The Power Of Context: Arrested Or Adored?

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Recently, I was leading a yoga teacher training when an odd question arose…

It was a warm summer day and the room was encircled by 20-something women, all working toward certification as yoga teachers.  I was describing how to adjust a certain posture, then demonstrating the types of adjustments on a volunteer.

One particular move required a fair amount of body-to-body contact. Which is what prompted the question…

“Does you wife have any idea what you REALLY do for a living?!”

We all started laughing and I went on, showing more demonstrations. But, the question really got me thinking. What makes the exact same action okay on the one hand or offensive on the other?

Is it really all about context?

During any given yoga class, I’ll walk through the room adjusting people for a solid 90-minutes. Some of those adjustments are gentle and less physical. But, others are deeper and require different parts of my body to be in direct contact with my students’ bodies. It could be my hands, my chest, my arms or some combination of all of the above.

Now, I am always sure to be very respectful and send clear signals that my intention is purely therapeutic, nothing more, nothing less. I often go a step further and share stories about my family in class. I want people to know, if I adjust them…

It’s not sexual, it’s simply about furthering the purpose of a posture.

And, my long-term students know this about me and about the practice. But, the interesting thing is, I have new students in class every week, people I’ve never met, and I adjust them, too.

I regularly place my hands on them in ways that they’d likely find offensive, were someone else with no prior relationship to do the very same thing either out on the street or in an office setting. But, in this context and setting it’s not only okay, but welcomed.


So, I am curious:

  • Is it really all about context or is there something else I am missing?
  • Have you seen a similar phenomenon in other settings, areas?
  • And, how does this all play out in the workplace, personal life and beyond?

Let’s discuss…

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24 responses

24 responses to “The Power Of Context: Arrested Or Adored?”

  1. Actually, when I used to teach I tried to quietly signal some kind of “permission” with the student, either verbally or through body language, and occasionally point out that anyone NOT comfortable being adjusted should let me know. I’d guess that you’re possibly – even subsconsciously – doing the same, even if it’s just a feeling you get about a student’s comfort level? It’s a good question. And context is DEFINITELY paramount.

  2. Shannon says:

    Interesting question and I think context is everything. Coming to your class they have to give over a certain amount of trust to you. Even though to the new students you are a stranger by definition you are the teacher and a person of authority and trust. By attending the class they place themself in the student teacher relationship.

    On the streets, there is no relationship. So if you randomly went up to someone and put your hands on their hips it would naturally be offensive.

    So really it is both context and relationships that change the perspective.

  3. Brandon W says:

    Eight years ago, at the age of 28, I would have my hands all over teenage girls every day. Without context, that sounds really bad. Maybe even illegal. But I did it with their mothers in attendance, because I was working professionally as a photographer. It was necessary for me to help them attain proper poses, ensure their clothing wasn’t wrinkled in unflattering ways, etc. Not once did I ever have a model or parent suggest that I made any inappropriate contact. But try that out at the mall….

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  5. Jonathan Fields says:

    @ Laura – I think you may be onto something with the notion of an almost subconscious solicitation of permission through body language. Interesting…

    @ Shannon – Yeah, I wonder how much of a new student’s comfort comes from not only the context, but the knowledge of who I am and my reputation before they even step into the room.

    @ Brandon – Hmmm, never realized there was such a physical element to being a photographer, but I guess it makes sense. I know in the fashion industry and in theater, very often people are in various stages of physicality and nudity behind the scenes, without it being about sex. Then, of course, there is some notorious line crossing there, too. But, I guess you could say that about other professions, yup, even yoga, too.

  6. It’s all about the frame. The frame does the work for you.

    You’re being “presented” in this context as the expert, and it’s clear that everything you’re doing is conscious, intentional and intended to help people be in the process.

    Can’t underestimate the power of the frame.

    On the other hand (and I also come from the yoga world originally), you are so, so right that there are instances of people abusing power, and less-than-cool stuff happening.

    Which is why it’s important to express things in other ways than just “energetically”. 🙂

    But what comes across here though is the deep sense of trust your students have, which is awesome. And definitely a sign that you’re doing something right.

