling food, right? You assume they’re all there because they’re hungry, but maybe they’re going on a Tuesday because that’s what fits best in their schedule. Or maybe you’re there at that grocery store because it’s the closest to their house.


Everybody has a thousand different reasons for what they’re doing every day. We can’t assume based on somebody coming into our space that the reason they want to get there is so they look good in a bikini.


[0:19:44] HT: Yes. Oh, yes. What do we talk about when there’s been more talk in general and maybe this is this phrase we don’t use anymore, I don’t know. What is safe spaces mean for you?


[0:19:56] RS: I think state spaces are a myth in general. I think we can talk about safer spaces. I think we can talk about brave spaces. Brave spaces is this sort of like cultural conversation that I’m interested in partially. Because safe spaces generally mean that everybody feels “safe” in that space, that nobody’s going to say anything that offends somebody, or nobody’s going to say anything that makes folks of colour or people who are in the LGBTQ+ community uncomfortable. I think brave spaces are way more interesting, right? Where we’re able to have conversations where people can talk about their lived experience within their bodies in a way that allows us to see, and hold each other in our differences. I love that concept.


We can build movement spaces, and wellness spaces, that allow people to bring their whole self to the table. That to me is the best. I want you to come into my space, bringing all of you, all the messy, all the everything, all the, you know, I don’t like my tummy. And also, I have a hard time at home, and also, I’m having this experience out of my life, like bring everything. 


[0:21:16] HT: What a fascinating concept. I haven’t heard it put like that, and that’s really interesting. A brave space means more dialogue, doesn’t it?


[0:21:24] RS: Yes, I think that’s what becomes really important, is that we, again – and that idea that we need to see each other. The only way we can truly see the people in front of us is if we have conversations with them, where we’re actually listening, which sometimes feels funny, right? If we’re supposed to be the people talking, like, I say that all the time in my yoga classes. I just talk a lot. That’s my job. I’m supposed to talk a lot to you all. But we really want to have conversations with our students. I want to get to know them better. The other day, I just happen to be lucky enough that it was like a weird, awkward class that I was teaching the day after a holiday. Somebody comes in, it was one person in the class. I love one-person classes. I don’t get them often anymore. But every once in a while, you get to have that one-person class.


I was getting to know the student at my studio, and he was telling me about all of the political action campaigns that he had worked on, and how he was in Philadelphia when the vote was coming out in 2020. I was like, “Wait. What? You did what?” I’m like, “What amazing life have you lived that I didn’t even know, and you’ve been here this whole time.”


[0:22:45] HT: Yes. I agree with you, totally. It’s so much fun. I agree with you that I love, I look for those personal experiences with them. If it happens to be a one-person class that was supposed to be a group class, I’m in. I don’t cancel that. I love, love connecting with people that way. It is being seen, respected, acknowledged, held space for, and having those conversations, because when you know someone better, then they are part of that community also in a more authentic way, perhaps.


[0:23:14] RS: I mean, from a business perspective, it’s a frankly good business. I know every time that I happen to have a random class, where there’s one person in there, and we get to move our bodies, but also dialogue in a way that in group classes, you don’t get to dialogue. I know that person’s with me until the end of time because it’s not just business for them anymore. We know each other on a different level. It’s just good business.


[0:23:42] HT: I think that’s where the results also come in for them because the trust goes deeper with you as the leader of the movement. When they can trust you, and the directions that you’re giving them, then they trust themselves to be able to take maybe more risks, if that’s what it’s about, or trusting in their experience that if something is not feeling good, that they can come to you and say, “Hey, Rebecca. What about this or what about this?” That, I think is where those super magical moments are.


[0:24:10] RS: Yes. Trust is a really interesting thing to bring up because there is this trust level. Like this initial trust that people have just to walk into our spaces. I’m going to trust that you’re not going to hurt me. I’m going to trust that I’m going to have a positive experience. It’s interesting how that works. Every time we interact with our students, we’re adding a little bit more into what I call a trust cup, right? They come in, and it’s halfway full; this trust cup. Everybody gets halfway. You walk into a grocery store, you walk into the mall, like half of a trust cup.


