How and when to physically adjust a student in class is a complex question that all Yoga teachers have certainly grappled with at some point. Different traditions take vastly different approaches to this, some placing high priority on physical body alignment, while other styles focus more on flow, on breath or even on the moments between asana as the key to Yoga practice.
We've compiled some thinking here on the topic of hands-on adjustments, both those intended to support a student in physical alignment, or to enter a pose more deeply - the kind of adjustment we may see in a Vinyasa or Ashtanga practice session, as well as those meant to soften or encourage release - as in a Yin or Restorative class.
Standard adjustments – always applicable?
This discussion is, of course, an ever-evolving one as we begin to view asana practice more and more through the lens of the western physiological understanding of biomechanics. The essence at this moment seems to be a call for increasing awareness in how and when we choose to physically adjust a body's shape in a pose, recognizing the degree of responsibility we hold as teachers for the long-term welfare of our students in asana practice. I am thinking here even of such 'standard' cues as nudging a top hip over the bottom one in Trikonasana – some bodies may not support this range of motion, leaving students in discomfort or developing a habitual misalignment in their pose as a result of this repeated 'correction' from a teacher.
This may mean a humbling and less egoic approach to teaching: a recognizing that we may not know what each student's 'best' Trikonasana looks like, and a reigning in of my need to appear all-knowing as a teacher. And, I have learned to trust the power of my voice – to translate the feeling of expansiveness and lengthening in Triangle pose into words that may allow students to find that feeling in their own bodies, in their form, without imposing physical alterations from the outside.
In many contemporary Yoga styles, however, hands-on adjusting is a key element of the practice and the in-class experience. For example, in Ashtanga Yoga giving physical adjustments is a foundational part of teaching and it is common for the student to expect to get frequent physical adjustments from the teacher. Anyone who has attended a Mysore-style guided self-practice class knows how incredibly beneficial an adjustement can be (under the hand of an experienced teacher).
These technical concerns fade a bit when it comes to the yummy field of feel-good, deepening hands-on moves. The distinction, though sometimes blurry, seems an important one: between deepening in the sense of 'pressing' someone deeper into a pose or deepening in the sense of lovingly guiding the body toward release or space.
Anyone who has experienced the power of a Thai-Yoga massage or the deep letting go that comes with a simple rooting of the shoulders or feet in Savasana can attest to the healing quality of touch in combination with asana.
No matter with which motivation and in which way we choose to place hands-on our students this may be the absolute key: choosing to attend a Yoga class does not equal choosing to be touched for all students. As teachers, we hold a responsibility, particularly toward new students, to check-in about physical adjustments. Ideally, even to ask before touching them – 'is it OK if I adjust you?' Or if it is a longer, deepening adjustment to check in and ask 'is this OK?'
Granted, in a flowing Vinyasa class, there is not always space to check in at length and sometimes the checking in happens on a less verbal level, simply being bringing awareness to the students body language. It feels so important to maintain a high level of sensitivity to a student's reaction to being touched – and if this reaction is a tensing or stiffening, then to consider using the power of the voice to guide their body into a more sustainable form.
As with all things to do with Yoga, the call is one of increased awareness, less automatism. When we bring mindfulness to the way we touch or communicate with our students, we create so much space for greater understanding of the practice and so much space for the body to liberate itself in a sustainable way.