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