Then, our interactions either add to that trust or take trust away. So if somebody walks into our space and then immediately we comment on, say, how their body looks in a way that hurts their feelings, we’ve taken away from their trust cup, right? If we’re adding positive experience, getting to know them, really getting to see the people who are there, then we’re adding to that trust cup. Which is good, because it’s good to connect with other people. That makes all of us live longer, when we have deeper connections with people. Also, it’s great for business, because we are likely to be their teacher for much longer if we’re adding to their trust cup, instead of taking away from it. 


[0:25:30] HT: Yes. That is such a great way of putting it, and it is that earning of trust over time. Do we want to talk tactile cues? Do we want to go there?


[0:25:44] RS: Sure. Hit me. What we’re talking about?




[0:25:49] HT: When I started teaching, I felt underprepared and overwhelmed. I needed to learn how to plan my training so that it made sense, but I wasn’t sure what was working and what wasn’t. So many teacher training programs leave out the actual art and business of teaching. This is why we created Train the Trainers. Train the Trainers is designed to give you the tools you need to create a powerful learning environment for your students. Gain access to the vault of our collected knowledge where you can learn everything we have to teach you; whether you are a freelance teacher or a studio owner. Get constructive feedback on your teaching with actionable tools you can apply immediately. We can’t wait to be part of your teaching journey and to help you grow in your business. Welcome to Train the Trainers.




[0:26:36] HT: All right. So here’s where I’m at. When I started – I mean, Ashtanga yoga [inaudible 0:26:42]. My first Ashtanga class was in 2000. It changed my life. I was deeply in the Ashtanga community for very many years. That was my introduction to yoga. Ashtanga is notorious for the types of physical cueing that happens. I will help you – it’s not I will help you. I will put you into this posture.


[0:27:11] RS: Yes. The most messed up cues I’ve ever had have been in Ashtanga yoga places, universally.


[0:27:19] HT: Oh my gosh. At that point, I was 21 years old when I started that, 20 or 21. It didn’t ring any alarm bells at that point because I had already been a dancer. We are physically, from a very young age, we are physically manipulated into the shapes that people want us to be in. Whether that means pushing us down into splits or whatever it is. Adults feel they have ownership over our bodies, and they put this into different places. When I started in the Ashtanga world, it didn’t even cross my mind that some of the things that happen there are very fucked up.


[0:27:58] RS: So fucked up. Oh my God.


[0:28:00] HT: I remember the first time that I was like, “Oh, this is really weird.” I was in a – I don’t know if everyone is going to be familiar with this posture, but both legs behind the head posture. Basically, for those of you not in yoga, so try to picture this. You’re lying on your back, and you have both legs that are behind the back of your neck. You’re severely in a vulnerable position anyways, weird. I don’t know why we do it, but it is – and it’s kind of fun to do sometimes. The teacher, female teacher actually sat on my pelvis. What was she thinking? To this day, that was the moment where – what did she say? She said something like, “Just breathe. Don’t –” She said, which I had heard many times over, “Don’t fight against me, or you’ll hurt yourself.”


[0:29:03] RS: Oh, man.


[0:29:05] HT: That was the first moment, but it was years later of my Ashtanga journey, where I was like, “Oh, that’s weird.” Then, I started unpacking.


[0:29:21] RS: It’s so weird.


[0:29:22] HT: It’s so weird. After that, I don’t touch – I haven’t touched people in a long time, maybe only in the context of a personal training. Maybe we’ll do some tactile cue, depending on what that person needs and blah, blah, blah. But it’s very much about consent every single time, every single time that I’m touching a person. But there’s a whole methods that it’s ingrained, it’s ingrained in our teacher trainings, different teacher trainings. It’s not just yoga, it’s definitely in Pilates. It’s 100% in dance. What is your experience with this? I’m not the only one for sure.


[0:30:02] RS: Oh, goodness, no. I mean – I think the only other yoga lineage that is as touch-heavy as Ashtanga is Iyengar, which is what I am trained in. My original yoga training before I was a yoga therapist. So now, I would say, lineage-wise, I am of the Sivananda lineage, which is definitely a kinder, gentler version of a yoga lineage versus your Ashtanga or your Iyengar.


