*Content warning: discusses sexual assault*
The yoga instructor dims the lights for shavasana, corpse pose. It’s my first time in her class and I already know that I will never take another class from her. I try to let go of my frustration and let my limbs sink into the mat, paying close attention to my breath, reminding myself that it’s almost over.
From the pattern of her footsteps, stopping at each mat down the line, and from the sudden citrus smell, I gather that she’s going to each person and rubbing something onto them. I’ve experienced this in yoga classes before. The instructor comes around to anoint each forehead with oil, or places her hands on our shoulders. Usually, I enjoy this. I find the touch of hands soothing; it gives the moment a holiness, a specialness.
But I already distrust this instructor because she’d insisted that my girlfriend try the inversion pose, waving away Anne’s concerns about hurting her injured neck. “If I can do it, anyone can do it,” the instructor said. “I wouldn’t ask you to do a pose that would hurt you. Come on.” In my experience, yoga is very much about honoring the individual’s comfort level and respecting the body’s limitations, not coercing people into positions they don’t feel good in. So when I realize that she’s coming around and touching each person, I immediately bristle. I don’t like this woman and I don’t want her to touch me.
Compounding my anxiety, I realize I can’t hear any whispered conversations. In other yoga classes, instructors have explicitly stated what they’re doing and asked, in some way, “Is it okay if I touch you?” I’m used to being offered an option. That moment of checking for consent and waiting for permission is part of what makes an anointing moment feel special to me. For me, as a survivor of sexual assault, any exchange of consent can become a healing ritual, where I affirm that I am in control of what happens to me in this space. When my bodily autonomy is recognized, my spirit feels whole.
But this instructor isn’t asking, isn’t offering, isn’t waiting for consent. As I listen to her footsteps get nearer, I think of ways to stop her. I think of saying loudly and firmly, “Please don’t touch me.” I think of whispering, “No, thank you.” I think of silently shaking my head. But she arrives at my mat and stands over my body, and I freeze. I go into compliance mode, be-a-nice-girl mode, don’t-make-a-scene mode. It’s fine. I close my eyes, playing dead in corpse pose. She places oiled hands on my shoulders, slides them down my arms, and it’s over.
The yielding feels like a kind of consent, even though I still don’t want her to touch me. Though it’s a relatively small incident, the feelings are big, and it’s a reminder of how I felt the day after the assault, seven years ago. When I wondered if the fact that I didn’t physically resist meant it wasn’t assault, even though I said “No,” and “Stop,” and “Don’t.” If lying there and letting it happen meant I gave consent. If I was overreacting. If it was all just a big misunderstanding.
That moment of checking for consent and waiting for permission is part of what makes an anointing moment feel special to me.
I worry as I write this that it sounds like I’m overreacting now. That people will say, “So what? So a yoga teacher rubbed some oil on your arms without asking. Big deal.” But to an assault survivor, it is a big deal. Being touched without consent is, at best, deeply uncomfortable, and at worst, panic-inducing. I’m not saying that what she did was assault by any means. But I’m saying that I want to be asked before I am touched. Always. I wondered if there were other assault survivors in the class, if other women wanted to say “No” and felt like they couldn’t.
After we put our mats away and left the class, I told my girlfriend, “I was experiencing PMS-levels of irritation in there.” I ranted to her the whole way home about how much I’d hated the class, how inappropriate I’d found the instructor’s actions. I said, “Maybe I should check my period app — I know I’m not PMSing but I just feel so angry right now.” And Anne said, “Or maybe you’re just angry? And that’s okay too.”
She was right. I have a hard time letting myself access anger, and I’m quick to ascribe the slightest sign of it to my menstrual cycle. It’s more comfortable to believe that my anger has a specific hormonal cause, that it isn’t rational, that it isn’t me. But the more women in my life who model that anger is acceptable and human, the closer I get to acknowledging and accepting anger in myself.
I believe that unacknowledged anger builds up in the body and contributes to depression, anxiety, and self-hatred. The longer I’m in recovery and therapy, the easier it is to see the big picture of how my self-destructive behaviors (excessive drinking, self-injury, disordered eating) were my way of coping with anger that I couldn’t express. Fuck that. I’m not living that way anymore.
I want to be able to access my anger and express it in healthy ways. I want to write about it, talk about it, turn it into art. I want to model healthy anger for other women and queer people, who have been taught that anger is unfeminine, unladylike, unacceptable; who have been taught to stuff and deny and hide their anger in the cages of their bruised bodies.
Of course we get angry. We’re just trying to survive and be our fabulous selves in a world designed to break our spirits. I’m angry about that. I’m angry about sexism and homophobia, about the murder of trans people, about institutionalized racism, about rape culture and domestic violence. I’m angry at online harassment of women writers and the culture of street harassment. I’m angry about my sexual assault. I’m angry about that mix of disgust, powerlessness and panic that floods my chest when my bodily autonomy is not respected, when I am touched without consent.
I want to be able to access my anger and express it in healthy ways. I want to write about it, talk about it, turn it into art.
I want to model healthy anger for others, but I also want to model healthy anger for myself. I want to show myself that feeling and expressing anger will not cause my body to implode or my loved ones to flee in horror. It will not bring the known world to a crashing halt. It just means I’m a person with feelings.
So now I know I’m angry — not my uterus, not my ovaries, but me. What do I do with the feeling? First, I feel it. I pay attention to the rush of heat in my veins, the clench of my jaw, and the tension in my shoulders. I take deep breaths and say it out loud: “I’m angry.” Next, I’m going to call the gym and let them know I was uncomfortable with that yoga instructor. I was too angry to talk to her after the class, but she needs to know that touching people without consent is not okay. In a way, I’m grateful for this experience, because it has shown me how far I’ve come from the years I spent turning my anger inward on myself. Today, when I feel anger, I take action. I pick up the phone. I pick up my pen.
Hannah Adkison is a queer writer and creator who believes that sharing our experiences and self-care strategies is the key to surviving & healing from oppression. She plants, cooks, and eats things in Brooklyn. She writes and publishes the radical mental health zine Small Magic, and she wants you to know that your experiences matter.