“Here I am, resting in a reclining bound angle pose. All of the sudden I feel this incredible pressure on my inner thighs, and as I open my eyes with a jolt, I see my male yoga instructor leaning over me and pressing down on my spread legs. I enter a state of panic” – this is a story from a friend of mine who decided to check out a new yoga studio. She never went back.
We’ve all heard horror stories about yoga adjustments gone wrong – students get hurt, feel violated, and so on. But even when the student seems happy, it makes you wonder. I read a review on Yelp recently of a local yoga teacher: “Her adjustments are spot on – she is so strong!” Strong?! This scares me. Does it mean that the teacher is physically manipulating the student? I also knew a yoga teacher who liked to lift his students while in a pose for his own amusement (and got very defensive when I asked him about it).
There are always discussions in the yoga community about what kind of adjustments are appropriate. Most teacher trainings offer some sort of “hands-on” training. There are numerous books, videos and articles on the subject.
In my tradition (viniyoga) we don’t adjust at all. The most you will ever see me do is use gentle touch to reassure a student, or to show where the movement is supposed to take place. We use verbal cues extensively, adapt the form of postures so that the student could get the most out of it, and use light touch when necessary.
Here is why I do it this way:
1. Who’s practice is it?
Every student who comes to class needs to take ownership of her practice and understand what she is trying to get out of each pose, how to get there, and how to troubleshoot when necessary. A student needs to find her own way into the posture. Ultimately, it is not about external arrangement of the limbs, but about the depth of the inner experience.
2. Achieving a deeper form of the pose is not always necessary.
More often then not, adjustments are used to get a student deeper into the pose. However, there is always a reason why she cannot get there herself: maybe she is not ready, maybe she is nursing a past injury, maybe she is just not interested! Just because I can bend all the way down in Paschimottanasana, doesn’t mean that I want to. I said it many times before and I will say it again – deeper is NOT always better! And folding somebody into the pose is ALWAYS risky.
3. When the student’s safety is compromised, it’s better to adapt the pose, then to manipulate the body to fit into the pose.
New students often do not understand how to arrange themselves in the pose safely and get the most out of it. This is perfectly understandable. If that’s the case, we need to work on increasing their body awareness, not just arranging their body parts. It is much more productive to explain what you are looking for, to adapt the form of the pose to accommodate the student and use light touch to bring their attention to the key areas. We always want to empower the student, to show them that they can facilitate meaningful change on their own, so that they are not dependent on the yoga teacher.
It is my opinion that you have to have extensive training to be able to manipulate someone’s body safely. If you are not a trained physical therapist, chiropractor and other manual therapist, you are running the risk of seriously hurting the student, even if you mean well.
- Don’t sneak up on the student from behind; make sure that they are aware that you are approaching them.
- Don’t touch anywhere near the private parts; we want the student to feel safe (BTW, hips may feel private to some folks).
- Do not push, pull, torque, twist, lean or lift – in short, don’t manhandle your students. Let’s show some respect.
Touch is a form of communication. So the question is – what is it that we want to communicate to the student through our touch? Is the message “I know better what you need”, or is it “Let me support you in your own exploration”? After all, who knows better how the pose feels on the inside? The student. Who is aware of the personal history of injuries and limitations? The student. Who can feel how far the body is willing to go? The student.
I believe that students come to yoga classes for the extra pair of eyes, not the extra pair of hands. If they become dependent on teacher’s adjustments, it can inhibit their ability to do their own work.
If you choose to adjust students in your yoga classes, please tell me – why? I would love to hear your side of the argument. If you choose not to adjust, I would love to hear from you, too – why not? Let’s have a conversation! (Please leave a comment below)