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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

Yet she generally prefers verbal to physical adjustment. "My overall philosophy is to touch as little as possible," says Gormley, who describes her teaching as a blend of the best of the many styles sheís studied. "I want to give the student a chance to feel it and let it happen in their body. I think it means more to them if they find it themselves."

Before touching a student, itís essential to really look at the personís body and recognize that individual differences—particularly in skeletal structure—will determine how far someone can go in a pose, says Paul Grilley, a yoga teacher in Ashland, Oregon. "The shape of our bones is the ultimate limiter of our range of motion," he says. "Yet thereís often this implication that if only someone works harder, they can do any pose, which is a fallacy."

For example, he says, "Some people will never be able to squat with their heels on the ground or put their palms in reverse Namaste, because their bones wonít permit it. Bones are a humbling thing, and our ability to do poses depends on the way weíre shaped."

Too often, Grilley says, yoga teachers assume that restriction comes from tension caused by tight muscles, without recognizing that it could be from compression caused by bones hitting together. While a hands-on adjustment may help someone relax tense muscles, it canít change compressed bones. "We need to balance the yang of effort," he says, "with the yin of calm acceptance of what is."

Adopting a "one-size-fits-all" adjustment strategy, or pushing students to achieve an aesthetically pleasing Tadasana, pose, can be both physically and psychologically harmful, says Grilley, who teaches Yin Yoga, a style that gently stresses the connective tissue through long holdings. "If you push students into an aggressive compression, you risk injuring them," he says. "And if you imply they Ďshouldí be able to get their heels down or put their palms together, it can be very frustrating for a student, who may think, ĎWhatís wrong with me?í"

The only adjustments Grilley does are related to safety, such as placing a support under someoneís buttocks if necessary in Virasana (Hero Pose). "And then Iím in constantly dialogue with the student," he says. "Iím always asking, ĎHow does this feel?í"

Regardless of individual approaches to hands-on assistance, virtually all teachers agree itís essential to ask a studentís permission to be touched. Some teachers seek permission each time they touch a student, others ask just the first time, and some only ask if they are dealing with an intimate area of the body.

A growing number of teachers require students to put this permission in writing by signing a release form. At Esther Myersí Toronto studio, the release form notes, "Hands-on assisting is one aspect of our teaching. Assists are given by both the primary teacher in the class and interns in our teacher-training program." The form asks students if they are "very comfortable," "moderately comfortable," or "uneasy" with hands-on assists. It invites them to specify whether they want assistance from the "primary teacher only," "primary teacher and intern," or "neither."

"One useful technique is to explain to the class during the opening relaxation that hands-on assisting is one of the ways that you teach," Myers said. "Some people like being touched and want a lot of assistance; others may be uncomfortable with touch or prefer less assistance. Ask for a show of hands for each category, while their eyes are still closed. This way, you will have a clear indication of who would like to be touched and who would not."

Here are six other guidelines for the proper use of touch:

  1. Be respectful. Respect the personís body and its limitations, respect their individual differences, and respect their right to say "no."
  2. Donít sneak up on someone. Approach a student so he or she can see you.
  3. Check your intentions. Helpful touch invites students to blossom right where they are, rather than trying to change them in some way. Remember, itís the studentís pose, not yours.
  4. Practice brahmacharya (sexual restraint). Sexual feelings can arise in the student or the teacher or both. Ethical practice requires sexual restraint in relation to students. Some experienced teachers say they do not touch students from whom (or toward whom) any sexual energy is felt.
  5. Watch your language. If you say you are "correcting" students, it implies that they are wrong. "Assisting" or "adjusting" is preferable.
  6. Go beyond teaching poses to teaching people. Always consider the person you are touching, why you are touching, and what is happening beyond technique.

Resources:

  • Hands-on Assisting: A Guide for Yoga Teachers, by Esther Myers, is available for $24.56 U.S., plus appropriate taxes and shipping, through her Toronto studio. E-mail emyers@interlog.com or call (416) 944-0838.
  • Anatomy for Yoga with Paul Grilley in DVD format, is available for $40 from www.pranamaya.com.

A graduate of Esther Myers Yoga Teacher Training program, Carol Krucoff, R.Y.T., is an award-winning journalist, member of the International Association of Yoga Therapists, and yoga instructor in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. She is co-author, with her husband Mitchell Krucoff, MD, of Healing Moves: How to Cure, Relieve and Prevent Common Ailments with Exercise (www.healingmoves.com).


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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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