I used to go to Bikram yoga classes pretty regularly a few years ago. The studio was close, there was ample parking, and the price wasn't too bad. There were a number of different instructors and they were all great. One used to bring his guitar and play during savasana, another used to make us laugh during the hardest poses, which was quite an accomplishment. It was a great little place, until I took a class with a new instructor.
You know how sometimes you'll get a gut feeling about someone right off the bat? I had this sinking feeling with the new instructor the second he walked in the room. I can't really explain it- something in the way he carried himself, maybe, something in how his eyes lingered on the women in the room. But I stayed.
If you've been to Bikram yoga, you know it's in a boiling hot room with high humidity and everyone is dressed (or rather, not dressed) accordingly. Everyone was half naked, including the instructor, but with the bright florescent lights, and the sweat literally dripping from every orifice of the body, there was nothing sexy about it. In fact, when your sweat falls from your chin into a puddle on your mat and you're staring at yourself in the less than forgiving mirror underneath those terrible lights, sexy is the last thing you feel. And the instructor pointed it out. He actually pinched the belly of the woman in front of me and said, "See this fat? Keep doing Bikram and you'll turn it into these," and he ran his hand over his six pack. The woman, already red from the heat, said nothing. Later, he adjusted me and his hands lingered longer than necessary on my back- just enough to make me feel uncomfortable. He made other references to his "perfect body" and how one day we would get there, but "clearly today is not the day," he mused as he pointed out the loose skin of the inner thigh of another woman. I was floored, but I didn't have the nerve to say anything to him personally. Instead, I went home and emailed the owner. I never got a response, so I never returned.
A few days ago I read about the sexual harassment lawsuit brought by Sarah Baughn, yoga champion and former student, against Bikram Choudhury, the founder of Bikram yoga. Based on conversations with yoga teachers I know who have trained with Bikram and the book I read that was a part expose on Bikram, I was not at all surprised by the allegations. It's unfortunate and maddening, and underscores the fact that sexual harassment can happen anywhere and it's important to respond immediately.
In light of the Bikram lawsuit and what I experienced with that one Bikram instructor, here are ways to be sure you're communicating effectively with your yoga instructor.
1. Be upfront
In class, your instructor might adjust or assist you. If the idea of that makes you uncomfortable, and you'd rather not have anyone's hands on you, let your instructor know ahead of time. There's no need to justify your reasoning or explain yourself. Simply say, "I know you'll be adjusting people and I just want to let you know that I would much prefer verbal cues than hands-on adjustments." A good yoga instructor will accept that with no questions asked.
2. Speak up right away
If you're cool with adjustments (and really, they're a good thing when done professionally and correctly!), but something doesn't feel right, say so right in the moment. Maybe you're in a seated forward fold and the instructor is pushing on your back. This may be too intense for your hamstrings. If there's any pain involved at all, simply say, "Please stop." You can add that it hurts, if you like, but really, no justification is necessary. If the touch feels more like a come-on than an adjustment, again, simply tell him/her to stop. Be firm, and don't worry about it being in the middle of class. If something doesn't feel right, say so immediately.
3. Addressing the issue further
Whether it was a painful adjustment or felt more like harassment, you can choose to talk with the instructor after class and let them know how you felt. If you don't feel comfortable doing that, feel free to talk with the studio owner. It's important, in my opinion, that there's further communication- I mean, if I were giving an adjustment and it made someone uncomfortable, I would want to know so I could a) apologize and b) be mindful when I do that particular adjustment on people in the future.
4. Go elsewhere
I know people love "their" studios, but in my opinion, loyalty goes out the window when it comes to a lack of professionalism. If you've tried to talk to the instructor or studio owner about it and you got nowhere, go somewhere else. You deserve a safe space to practice with instructors who are caring, competent and professional.
5. Talk to others
If an instructor is continually making you feel uncomfortable, but not really doing anything concrete like in my case, where the instructor let his hands linger for a second or two longer than necessary, feel free to talk to other students after class to see if anyone else feels the same. Maybe it's in your head, but more likely than not, when you've got a weird feeling, it's usually right.
What do you think? Do you have any tips for better communication? Have you ever had an experience like this in a yoga class? What did you do to deal with it?