In addition to providing verbal cues throughout classes, teachers often provide hands-on adjustments.
This is the laying of the hands in yoga—the manual adjustments. When the teacher makes physical contact with a student’s body, it should be done with the proper intention. A teacher's intention may be to assist students in fostering proper, healthy alignment, and avoiding injury. It could be to help them relax more fully into a pose. Or, this could simply help them to get more grounded in their practice, becoming more aware of their bodies and their breath.
Whatever the intention is behind it, this physical contact is probably one of the more intimate aspects of yoga, for teachers and students alike. In my teacher training, we had lengthy discussions about not only when, where, and how to appropriately engage when adjusting a student's body, but also whether or not to do so at all.
There are many arguments against touching students. Arguments like, what if the student doesn't want to be touched? What if they appear to be out of alignment only because they're compensating for an injury? What if (gasp!) they take it the wrong way? and What if I do it wrong?
In the midst of all these open-ended what-ifs, as teachers, we're expected to learn to perfect the art of the perfect adjustment.
Here are five questions to ask yourself to help you on your way:
1. How do I know when its okay to touch someone and when its not?
Ask. Unless you know each and every one of your students and their preferences already, take time at the beginning to announce that you'll be performing adjustments throughout the class and invite anyone who prefers not to be adjusted to raise their hands. Then take note of who you can and cannot adjust that day. Some students may be too shy to raise their hand in front of the entire class, so you can do this while the students have their eyes closed in a seated meditation, or while they're facing the mat—maybe in a Child's Pose—so that their preference can remain anonymous.
2. What if I don't feel comfortable performing adjustments?
Then don't. If you're not entirely sure how to properly adjust someone in a certain pose, don't attempt to do so. Make sure that you give adjustments that you've received and you've practiced on others before you start giving them out in class. If you're simply working up the courage to lay your hands on students, then practice. Get yourself to an adjustment clinic, or ask a friend if you can give them a free private lesson and adjust them throughout the class. After all, practice makes perfect. And if you're really uncomfortable with the idea of laying your hands on your students, then don't! Simply rely on your verbal cues instead. There are plenty of great teachers who don't give hands-on adjustments.
3. How do I convey my intention?
In addition to using a firm touch with consistent pressure in the appropriate physical areas, your can convey your intention energetically. Physical contact is often an energy exchange, transmitting information to you about how your students feel, and vice versa. Set your intention to help guide your students more deeply into their postures, to assist them with proper alignment, or to help them find more ease in a pose. You can set your intention before class, or before performing each adjustment. Don't approach a student to adjust them unless you're clear about your intention beforehand.
4. How do I deliver the right amount of pressure?
This can be tricky, since there is no right answer. As a teacher, you want to go deep enough but not too deep. You don't want the students to feel like you're lightly tickling them, but you don't want them to feel bulldozed either. Learning how much pressure to apply can come with time and experience. In the beginning, go for a medium amount of pressure and pay attention to how your students respond.
5. How do I know when to go deeper and when to back off?
Pay attention to your student's responses, both voluntary and involuntary. One good indicator is the breath. Follow your students' inhales and exhales as you perform adjustments. You can typically lean in a bit as they exhale, and lift off a bit during the inhale. If their breath is short or sporadic, that may be a sign to back off a lot, or completely. Another surefire barometer is to ask for feedback. No, you don't want to engage in a conversation during class, but after class you can make yourself available as students are leaving and ask them for any feedback. A simple "How did that feel?" can go a long way. Pay attention to their responses (you may be surprised at how many positive comments you receive) and try to incorporate any constructive feedback in your next class.
As a teacher, learning to perform proper adjustments is an art, a science, and a bit of a social experiment all at the same time. When adjustments are made confidently, compassionately, with the right amount of pressure, and the right intention, this powerful touch can help deepen a student's practice, reduce stress, increase mindfulness, and possibly help them gain trust in their teacher, their practice, and themselves.
Photo by Daniel Craig