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Expert Tips on Safe Yoga Adjustments

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 physical, 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.

Key Principles

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 are not “fixing” the student or the pose. You are helping the student to find his or her best expression of a pose. See the beauty in the pose 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 or her 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).

To read the whole article, which includes tips on how to determine whether a student wants to be touched during poses, please see “Yoga Adjustments” in the online IDEA Library or in the September 2013 issue of IDEA Fitness Journal.

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