Physical Adjustments to Yoga Students: To assist or not to assist? 

When is it okay as a yoga teacher to touch a student?

yoga teacher adjustments
When is it not okay to adjust a student?

Ever enjoyed soothing adjustments in savasana (corpse pose), or profound ‘aha!’ moments as helpful hands guided your body toward greater understanding or ‘sweet spot’? Contrastingly, perhaps you implored the earth to swallow you – mat and all – upon a teacher’s approach, or felt undeniable niggles during physical adjustments yet didn’t speak up? These common scenarios have posed the question upon many mats; to adjust or not to adjust? Particularly when yoga-related injuries are widely scrutinised, this rouses varying opinions. Whilst it ultimately boils down to personal preference, key guidelines prevent healing hands from becoming harmful and creating emotional and physical discomfort.

“Teachers can feel psycho-physical resistance when adjusting some students, even if they requested or need it. A teacher must be sensitive, wise and empathetic toward students; many take adjustments as an ego trip, which is when things can become ugly. Ahimsa (non-violence) is the first rule of yoga; if we cannot follow it, are we yoga teachers at all?” queries chairman of Pondicherry’s International Centre for Yoga Education and Research (ICYER), Dr Ananda Balayogi Bhavanani.

Realistically, very few would knowingly utilise their hands as weapons of mass destruction, but accidents do happen – even among experienced practitioners and teachers. Sydney-based Yin Yoga teacher and This is Yoga co-founder, Mel McLaughlin, says safe adjustments require a gentle, methodical, intelligent and patient approach.

“Adjustments can be really helpful at the right time with the right person in the right way; this takes trust on both sides of student-teacher relationships. With no agenda and ‘less is more’ attitude, adjustments can help students go where they might not go alone,” says McLaughlin.

Modern touch 

The 2016 Yoga in America Study (Yoga Alliance and Yoga Journal) revealed only 56 per cent of participants considered physical adjustments characteristic of a great yoga teacher; many favouring friendliness, clarity and knowledge. Despite this, instructors often feel pressured to ‘teach off the mat’; a movement emphasised among western culture, where yoga’s physical component of asana (postures) popularly dominates.

“Indian culture is ‘hands off’ in nature as opposed to the ‘hands on’ pattern prevalent in modern times. Yoga sprouted from the fertile soil of Indian culture and hence emphasises verbal and nonverbal cues to help students find their own ‘inner adjustments’,” explains Dr Bhavanani.

“Physical adjustments are not part of the ICYER syllabus. We trust the intelligence of our students and facilitate their learning by developing a sense of keen observation, mindfulness, and listening to both teacher and their body-mind-emotion complex. We prefer not to physically adjust anyone unless absolutely required; in which case, informed consent is needed prior, especially in modern context where people are very sensitive to ‘personal space’,” he adds.

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