But yes, I mean, again, walking into that yoga studio space, the 47 stairs up with the random cats, that was an Iyengar studio. You just walked in, and the woman who owned that space, I remember because she was my first yoga trainer, who said very clearly, “You must touch everybody in the room. Otherwise, why would they come here versus watching a video.” This was like when Rodney Yee and his AM/PM yoga video was really popular, we all watched the same videos in the late nineties and early two-thousands. She said, “You have to touch everybody.”


I remember walking in, and just being like, okay, this is I guess what we do here. Nobody told me this was going to happen. Here’s me like, every new student right in the back of the room, very far back, and she starts touching people in the front, and I’m just like – it’s just like that Jaws music, as they get closer, and closer. You’re like, I don’t know what’s going to happen. It’ll be fine. It’s fine.


[0:31:39] HT: Oh my gosh. Rebecca, it’s the same thing. I was taught that also, in my yoga teacher training. You must touch every single person I forgot that that was literally a requirement in the yoga teacher training.


[0:31:53] RS: With their feet. I mean, that’s the thing in the Iyengar tradition, like Iyengar teachers, we use every part of your body to sort of offer those manual assists, those physical cues. I remember the first time I saw her put her foot on somebody’s hip crease in a pose called warrior 2, Virabhadrasana 2. Where you’re standing there, and you have one leg bent. One leg, the ideal is that we’re at a 90-degree angle with the hip, and the knee, and the floor, and the other leg is extended behind you, and you’re standing. Very classic yoga pose. She’s got her toes in the hip crease of a student. I’m like, “Wait. Your feet are where?” Also, she lived on a farm. This is not sanitary, and also, ew and what. Nobody flinched. Nobody said a word. It was just like what we did. 


I mean, now, can you imagine that happening? I mean, in yoga spaces, we’re definitely having this conversation about touch and consent very heavily right now. I will say, I stopped touching people years ago, I think 2012, 2013. Because one thing I have noticed is that when you manually assist people or offer physical cues, what happens is your words become lazy. We tend to rely on that touch to teach. I realised, I wanted to get better at my job, and that meant eliminating all of the crutches that I was using in my job. First thing I did was, I took my yoga mat away as a teacher so that I couldn’t demo like I used to demo. I had to use my words. Then, I stopped touching people. Then, I had to really use my – how can I tell somebody to do this thing that I used to physically put their bodies into? In a way that didn’t sound stupid, right? Because we also don’t want to sound dumb in front of our groups of 20 people or 30 people.


I stopped touching people and my students fought back. They were adamant that they wanted physical adjustments. So each year, this is something I’ve done for decades or more now. Each year, around Christmas time, I have – my students give me feedback. I have a little mini feedback form, and I just say, “Hey. What have you loved about my teaching this year? What do you want more of? What do you miss?” Then, on New Year’s, I open them all up so that I can start the new year off with all this feedback from my students to have me get better as a professional.


[0:34:40] HT: What a beautiful idea.


[0:34:42] RS: It’s fun. It was always so enjoyable, because – I mean, a lot of my students had been with me for a decade or more. I’ve been lucky enough to be teaching long enough to have students for a decade or more. So you get all these lovely notes from them. “Oh my gosh, we love you. You’re so funny” or “We love how weird you are” or whatever. Then also, they get the opportunity to tell me what they’re looking for more of. That first year that I stopped touching people, every one of those forums said, “I miss physical adjustments.” Everyone. 


[0:35:20] HT: Wow.


[0:35:21] RS: I went, “That’s interesting.” I kind of went with them, and I had – I was lucky enough to have a good enough relationship where I was like, “What’s with this? Why do you all feel this way?” Here’s what they all said to me, which I feel like you’re going to appreciate. They all said, “How am I going to know if I’m doing it right if you don’t touch me to tell me that I’m doing it right?”


[0:35:44] HT: Yes. Okay. But like –


[0:35:47] RS: I went, “Oh.”


