A friend recently asked We have a budding acro community. I'd like to establish some guidelines about safety. There is a particular issue that I want to include that is delicate: informed consent. Could someone share a policy wording that you have found useful? I don't have an answer but it is a topic long on my mind.
In every class I teach, a few things I always say: Every pose is optional. It is always OK to say No.
As an acrobatic practice, acroyoga entails real risks. It is my responsibility as a teacher to communicate those risks and how to mitigate them. But ultimately, it is each person's responsibility to judge what is safe in their own body. This is true whether teaching a class or playing with strangers in the park.
What we do in acro is genuinely dangerous and not always obviously so. As a partner practice, the risks depend not only on your own skill but also on the experience and judgement of your partners and the spotters. Doing a trick with one person does not necessarily make it safe with another. Experience, injury, fatigue, drugs, alcohol are all part of the calculus of risk every time we do acro. Informed consent requires communication of all factors with everyone involved.
As a community, informed, enthusiastic consent should be our standard for all play. We have a ways to go. Some disturbing things I've seen:
- A flier saying "down" and the base continuing to bounce them, seemingly enjoying their discomfort. "Down" is not an invitation to discussion or argument. Whether base, flier, or spotter says it, everyone must come to ground as gracefully as possible. You don't know if someone is just tired, is in pain, or has burst a suture and is bleeding internally. The time to ask is after everyone is safely down.
- Asking for a spotter, and being told by base and instructor that a spotter is not necessary. The general rule in my classes: If you are both experienced and both certain you do not need a spotter, that is fine, but if anyone is uncertain whether or not you need one, work with a spotter.
"Why not?" in response to declining an invitation to base, fly, or spot. I understand wondering why someone said No. But it is difficult to ask that question without coming across as pushy, demanding justification. Best not to ask. No means No. Respect it, and leave it at that. It probably has nothing to do with you.
- A senior teacher at a teacher training shouting at me to do something unsafe after I had clearly said No.
- A leader in the community speaking on the topic of consent and safety, saying: My stance on this is if you are in a community and you don't like the dynamic of any of the gatherings you can create your own.
- A very skilled base who nonetheless has had more than a few fliers with head injuries from falls. At what point do accidents indicate questionable judgement?
- Being asked to spot without being told what is being attempted. Standing nearby is not spotting. Spotting can be the riskiest role. The spotter is responsible not only for the safety of the flier and base, but also for their own safety. Doing that effectively requires knowledge and experience of the exercise being spotted.
Asking for a spot is not a criticism of the base's skill, nor should it be an affront to the base's ego. Too often I've heard bases insist they don't need a spot as if the suggestion were insulting. Conversely, a spotter does not magically make things safe. Attempting difficult tricks beyond the skill level of the base or flier puts everyone, including the spotter at risk of injury. I've been hurt more often when spotting than when flying or basing.
When students ask me if they are ready for a higher level class, I tell them the most important and difficult skill is accurate self-assessment: knowing what they can attempt safely, in any role, and knowing when to fall back on refining foundational skills.
I teach at a climbing gym where everyone must sign a waiver upon entering the building:
I acknowledge that both my climbing and non-climbing related activities and use of any of services or facilities entails significant risks, both known and unknown, which could result in physical or emotional injury, paralysis, death, or damage to myself, to property, or to thirdparties. Such risks include, among others, equipment failure, falling climbers, broken and/or falling holds, loose holds, as well as the negligence of belayers, other participants, third parties. I expressly agree and promise to accept and assume all of the risks existing in these activities, both known and unknown, whether caused or alleged to be caused by the ordinary (but not gross) negligent acts or omissions. My participation in these activities is purely voluntary, and I elect to participate in these activities in spiteof the risks.
Like acro, climbing is intrinsically risky. We accept those risks and assume responsibility to manage those risks. The gym staff train proper safety technique, test climbers, and walk the floor checking that proper belay technique is followed. Every climb is preceded by a checklist. This doesn't remove all risk, but it creates a culture where the risks are acknowledged and taken seriously. It helps that the danger is obvious.
Unlike climbing, the risks L-basing are not so obvious. A few inches off the ground, most falls are gentle. Many moves are entirely safe, with the flier in control able to step feet to the ground gently. But, there are points where the flier is upside down unable to protect themself, vulnerable, and a mistake could land them on their head. There is no safe way to fall with your body weight on your head. The consequences can be severe and long term. I know too many people who have suffered concussions, and too many people who became aware of the risks only after suffering injury.
I warn new folks of the 'tiny flier syndrome' where a certain personality of base, seeking to 'get' a trick but lacking the technique for proper form, will look for the smallest person they can throw around to muscle through the moves sloppily. This is especially risky for new fliers who don't have the experience to know how to bail out of situations safely nor the experience to judge when something is unsafe.
Would anyone care to draft wording for an acro community standards statement on informed consent?
The AcroYoga Curmudgeon
* With Your Permission: Yoga, Consent and Authentic Embodiment
* Safety In Acro Facebook Group