The Philosophy of Touch: Exploring the Benefits and Risks of Hands-on Assistance
Carrico tries to make visual contact with all students to make sure theyíre doing poses safely, and she uses a reasonable amount of verbal contact so students know she recognizes them and cares. But she often reserves physical contact for students who have been coming to her class for a while. "In certain cases, I actually have people put their hands on me," she says, explaining that she sometimes lies on the floor next to students and lets them touch her abdomen to feel it expand on inhalation and contract on exhalation. "This can be a helpful and safe way to use touch."
Kripalu Yoga has specific guidelines for use of touch, according to Shobhan Richard Faulds, a senior Kripalu Yoga teacher in Greenville, Virginia. "We do not do any kind of chiropractic adjustment or apply any outside force to the body," he says. "The touch considered most helpful is light touch that encourages the student to press into certain parts of the body." An example would be placing a hand on the crown of the studentís head and asking her to press into the teacherís hand.
"The movement comes from the studentís body, not the teacherís," Faulds stresses. "The touch brings awareness to a body part and suggests a movement, but thereís a deep respect for the wisdom of the body in how to access this movement."
Touch is usually done with the hand, although occasionally the feet are used, he says, for example to ground the outside of a studentís foot. "This must be done carefully, since Iíve had students tell me that in another yoga tradition the teacher kicked them, and it felt like a violation," Faulds says. "When we come into a studentís space, we do so with great respect and always under the studentís control."
While Faulds considers touch helpful and "sometimes essential" in teaching asanas, he says he doesnít touch very much in his classes. "Doing asanas is only the beginning of yoga and is a doorway to pratyahara (sensory withdrawal)," he says. "I try to guide people to a deeper yoga that gets them into an introverted state." Touching students who have gone "very deep inside" can be counterproductive, he says, "because it brings them back to an externalized state of awareness."
Another concern about hands-on adjustments is that "they can lead to an other-dependent attitude," says Edward Modestini, an Ashtanga Yoga teacher and co-owner of the Maya Yoga Studio in Maui, Hawaii. Physical adjustments are an integral part of the Ashtanga system, according to Modestini, who says his teacher, Sri K. Pattabhi Jois would sometimes lie on top of him to help him go deeper into Paschimottanasana (Seated Forward Bend). "And I loved it," he recalls. "But I want to teach self-reliance so students can learn to take care of themselves."
Modestini says he generally prefers verbal over physical instruction. "I do some physical adjustments, such as putting my knee on someoneís sacrum when theyíre in shoulder stand," he says. "But I try to hone my verbal skills, because Iíd prefer the student grasp the adjustment inside themselves, without assistance."
His wife and coteacher, Nicki Doane, uses touch more often. "Sometimes hands-on is great because it lets people feel what the posture should feel like," she says. "And it can make people feel nurtured and taken care of." More than 10 years of teaching experience has helped her become more sensitive to people and their bodies, says Doane, who stresses that she never gives strong, aggressive adjustments. "I always ask students if the adjustment feels okay," she says. "And I constantly tell students to please speak up and let us know if anything doesnít feel right."
For some students, touch is essential to learning, says JJ Gormley, founder of the Sun & Moon Yoga Studios in Virginia. "In every class, there are a few--maybe one or two people--who are kinesthetic learners who need hands-on assistance," she says. These students often donít grasp verbal instruction but respond well to physical demonstrations of how to do something. "When I discover that someone is a kinesthetic learner," Gormley says, "I may touch them more."