[0:35:49] HT: Oh. Yes, exactly. 


[0:35:49] RS: We sent messages. Yes.


[0:35:53] HT: This has been my point for years now talking to people. It’s like, it creates not only the power of balance, but it creates this doubt in their minds that they are not doing it correctly. It becomes an ego play because I see teachers going around, and they’re like, “Move a pinky finger.” Really? Was that necessary? It is an ego-driven thing for the majority of them. For us, Pilates teachers, we have very big equipment pieces sometimes that does get dangerous. I will always assist someone when I feel it’s going to be an unsafe – not unsafe, but like so that they feel secure. 


But moving someone into a posture, or a movement, it creates, I believe and I’m so glad that you said it the way you did. It’s that feeling that they’re not doing it correct. It’s not a support, it’s making them doubt themselves. Yes, you’re shaking your head. 


[0:37:00] RS: Very clearly, my experience the entire time. So I held fast to this not touching people for three or four years, and then I brought it back with – 2017, 2018, we were having these conversations in the yoga space about what consent for touch would look like, dynamically live within our classes. Can this be done? Can consent to be held in group class spaces, in a way that everybody was safer than they were before? I brought rocks into my classes, and I just carried like this big thing of river rocks. I live right on the Mississippi River. We have river rocks everywhere. So I had this big thing of river rocks, and my intention was, consent is an action.


So if you want me to touch you, you have to take the rock and put it on your mat. That was the game, right? So if you want me to touch, if you want me to – if I see the opportunity where touch is going to be beneficial. You have to have this rock here, right? Then, we go over, I have a conversation, I say, “Hey, this is what I’m going to do. Is it okay if I put my hand here?” That’s how that worked. 


I had students even then saying – I had one lady, Brenda was her name, who line the entire front of her yoga mat with river rock. She had like seven or eight of them. 


[0:38:20] HT: So interesting.


[0:38:21] RS: Right. I was like, again, that’s interesting behaviour. I want to know more about why you feel that way. Because also, simultaneously with this conversation about consent to touch in yoga spaces, we were talking about how humans do have an innate need to be touched. It is beneficial and therapeutic to be touched by other human beings. It’s good for our nervous system, oxytocin, et cetera, et cetera. 


I was like, oh, okay. Maybe she just really loves that sort of interaction in her yoga classes. I don’t feel that way. That is not where I need my touch, but other people might. So I go up to Brenda after class, and I’m like, “That’s funny, Brenda. You had seven rocks on the front of your mat.” She’s like, “How else am I going to know that I’m doing it right if you don’t touch me?” Every time, every time.


[0:39:10] HT: So interesting. It brings up this – because I completely 100% agree. I mean, that’s just with the sciences that we need, we need physical touch. But is it our space? Is it our profession to be able to touch people at that point? I think massage therapists, yes. Physical therapist, yes. That’s not my education. The question is like, what kind of service are we providing as well?


[0:39:43] RS: Oh, absolutely. I mean, and again, the signs are clear. We do need physical touch. But is a movement space the appropriate place to fill that need? 


[0:39:57] HT: Yes.


[0:39:58] RS: I don’t know that it is.


[0:39:59] HT: Exactly. Yes to that question. It’s super interesting. Maybe I put it this way. That is not a type of service or a space that I feel comfortable creating. With my trauma, with my personal history, I don’t think that I can do people a service of doing it correctly. I don’t know what correct looks like in that space. That is another reason why I feel opting out of almost all physical assist. For me, has been a very good decision.


[0:40:33] RS: Do you touch people in your Pilates space?


[0:40:36] HT: If it’s a personal training, so if someone is working through something, I do have a few people with multiple sclerosis, and stroke, and Parkinson’s, they are definitely more hands-on for the assistance that they need. It’s also really good for their processes. We talk about it every single time, though, what they need and what they don’t need.


In a group class, I do not touch because I’m not sure if, let’s put it this way, even though I know people for 8, 10 years or so, I think even in the, say, the experience of the one hour that we’re together, even if someone came in and said, “Hey, can you help me with this? I’d like more touch today.” That consent can change during the course of the class. Are you getting more tired? Did I just trigger something? Or not even I’m triggering. You had some sort of memory about something else? Then, that dynamic changes. I’m not 100% sure that, even when I ask, that person is going to be feeling safe enough to give their consent willingly. I don’t touch in a group class. That was a long answer for you.


