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The Philosophy of Touch: Exploring the Benefits and Risks of Hands-on Assistance

The subject of continual debate, adjustments run the gamut from helpful to hurtful. As you determine the role that adjustments play in your teaching style, consider suggestions and examples from some of yoga's master teachers.

By Carol Krucoff

It seems so simple: A student stands in Tadasana, shoulders tensed, and the teacher places his hands on the tight area, inviting relaxation.

Yet depending on a wide array of factors—ranging from the teacherís intentions and attitude to the studentís emotional state, religious beliefs, and personal history—this basic adjustment can be healing or violating, welcome or repugnant, constructive or demoralizing.

Touch is an intimate act and a complex issue--particularly in our litigious, sexualized society. Concerns about harassment have led to a hands-off attitude in some workplaces, and anxiety about abuse has prompted some schoolteachers to avoid touching children. Members of some religious groups may refuse to be touched by members of the opposite sex. And people who have been abused may be reluctant to be touched by anyone at all.

As a result, touch can pose a dilemma for yoga teachers who use hands-on assistance as an integral part of instruction. "Touch is sometimes more direct and effective than verbal instruction, since it brings students out of their heads and into their bodies," said Esther Myers, a Toronto-based yoga teacher and author of Yoga and You (Shambhala, 1996). (Yoga Journal interviewed Myers about six weeks before her death from breast cancer on January 6.) "We can sometimes give more precise and detailed information through touch than the student can absorb verbally."

Yet the intimate quality of touch is "both its benefit and risk," Myers said. "As teachers, we need to find a balance between caring, concern, compassion, and professional detachment."

The role of touch role in yoga instruction varies widely, depending on the teacher and the style, says Mara Carrico, a San DiegoĖarea yoga teacher and author of Yoga Journalís Yoga Basics (Henry Holt, 1997). "I studied with Bikram 25 years ago, and there was virtually no touching. He would bark out the directions and we would follow." In contrast, she says, "Iyengar and Ashtanga tend to be more hands-on, while Viniyoga tends not to be so touchy."

In recent years, thereís been a growing awareness that touch can pose risks for students, particularly if overzealous, inexperienced teachers perform aggressive adjustments. But it also can be hazardous for teachers, who might, for example, be kicked in the face while helping a student into handstand. "Hands-on assisting can be very strenuous," says Carrico, who describes her own style as "eclectic." "In the energetic realm, we have to guard ourselves, particularly if weíre working long days. With maturity, Iíve learned to pace myself."

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Reader Comments

Cassandra

The Jivamukti Yoga method has incorporated adjustments as part of their teaching style. Teachers are trained well and without comment from someone like Sharon Gannon or David Life, this article isn't properly researched. I can't tell you how many times I've gone to a class outside of Jivamukti and I've gotten bad adjustments simply because teachers are not properly trained. Adjustments are an important part of the a yoga class. The role of the teacher, and the point of an adjustment is for one reason only; to help the student reach enlightenment.

jill

shri k. pattabhi jois, the father of ashtanga yoga, said that without touch, progress can be very slow, and after teaching for 10 years I believe him. the art and benefits of physical assists are subjective to both students and teachers. when done expertly, by a well trained teacher, they can be one of the most profound experience you will ever have on the yoga mat. like finding true love, you'll know it when it happens.

E

Thank you for this article. As a teacher I am not fully comfortable touching my students. I have been told by a few past students, when asked, that they prefer not to be touched, so I often wonder how many others feel this way and haven't said so. This subject has been weighing on my mind d recently and it is so wonderful to be reassured that I am not less of a teacher for not physically adjusting my students, and may actually have more company in doing so than I had thought.

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