    Would be interesting to apply this to different professions across the board. Ex. things that therapists say to clients that they’d never say to their bank teller …

  7. Jonathan Fields says:

    @ Havi – That’s a cool way of looking at it. I think, intuitively, you also develop a sense for comfort level, but if there’s any question, I’ll ask first. What’s fascinating about this to me, too, is how this dymanic works and can “be” worked in more of a business setting.

  8. Allison says:

    I would say it’s definitely a context thing. In ballet class and rehearsal, I’ve had male teachers touch me in places where I would normally slap someone for touching me, but in ballet class it’s very obviously non-sexual and only done to correct our placement/technique.

    Same thing for dancing with a male ballet partner… certain lifts require them to have their hand or arm between my legs, or touch my rear in order to lift me, but it’s never ever done in a sexual manner.

  9. I likethe idea of frame. I am thinking it is interesting about those frames and just how that translates into “accepted practices” There could be some pretty interesting possibilites if that Yoga framework were say transposed onto another professional situation… or make for a funny skit for Saturday NIght Live.
    Seriously, your scenario makes me think about the frameworks that are set up so that certain goals may be accomplished. Often those frameworks can deeply affect the outcomes…so context is extremly important. I wonder if managers tweak context and get better results in business? Do you see where I am going there?
    And it is funny how that works when anything deals with the body professionally. When we draw nudes it is a very professional relationship. Not about sex, more about finding beauty and articulation.

  10. zania says:

    It’s all about context, our understanding of what that context means: what is accepted and what is not.
    Therapists, doctors, dentists even, we allow to touch parts of us and see parts of us we allow very few others anywhere near.

    It’s all about trust – in the context and in the person we view as the ‘professional’ working within that context.

    So in a business sense it’s not only about working within an accepted framework (or developing one), it’s also about demonstrating that we are a credible part of that framework.

  11. Robyn says:

    Yes to context and other people watching. However, I think intent is more important than context. I think that if your intent was something other than correction, even in the context of yoga instruction and with other people watching, it would still communicate itself. Even if the person you were touching didn’t quite recognize the intent, it would manifest as an uncomfortable feeling.
    When I entered the workforce in the early 70s, men would sometimes put a hand on my shoulder. But I noticed there was a difference between the way I felt afterward, depending on who had touched me. Maybe some of them let their hand linger a little too long, or slid the hand across my shoulder. Whatever it was, my body could tell when the gesture wasn’t entirely professional. You don’t have the problem of people misinterpreting your touch because your touch communicates your intent. It would feel the same whether you and the person you were correcting were in a room full of people or alone. And if the person no longer felt comfortable, I think that discomfort would be felt by you.

  12. Laurie says:

    I worked in a lab a bunch of years ago and a man there wanted to pull a string that was hanging in the seam of my pants up where he shouldn’t be looking. For him it was totally inappropriate. If I had been in a photography studio, it would have been more acceptable to get it off of my pants. Also, my gynocologist is allowed certain “views” that is off limits to others except the hub of course! :O)

  13. Laurie says:

    Also are those your hairy legs with the red flowery fip-flops in the top corner of your blog? Hummmm is there a story to that?

  14. Jonathan Fields says:

    So, we all are pretty much in agreement that the context or frame plays a large role in whether an action is cool or not. And intent definitely plays a role.

    I wonder, too, how much prior reputation or perceived authority impacts whether something is acceptable or not?

    @ Laurie – hehehe, the mystery of who’s legs they are lives on… 😉

  15. Diane says:

    Yet another post that makes you go hmmmmm… I can relate to this Jonathan, as I’m a Yoga Therapist and Thai Yoga Bodyworker. I’ve touched a lot of bodies in both training situations and sessions — actually that picture that goes along with you post is something I’ve done with clients many times. I agree that intention and context are important. I also find that expectation setting is important as well. I always tell people what they can expect during a session so there are no surprises. I’ve seen some training relationships take a turn for the sexual once class was out. I’ve also known some yoga teachers who have gone a bit out of context so to speak with students. That’s why I’m not sure perceived authority necessarily implies trust. Sometimes I think perceived authority can ramp things up in some cases. It really depends upon the people involved. I think you can tell when someone is being honest and professional as you can when someone is abusing his/her authority to take things beyond a level of what’s appropriate. There are a lot of yogis behaving badly out there. Of course they only get away with what others let them. It’s a two-way street. Thanks again for another thought-provoking topic.

