I recently attended a yoga class with a teacher that seemed nervous and unsure, and seemed to lack intention and knowledge in her teaching and practice. This was most apparent and worrisome in her adjustments. They seemed to lack purpose and intention, which made me feel uneasy.
Adjustments are a crucial part to every yoga class. People often love them, but only when they’re done right. Here’s a guide to teach you the most important foundations of adjustments:
Always have a clear intention behind your adjustment. For example, moving someone into proper alignment, helping someone get deeper into a pose or helping someone relax, rather than touching someone because we think we should or are supposed to. When we touch someone, our intentions and emotions get transferred to that person. When you know what you are trying to accomplish with your touch, it will foster trust and confidence in your student. When you do not have a clear intention or follow through in your assist, it can foster a, “WTF was that?” response in your student and diminish their trust in you as a teacher.
Do not experiment on your students. Know where you are going and how to get there. Only perform assists that you have personally experienced so you know how it should feel and the result it is intended to produce. Always practice adjustments on a friend or another teacher who will give you honest, constructive feedback before you try something on your students. If you are unsure of an adjustment or whether or not you should adjust, don’t.
Use your whole hand with fingers mostly together and apply firm pressure. When you touch people with just your fingers or touch too lightly it can feel “creepy” (it’s a technical term) to a student. A firm touch also comes off as confident and reassuring. An overly light touch can come off as timid and make a student feel like you do not know what you are doing. Think of the difference between being tickled and getting a massage. When someone tickles us, they use just their fingers, and it feels uncomfortable. A masseuse generally uses her whole hand and uses firm pressure, and who doesn’t like a massage?
The timing of an adjustment is everything. Too long can feel creepy and too short can feel like a total “drive-by.” I like to use the 4-4 Rule. For four seconds gradually increase pressure to ease your student into a pose and feel any resistance in their body. Then, for four counts slowly release the pressure and take your hands off so you don’t just love ‘em and leave ‘em. I once had a teacher put her hands lightly on my shoulders in tadasana and breath on my neck for what felt like 10 seconds. It felt super creepy and seemed to serve no purpose. Use the 4-4 Rule and avoid such a mistake.
Never touch a student’s belly, especially in a vulnerable pose like savasana. The belly is a very sensitive and vulnerable place in the body. It is an area of which many people are insecure. Biologically, it is an area of vulnerability. It contains many of our vital organs and has no protective skeleton around it. That is why our hearts can race in a big heart opener, like dancer pose or camel. We are exposing our belly and making ourselves vulnerable. Help your students feel comfortable and avoid touching this area of the body. If it helps, pretend your students are cats and will bite and claw the shit out of you if you touch their belly.
Use your hands for adjustments, not your feet. This is not a rigid rule, but when in doubt, stick to it. A lot of people are put off, grossed out or weirded out by feet. Also, most of us do not have as much control over the pressure we use or have as much dexterity in our feet as we do in our hands. Unless you know a student, and you are following Rules #1 and #2 and have a clear intention and experience with the adjustment, avoid using your feet. I once had a teacher stand on my thighs during fixed firm pose, and it was awesome. However, that teacher knew me, knew how far I could go in the pose and knew I wasn’t going to be freaked out by having her feet on me. Therefore, use caution when using your feet, and as always, if you are unsure, keep those tootsies to yourself.
Be in tune with the energy in the room and with your students. If you see something that compels you to adjust or assist, then do so. If not, do not do anything. Also, if you are in tune with what is going on around you, you will notice when a person is uncomfortable with your touch. If you see or a feel a student tense up, scrunch their face or retreat from your touch, then take the hint, and leave her alone. Just because a student did not opt out of touch at the beginning of class does not mean they cannot change their mind. They have consented to touch in theory, but may not like your touch or a particular adjustment. Respect their space and take hints.
Let me conclude by saying that I am not perfect and neither are my adjustments. In fact, adjusting is one area I think I could improve on the most in teaching. It takes a lot of practice and experience to be really good at it. However, if we follow the guidelines set out above, we can prevent injury and discomfort in our students so nobody gets creeped out and everybody has a good time.