[0:41:51] RS: No. I have an official policy. In my studio, and I own a yoga studio. In my studio, I employ 10 people who are yoga professionals, who are yoga teachers. My official policy is, we don’t touch in class. I better not catch you touching people. That is in my manual. No, thank you. There’s just too much than that. Again, I understand. I actually have some yoga teachers on staff who are also massage therapists. I’m like, “You know what? Here’s the deal, if you want to add touch to your class, that is a written description. That means that everybody understands what they’re opting in for when they sign up for your class. You are having a very clear conversation with each and every person individually when they come in the door, so they understand what’s going to happen. Then, you’re giving them a way to opt-out or tell you to go away. I made it so much work that eventually she was like, “Never mind. Perfect. Excellent.”


[0:42:49] HT: That’s a super interesting way of doing it, Rebecca. I think all of those things, because people need to know what they sign up for. I personally do not like to be in Shavasana. and someone’s putting oils on my head and massaging my scalp. I don’t know what that is. For me, personally. I know that some people love that. It’s just not me. If I know at the beginning that that would be happening, then I could say, “Please don’t do that.” I need to know what to expect.


[0:43:25] RS: I have been that person in a yoga space where somebody comes around to do like the head massage with the oils and all that. Where here’s me just lying there, all of a sudden, my eyes open up and I’m like, “No,” so loudly, ruining the vibe. “No, don’t touch me. Don’t touch my hair. I have texture to my hair, do not touch my hair. Go.” 


[0:43:47] HT: Yes. Why? Oh, yes, I feel all of the things, all of that.


[0:43:55] RS: But the amount of training I have had to have had over 23 years of teaching, to be able to just say “No” in the space. That is – most people don’t have that ability at all. I used to joke sometimes that – I trained to be a yoga teacher. I did it so that I learned that I could come down, and down dog when I wanted to rest. Before that training. I was like, well, I guess we’re just here forever, and my arms are shaking, and I had a bad day, and I just hate this thing.


[0:44:35] HT: Yes. I mean, 100%. I have in my in my past, it’s funny that you say that. It was only after I felt a little bit more secure in my practice, in my Ashtanga practice, and practising [inaudible 0:44:51] where you go at your own pace. And you’re going through the, let’s say, the choreography for those of you who are not familiar with Ashtanga. Where there would be days where I just feel like, sun salutation, that’s it. All right, time to push Shavasana. That’s it. I’m going to lie here for 90 minutes. Here we go. That we don’t need to fight through all of that. I think it’s some of our clients probably get sick of hearing from us because we’re constantly reiterating. If you don’t want to do this exercise, skip it or do something that makes you feel good.


[0:45:34] RS: Sometimes I think it’s very funny that those of us who are teaching adults have to remind other adults that they’re adults, and you can do whatever you want. You could literally get up and leave. In my classes, I have what’s called Choose Your Own Adventure Time. It is the mark of halfway through my class. I’ll give people a general option of three different yoga poses. You can do a downward-facing dog, you can do child’s pose, or you can do cat and cow, which is undulation of the spine on all force.


Essentially, my goal in this break in our class is that what I’m really teaching is people’s ability to be able to be in touch with their own bodies and respond with what they need. That’s my job, is for people to understand what their bodies need, and then respond accordingly. The first few times I added this into my class, everybody picked one of those three things. Now, it’s just mayhem. Choose Your Own Adventure Time, people are just doing whatever. I’m like, to me, that is the sign of a good class, is that there’s this space carved out in it, where people can answer the call of what their own body needs.


[0:46:49] HT: That’s so beautiful. It brings me to maybe an idea of how I would be able to incorporate tactile cues better. If I were to ask them, if they could choose what they needed from me, rather than me telling them, moving their bodies. If someone said to me, “Hannah, it would be so great if you could help me stretch my leg right here. Can you hold my ankle?” I’m in because that feels empowered to me.


