The subject of continual debate, adjustments run the gamut from helpful to hurtful. As you determine the role that adjustments play in your teaching style, consider suggestions and examples from some of yoga’s master teachers.
Yet depending on a wide array of factors—ranging from the teachers intentions and attitude to the student’s emotional state, religious beliefs, and personal history—this basic adjustment can be healing or violating, welcome or repugnant, constructive or demoralizing.
Touch is an intimate act and a complex issue–particularly in our litigious, sexualized society. Concerns about harassment have led to a hands-off attitude in some workplaces, and anxiety about abuse has prompted some schoolteachers to avoid touching children. Members of some religious groups may refuse to be touched by members of the opposite sex. And people who have been abused may be reluctant to be touched by anyone at all.
As a result, touch can pose a dilemma for yoga teachers who use hands-on assistance as an integral part of instruction. “Touch is sometimes more direct and effective than verbal instruction, since it brings students out of their heads and into their bodies, ” said Esther Myers, a Toronto-based yoga teacher and author of Yoga and You (Shambhala, 1996). (Yoga Journal interviewed Myers about six weeks before her death from breast cancer on January 6.) “We can sometimes give more precise and detailed information through touch than the student can absorb verbally.”
Yet the intimate quality of touch is “both its benefit and risk, ” Myers said. “As teachers, we need to find a balance between caring, concern, compassion, and professional detachment.”
See also With Their Own Two Hands: Teach Self-Adjustments
Does Teaching Yoga Have to Be Hands On?
The role of touch role in yoga instruction varies widely, depending on the teacher and the style, says Mara Carrico, a San Diego–area yoga teacher and author of Yoga Journal’s (Henry Holt, 1997). “I studied with Bikram 25 years ago, and there was virtually no touching. He would bark out the directions and we would follow.” In contrast, she says, “Iyengar and Ashtanga tend to be more hands-on, while Viniyoga tends not to be so touchy.”
In recent years, there’s been a growing awareness that touch can pose risks for students, particularly if overzealous, inexperienced teachers perform aggressive adjustments. But it also can be hazardous for teachers, who might, for example, be kicked in the face while helping a student into handstand. “Hands-on assisting can be very strenuous, ” says Carrico, who describes her own style as “eclectic.” “In the energetic realm, we have to guard ourselves, particularly if were working long days. With maturity, I’ve learned to pace myself.”
Carrico tries to make visual contact with all students to make sure they’re doing poses safely, and she uses a reasonable amount of verbal contact so students know she recognizes them and cares. But she often reserves physical contact for students who have been coming to her class for a while. “In certain cases, I actually have people put their hands on me, ” she says, explaining that she sometimes lies on the floor next to students and lets them touch her abdomen to feel it expand on inhalation and contract on exhalation. “This can be a helpful and safe way to use touch.”
Kripalu Yoga has specific guidelines for use of touch, according to Shobhan Richard Faulds, a senior Kripalu Yoga teacher in Greenville, Virginia. “We do not do any kind of chiropractic adjustment or apply any outside force to the body, ” he says. “The touch considered most helpful is light touch that encourages the student to press into certain parts of the body.” An example would be placing a hand on the crown of the student’s head and asking her to press into the teachers hand.
“The movement comes from the student’s body, not the teachers, ” Faulds stresses. “The touch brings awareness to a body part and suggests a movement, but there’s a deep respect for the wisdom of the body in how to access this movement.”
Touch is usually done with the hand, although occasionally the feet are used, he says, for example to ground the outside of a students foot. “This must be done carefully, since I’ve had students tell me that in another yoga tradition the teacher kicked them, and it felt like a violation, ” Faulds says. “When we come into a students space, we do so with great respect and always under the student’s control.”
While Faulds considers touch helpful and “sometimes essential” in teaching asanas, he says he doesn’t touch very much in his classes. “Doing asanas is only the beginning of yoga and is a doorway to pratyahara (sensory withdrawal), ” he says. “I try to guide people to a deeper yoga that gets them into an introverted state.” Touching students who have gone “very deep inside” can be counterproductive, he says, “because it brings them back to an externalized state of awareness.”
Another concern about hands-on adjustments is that “they can lead to an other-dependent attitude, ” says Edward Modestini, an Ashtanga Yoga teacher and co-owner of the Maya Yoga Studio in Maui, Hawaii. Physical adjustments are an integral part of the Ashtanga system, according to Modestini, who says his teacher, Sri K. Pattabhi Jois would sometimes lie on top of him to help him go deeper into Paschimottanasana (Seated Forward Bend). “And I loved it, ” he recalls. “But I want to teach self-reliance so students can learn to take care of themselves.”
Modestini says he generally prefers verbal over physical instruction. “I do some physical adjustments, such as putting my knee on someones sacrum when they’re in shoulderstand, ” he says. “But I try to hone my verbal skills, because I’d prefer the student grasp the adjustment inside themselves, without assistance.”