Should we assist and adjust during a yoga practice?
From my own experience as a teacher and now as a teacher trainer, I would wager it’s safe to say that for the majority of yoga teachers and teachers in training, the most nerve-wracking part of leading a class, more so than cueing or demoing, is offering assists and adjusts i.e. laying hands on a student. Depending on your training school, a lot or very little emphasis may have been placed on it. I know two teachers who are both Baptiste-trained, one who had little to no training in hands-on assists and the other for whom it seemed to be a major focal point of their training. So, as teachers, should we assist and adjust or not?
Firstly, for any non-teachers or aspiring teachers, let’s define the difference between “adjust” and “assist”. An adjust is usually an alignment correction to ensure safe expression of a pose. For example, when a teacher grounds your hands in downward-facing dog to stop you dumping weight into your wrists, that’s an adjust. When they guide your shoulders away from your ears in warrior 2, that’s an adjust. An assist, on the other hand, is usually to help a student achieve a deeper expression of the pose, or to aid relaxation. When a teacher places their hands under your back in wheel and gently pulls up to deepen your backbend, that’s an assist. When they ground your sacrum in child’s pose or offer any calming touches during savasana, that’s an assist.
When done correctly, adjusts and assists are excellent tools to advance your yoga practice. Once you’ve been adjusted in a pose once, you will always remember to correct it in future and if you’ve ever been the subject of an incredible assist, you will want teachers to always lay their hands on you. Whilst I certainly think it is a very good idea for those who lead teacher trainings to offer many options and make your trainees practice them regularly so they have them in their toolbox, once you become a teacher yourself, you need to decide whether or not to assist and adjust, and when to assist and adjust. Laying your hands on another body is a very personal thing for both people involved. There needs to be a level of trust, professionalism and a need for your hands to be there in the first place. So, before you go around touching everyone just because you think that’s what good teachers do, ask yourself:
Can it be corrected with a verbal cue?
Hands-on need not always be the first resort. Try using verbal cues first so the student can learn how to correct their alignment themselves. Understanding how they can adjust their body will educate them and is more empowering for them rather than rushing to their aid every time. As a teacher, it also helps to hone your cueing skills so you can guide students through poses clearly in a way they understand. Not to mention there will be people who don’t want to be touched, so the more you can brush up on your verbal cues, the better. Lastly, there is nothing more frustrating as a student than a teacher who puts you in a pose then spends forever adjusting another student while you’re sweating your balls off. If it can be achieved just as successfully with a verbal cue, try that first. Then afterwards, correct with hands-on.
Why am I putting my hands on them?
Is it to make the pose safe, is it to help a student deeper into a pose, or is it to make it look the way you think it should look? Are you assisting them because it’s the best thing for them, or because you feel like you need to touch someone to make you a better teacher? Think about what you are trying to achieve before you lay your hands on someone. Real-life yoga often doesn’t look like what you see on social media, so as long as people are being safe, don’t be so militant with alignment. Number one, if they are a relative beginner your constant correction will make them feel insecure. They will learn with time so pick the major things which are a no-no then let them be. Number two, the breadth of human variation from one person to the next is staggering, so what “looks right” will feel perfectly normal for one person and feel horrendous for the next. Your job is to guide people through the safe movement of their bodies and in some cases, act essentially as a prop to help them access a depth of a pose which was previously out of reach. It is not to make them look Instagram-ready.
Do I feel comfortable with the assist?
If not, your student will be able to tell. If you don’t feel like you can execute an assist or an adjust with confidence, don’t do it at all. There is nothing worse than a timid assist, often meaning too-soft touches and creepy fingers. Be mindful not to over-push the body you’re touching, but be firm, sure and confident. For the assists where you’re not there yet, practice on your friends or family. My husband comes to my classes so if there is a particular assist I want to practice in a class-setting but I’m not sure of it myself, I do it to him then ask for feedback afterwards. And remember, if you avoid practicing an assist because it makes you feel uncomfortable, it will always feel uncomfortable.
Am I letting my assumptions influence my decision of whether or not to lay hands on?
You may see a student who looks surly and moody and gives off the angry vibes. Maybe this puts you off assisting them because you assume they don’t want you to touch them. That may or may not be true, but provided you’ve asked their permissions (see next point) and they haven’t refused, don’t make judgements about their character. Maybe they’ve had a terrible day, week or year and you taking the time an attention to give them a comforting touch is exactly what they need. Equally, don’t give a wider berth to those students who have a strong practice or those in your class you know to be teachers. They are not perfect and most teachers who go to other classes do so to a) learn from other teachers and find inspiration, b) improve their own practice and c) give over the responsibility of teaching to someone else. One of the graduates of Namaslay® YTT Santorini 2019 received an adjust from Candace and said that she couldn’t believe in all the time she had been practicing, no teacher had ever corrected her. It was so simple and helped her to achieve the pose easily and comfortably. It was because her personal practice is strong which means she is forgotten when it comes to instruction and correction. Advanced students and teachers want to improve just as much as everyone else.
Have I asked permission?
This one is important. Putting your hands on another body is a very intimate gesture and the person must trust you. Many people do not enjoy being touched; they could be victims of sexual assault and you touching them could be triggering. They could be overly anxious or dealing with other mental health issues. They could find it off-putting, embarrassing or any other infinite number of reasons why they don’t want you to touch them. You don’t need to know the reason, nor do they need to explain it. You need to have their consent and if you don’t have it DON’T TOUCH THEM. Ask at the beginning when eyes are closed for those who are not comfortable with hands-on assists to make themselves known. If you assist in savasana, ask again at the beginning of savasana. If you are approaching a specific person e.g. they are almost in headstand but could use some extra help ask, “do you mind if I assist you?”. You cannot ask permission too often.
At the end of the day, you as the teacher need to read the situation. Whether or not you assist and adjust and also the depth and complexity of these will depend on the skill-level of your students, how well you know them, whether it is a class or a workshop, whether or not you are teaching a trauma class (do not touch these students), whether you feel comfortable giving assists and adjusts, whether or not you feel comfortable receiving them which will influence whether or not you do them, your own teaching style, and a whole myriad of other variables. I assist and adjust sparingly during class, but always give savasana assists. I assist much more in workshops and restorative practices. I adjust differently depending on whether or not my students are beginners. Choosing whether or not to adjust and assist is a personal choice and one that may change with time and experience. You can be an excellent teacher with or without them. You can also be a terrible teacher with or without them.
Empower you students to learn how to move their own body in a way that works for them, touch intuitively when necessary and when given consent to do so, drop the notion that poses need to look a certain way and you must force the body into these shapes and remember that assisting and adjusting is not a requirement, it is a choice. The name of the game is not to pull as many assists as you can out of your repertoire, but to lead a group of people through safe movement, professionally, with respect and reverence.