[0:47:19] RS: Yes, that’d be – I mean, to have students that would have the languaging required, and then you have the relationship with that student, to be able to have them ask you for that sort of assistance, I think is beautiful. That’s touch at its best.


[0:47:34] HT: That hasn’t happened. But I’m saying, how cool would it be?


[0:47:37] RS: It would be so cool. Document the date. What do you think of it?


[0:47:41] HT: But I love this idea of Choose Your Own Adventure. We incorporated a little bit different. Yes, it really gives that autonomy to people to choose, to get in touch with themselves, to feel, well, what is it that I want right now. Yes. Oh my gosh. More of that, please.


[0:48:04] RS: I mean, ultimately, and that’s that thing with the story of all the rocks and the physical adjustments. Is that, I think over time, as you progress as a movement professional, what you do get really clear on is what you’re actually doing here. I think in the beginning, you’re teaching, and you’re teaching in a way that your teacher taught you to teach, and you just go, “Okay, I’m just doing what she did or “Okay, I’m doing what Joseph Pilates said. I’m just doing what he said.”


Eventually, you kind of sit there and you go, “Okay. Why am I actually here? Why do I find benefit out of this? Why do my students find benefit out of this?” I realised over time, the thing, the reason why I’m really here, what yoga particularly is really about is, yoga is a liberation practice. How liberating if I can offer people this opportunity to answer what their own body needs in the moment. Really, what I’m teaching people is how to do that in my room, so that they can go into life and do that. 


[0:49:10] HT: Ooh, yes. 


[0:49:12] RS: Then it becomes different, then I teach differently, then I teach with a different purpose, then it’s not to make people as sweaty as possible or as flexible as possible. Or like you said, being, that pose with both feet behind your head, literally. I used to teach yoga to 90-year-olds, guess how many of them cared if they could put their foot behind their head? Like, none.


[0:49:30] HT: Exactly. 


[0:49:32] RS: They were like, “Can I get up and down off the floor?” That’s really important to them. “Are my joints stable?” None of them even cared if they could touch your toes. Imagine that.


[0:49:44] HT: What? That’s not the end all be all.


[0:49:46] RS: But they were like, “Look, do I feel secure in my body? Do I feel comfortable moving around? Do I feel like I can do the things that I want to do in order to make my day part of the life that gets me excited to wake up every morning?” That’s what I think all of us movement professionals have in common, is that we can teach people how to move their bodies in a way that gets them excited to wake up and live.


[0:50:09] HT: Absolutely. Yes. I can’t say it any better than what you just said, so I’m just going to leave it at that. That’s fantastic. 


[0:50:14] RS: Perfect.


[0:50:16] HT: That’s a wrap. Thank you.


[0:50:19] RS: Peace. We’re done. 


[0:50:22] HT: Fixed at all. 


[0:50:24] RS: Whoa, only took us an hour.


[0:50:30] HT: Oh, gosh. Well, Rebecca, I really, really appreciate you coming on and chatting with me. Because I think it’s – we could learn so much from each other’s methods. I think that there’s so much great knowledge that’s out there. There’s great questions being asked in all these different spaces. When we get together and sort of discuss, debate, question, I think that’s really going to help all of us, not just as teachers, but also our students.


[0:51:03] RS: Yes. Eventually, we’ll all be [inaudible 0:51:05] teachers anyway.


[0:51:07] HT: Probably. Well, I’ve mentioned at the beginning of our podcasts that Rebecca has a podcast, Working in Yoga, which you need to go check out. Every different way to get a hold of Rebecca is definitely in the show notes. So you’re going to go and give her a “Hi”, also on social media, and let her know what you think. She loves continuing conversations. I know that about Rebecca.


[0:51:35] RS: I do.




[0:51:37] HT: Thank you so much for joining us today. I hope you enjoyed the conversation. A great cost-free way of supporting us and the podcast would be to give us a five-star rating. You could also look down into the show notes and grab any one of the free resources for teachers. I hope to see you next week on The Pilates Exchange. Happy teaching, everyone.



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