Think back to a recent time when you left a yoga class and felt joyfully transformed. Maybe the teacher had great auditory and visual cues. Maybe he or she made you feel safe and supported, allowing you to explore poses in deeper and more rewarding ways than you would have been able to on your own. A well-balanced yoga teacher connects with all types of learners—auditory, visual and kinesthetic. The most fulfilling classes happen when the teacher successfully blends all three teaching modalities. One of the most challenging areas for many teachers is kinesthetic teaching—including proper and safe use of hands-on adjustments.
Your ability to adjust students in a customized, ethical and sensitive way is predicated on your skill, knowledge and experience. Your effectiveness in understanding, seeing and relating the principles of asana is the basis for giving adjustments that are specific and clearly intended.
Types of Touch in Yoga
Types of touch differ across the many styles of yoga. In the Krishnamacharya lineage of ashtanga, Iyengar and vinyasa flow, adjustments are used extensively. In most forms of hot yoga, such as power yoga and Bikram, adjustments are seldom used. Whether hands-on yoga adjustments are appropriate depends on the student, the style of class, the student’s level and your qualifications and experience as a teacher. Teachers should practice hands-on adjustments under the direct guidance of an experienced mentor teacher before giving them to students in class.
There are several categories of touch:
Foundation touch. A foundation touch supports and stabilizes a foundational part of the body, allowing the student to find more comfort or elongation in a pose.
Extension touch. An extension touch makes precise and firm contact in order to elongate the student’s body in a particular direction.
Exploratory touch. An exploratory touch observes and checks the quality of the skin or muscles in specific areas to ensure proper function. An exploratory touch also observes the student’s reaction to the touch.
In contrast to these helpful types of touch, there are others you want to avoid. A rough or unsure adjuster can injure or confuse a student:
The arm-wrestler. An arm-wrestler adjuster doesn’t connect with the student or the student’s breath but instead uses brute strength to change the pose by grabbing, pulling or poking. I once overheard a teacher asking if a student wanted to be “squashed” in a forward bend! Yoga is not the place for aggressive adjustments or for language that conveys negativity and anger.
“Should I or shouldn’t I?” An adjuster who is timid or apprehensive will have a weak, ineffective touch. Touches that lack meaning—in other words, that are not compassionate or nurturing—can be misunderstood and may mislead the student.
The key principles of safe, effective adjusting are—in order—sensitivity, stabilization and (the actual) adjustment.
Sensitivity. A teacher’s approach affects whether a student feels threatened or at ease. You are not “fixing” the student or the pose. You are helping the student find her best expression of the pose. See the beauty in it first. See the whole person, not just the parts or the technique. Apply and release physical contact gradually, to ensure that the student is stable—especially in standing and balancing poses.
Stabilization. After checking proper alignment from the ground up, stabilize the student by giving him a feeling of support while encouraging a deeper release. A grounding touch that establishes a more stable foundation is needed prior to cultivating spaciousness and elongation. Note: It is imperative to honor your own safety and ease when assisting a student. If you are unstable or uncomfortable when moving into an adjustment, you risk hurting yourself and your student.
Adjustment. Once you have permission to align and stabilize a student, help the person find more joy in the pose. Work as proximally (as near to the point of reference) as appropriate. More proximal adjustments minimize potential strain in the joints. Give lighter physical cues when the touch is fully distal (far from the point of reference).
Philosophy and Ethics of Hands-On Adjusting
When making hands-on adjustments, always be mindful of students’ comfort and receptivity.
Ask first, and grant permission to just say no. It’s wise to ask for permission before making hands-on adjustments. Once a student has granted permission, check in—as you are giving the adjustment—by asking, “Is this alright?” Feel how the student’s body is responding; notice signs of increased resistance or shifts in other parts of the body.
Encourage students to speak up and take responsibility. Years ago, my teacher Pattabhi Jois, affectionately called Guruji, visited my class in Encinitas, California. I knew that my students wished to practice with him. Advising them that Guruji’s adjustments and pacing were not the same as mine, I said, “If you’re uncomfortable being touched by a teacher whom you don’t practice with regularly, just say no. Even if the teacher is experienced or well-known, he or she does not know your practice. Take responsibility for your own body. You are in charge, not your teacher.” My students thanked me for that advice after their experience with Guruji. I gave them the confidence to say no if they felt uncomfortable.
Get to know students before you touch them. Before you adjust a student, know the student’s body, mindset, capabilities and yoga experience. Also, know your capabilities. It bears repeating: If it’s not safe for you, it’s certainly not safe for your students. Risky, complicated poses and adjustments require students to be more prepared.
Avoid making generic adjustments. There are no one-size-fits-all adjustments. Adjustments differ for different abilities, sizes, ages and medical conditions. Your positioning and stance will be based on the size of your body relative to that of the student you’re assisting. You may need to adapt your positioning to stay in sync with your student.
First find the beauty. See the divine in your students. Observe what they are doing correctly. Don’t “fix” poses. Look for what’s working before judging what’s not.
Be impeccable. Your students place their trust in your ability to keep them safe. Respect them. Never make an adjustment that could be misinterpreted as disrespectful or dangerous.
“Dance” with your students. Verbalize breathing cues when giving a hands-on adjustment. Listen to the sound of the student’s breath and see its movement through the abdomen, diaphragm and chest. Move with the student as if you were slow-dancing, and adjust your movements to the waves of the student’s breath.
Practice good timing. The length of time required for a hands-on adjustment depends on the type of adjustment required and the depth of the student’s receptivity. Simple touches during an easy balasana (child’s pose) or adho mukha svanasana (downward dog) can be brief. More complicated, three-point adjustments or adjustments with props require more time. Pull back if students appear to hold their breath, stiffen, be sensitive to touch or simply resist. Beginners are especially likely to respond in these ways. When necessary, offer yoga props and clear, concise cues so that students can make self-adjustments instead.
Don’t leave a student lopsided. If you adjust one side of the body, make sure you adjust the other side. Always adjust both sides of the body.
Keep sight of the whole class. Avoid lingering in one area or around a few students when teaching large classes. Maintain a global outlook of the class even as you adjust individuals. Don’t lose the pace of the class. Make adjustments efficiently. If you’re touching a student who is sweating, have a towel to wipe your hands so you don’t transfer sweat to the next student.
An Essential Skill
The ability to provide safe, effective yoga adjustments is an essential skill in your teaching toolkit. Physical touch is one way to give your students a deeper learning experience. Touch also offers you a personalized approach to teaching, enabling you to share the joy of yoga with more people.