The traditional “guru” halo and the general position of teaching someone something give the yoga instructor a degree of freedom around the bodies (and sometimes emotions) of the people who attend their class. There is an assumption inherent in every asana class that the instructor can give the practitioners physical assists. Indeed, it is only too easy to find videos of Patthabi Jois, the founder of Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga, standing, lying on people in seated forward folds (see pic below), tugging their arms and legs into binds, grabbing them by the bum, etc. In this regard, Iyengar, the founder of Iyengar yoga, was no different.
The assist, in general, should be structured and to the point. It should have an apparent benefit that is obvious to the practitioner. For example, a salient deeper forward fold, and easier lift in a backbend, or a support in an inversion. Any unnecessary touching outside the assist area should be avoided. The touch should be precise and firm. Especially with new students, the consent of the practitioners can be asked for, such as a quiet “is this all right?”. It is also good to ask in order to ensure that the practitioner feels comfortable in the new position and that nothing hurts.
In all honesty, from the instructor’s point of view, touching people’s sweaty, naked bodies, trapped-in-shoes-all-day-feet, and feeling their breath so close, is not great fun. However, it is a very important part of the teaching process. One of the yoga instructor’s jobs is to nudge the practitioner at the right time concerning the right pose, and in the right direction, so they can be safely encouraged out of their comfort zone in order to expand their experience of the asana, and to explore new depths.
Therefore, receiving an assist from the instructor at the right time concerning the right pose can be a great experience for many of us. It enhances the depth of the pose, and helps one gain confidence in exploring a deeper level in the pose. Assists in yoga range from very minor (i.e. a hand on the shoulder) to assists that may feel very intimate, especially the ones aimed at the hips, upper legs, lower back and chest. Although this intimacy is experienced by both the instructor and practitioner, it is the instructor who decides when and who to assist, and so intimacy issues are less of a problem for instructors. Those instructors who don’t like this kind of intimacy with strangers simply avoid giving assists or make suggestions to use props.
The practitioner, however, doesn’t get much say regarding the level of intimacy of assists. If unhappy about it, they might produce a grunt or another signal of discomfort that could be interpreted to mean anything, or mumble an “oh, no thank you” or silently resist the assist itself. It is therefore up to the practitioner to decide whether or not to create an awkward moment between the instructor and themselves, in front of others in the room, or whether to silently suffer a potentially uncomfortable situation. It is a difficult position to find one’s self in. If, indeed, as a practitioner you find yourself in an unwanted assist position, do tell your instructor, either during or after the class. No good instructor should be offended by this. If you’re getting funny vibrations from a certain instructor’s assists, again, you should feel free to ask them to stop assisting you.
If the situation continues and your discomfort becomes too much, then you should stop attending their classes and/or talk to someone in a position of responsibility at the shala/gym about it. As in many sexual and/or physical harassment cases, there is a vast grey area where the action can be interpreted in completely different ways between those involved. You bare some responsibility here to be fair-minded, because such accusations could leave a life-time taint on an instructor’s career. Still, if you feel physically harassed, then you shouldn’t keep it to yourself.