What Makes Yoga Safe?

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I know that typically people might think that “safety in yoga” refers to things like making inversions such as headstand “safe”, or avoiding pulling a muscle or tendon. But, through my studies of yoga, asana, anatomy and biomechanics, I have realized that the physical practice of yoga, really, is as safe as anything else: walking, riding a bike, exercising at the gym, and other activities of that intensity.

What makes yoga unsafe then, in my opinion, is the potential for abuse and traditions and lineages where abuse is left unchecked, or swept under the rug, and then left unaddressed. At a workshop on the history of yoga asana this fall (2023), the facilitator declared something to the effect that “studying the history of assault in yoga is virtually the same as studying the history of yoga.”

Yoga is not always the panacea we hope it to be.

So, then, we can we do to make yoga safe? For starters, if you are thinking of joining a class at studio, a workshop, a teacher training, a retreat, or so forth, ask the leaders or studio owners about their informed consent policy and their harassment (prevention) policy. If they do not have these things, ask why not. If you are not comfortable with their answers, then move on. There are plenty of other teachers, trainings, classes, retreats, workshops, etc, that do.

For me personally, I experienced mostly verbal abuse especially in the forms of yelling, humiliation, and shaming. So, I would add that trauma informed or trauma aligned teaching skills are also part of what makes yoga safe. Teachers, instructors, facilitators, should offer options and there should never be anything that makes you feel like you have to practice yoga or a particular asana in a certain way. If teachers are ridiculing students or behaving in an verbally abusive way, that is not “yoga tradition.” Well, ok, it might actually be “yoga tradition”, but it doesn’t mean it’s a tradition we have to continue.

Last, yoga has been appropriated by westerners and we have virtually erased desi people from yoga in the United States and other western nations. To make yoga safe, and feel inclusive to everyone, we all should have some awareness around yoga cultural appropriation and centering the roots of yoga and teachers of south asian descent, and other people of color.

Note: If you are currently experiencing abuse (verbal, physical, psychological, sexual or other) by a yoga teacher, yoga studio or other spiritual community, and need help, please contact someone you can trust who is geographically close to you. General examples can include a friend, neighbor or family member. In the United States you might contact a licensed psychologist or social worker, Adult Protective Services, Child Protective Services, your county health department or even the police if you are in immediate danger of being harmed. Abusive yoga teachers, studios, and even entire methods of yoga, are a serious issue that needs to be brought into the light. In the meantime, keep yourself safe. In the United States, you can visit the RAINN.org website for resources and hotline numbers.