  16. esther says:

    i agree that there’s a tremendous responsibility on you as teacher and “adjuster” in terms of intent and action, but there’s also a responsibility on the part of the “adjustee” to understand a teacher’s adjustments for what they are, a crucial part of their job. people new to yoga might not have a frame of reference for this kind of interaction, but with time and experience (and provided the teacher is on the level), they learn.

    i remember when i started practicing yoga, i took adjustments as a sign that i was ‘wrong’ or ‘off’ -worst student in the class kind of thing- which had everything to do with me and my ego and nothing to do with the teacher or yoga. now i love adjustments, take them as any number of things, none of which is punitive or critical. i see them as a vote of confidence, a gift, as teacher looking out for my safety, as teacher-as-guru lighting my way to more space and range than i ever imagined. but this was my process, my practice teaching me to get out of my way.

    so perhaps someone taking an adjustment as sexual is more about their process, their mental cobwebs that need clearing so they can get on the mat.

  17. Martin says:

    Context is important, but another factor would be the type of people attracted to Yoga. I would imagine they are more open to human contact and less likely to take offence.

  18. Well, to me a yoga teacher who does too much touching is one I will leave after the first class. One reason I have been unable to find a satisfactory yoga or tai chi class is that I’d prefer one where the amount of body contact is as minimal as possible – either teacher-participant OR participant-participant.

    I’m just sensitive that way. and if there IS a lot of touching going on, I’ll be stuck with the impressions of the people involved for far longer than is useful/necessary/healthy.

    BTW – this is a purely western problem. In India I was specifically told: don’t touch that yogi (who was in a spiritual class with me) – they aren’t allowed to touch anybody.

  19. esther says:

    katinka – is that true about india? i saw a documentary with p. jois and he was hurling his body on one of the participants to make them go further in a forward bend!

  20. Pamela Slim says:

    Hi J:

    I, like many of the other commenters have seen physical adjustments done with good and bad intent in classes, with differing results.

    I like to mix the intention and words for best effect. So when I was a martial arts instructor, for example, I would say something like “hold that position and I will come around and make slight adjustments to your form.” I would only have my hands on the person for as long as it took to change positions.

    I have also had Pilates instructors do the same with me when using me to demonstrate a form. They would ask for a volunteer, then say “I am going to press here so you arch more, etc.” My favorite story of this was when my instructor Skye had me demonstrate a technique then said to the class “everyone, look at Pam’s butt!” Still makes me laugh when I think about it.

    I think male instructors, right or wrong, have an extra “burden of proof of clean intent” since there have been many more examples of them crossing the sexual line than women. And to protect yourself legally, it is very important to always have others in the room when you are doing the adjustments. My friend who is a Navajo medicine man and sometimes does hands-on work with patients will not do anything unless there is someone else present in the room. Sometimes, depending on someone’s personal history, even if your intent is clean and your touch purely professional, they will cry foul.

    Just part of the package deal of working with bodies and minds together.

  21. I do think it’s all about context, but if I hadn’t been reading David Swenson’s Ashtanga book at dinner, I would have sworn that the caption to the photo on this post would be:

    “Yes, I paid extra for this…”

  22. Justin says:

    People understand that in yoga, instructors need to do that to help people adjust. They know that there’s no inappropriate undertone. I’m sure there are some instructors who do take advantage of adjusting, but it has to be few and far between.

  23. Context, frame, body language, conversation all contribute to a feeling of trust or distrust. For those who are aware of the many levels of communication as you are Jonathan, there is much less room for anyone to misunderstand your intent.

    Without even being conscious of it we all sense things like respect and apparent motive. All of these factors combined paint an emotional picture that makes others feel comfortable or not.

    Jonathan, you’re a master communicator and I feel that it would take a lot of personal issues on the part of a student to misunderstand your intent.

  24. That’s a tough question. It’s similar to “nature vs nurture,” but I must admit that I am leaning toward perspective. If you feel like you are in a honest and loving place then that speaks louder than just putting your hands on someone’s hips. If you were to caress something else (a little more private) than you could be the nicest Yoga instructor, but you are still getting a look of shock and dismay and maybe a slap.