With Their Own Two Hands
Self-adjustments can be, quite literally, a touchy subject. Renowned yoga teachers and teacher trainers agree that the ability to teach students to use their own hands to adjust their poses can be enormously beneficial. An example is instructing a student to bring awareness to the angle of her pelvis by placing her hands on her hips and physically feeling it. Yet most teachers don't teach self-adjustments on a regular basis.
Adjustments are taught in all teacher training programs, but the focus often is on learning verbal cues and physical adjustments, rather than on teaching students to take matters into their own hands. This relatively low emphasis on self-adjusting means that even highly competent, much-beloved teachers might not know when, or how, to suggest a self-adjustment.
At the same time, students might feel shy about self-adjusting. As Om Yoga Founder Cyndi Lee notes, "There are a lot of people out there who don't really touch themselves that much." Even in the relatively open, accepting space of a yoga studio, touching yourself might seem taboo.
But self-adjustments are important, for three reasons. First, they're practical. Kim Valeri, owner of YogaSpirit Studios and a teacher trainer throughout the Northeast, puts it this way: "Self-adjusting is a wonderful and safe way to give a full-group assist when you can't get to every student in a class."
Second, says teacher and Yoga Journal Contributing Editor Jason Crandell, self-adjustments are educational. He recalls that when he began his training with Rodney Yee 12 years ago, Yee instructed with a level of nuance that Crandell's body literally didn't understand, so he began physically adjusting himself to teach his muscles, joints, and bones what Yee meant.
Third, and most important, according to Lee: Self-adjustments are empowering. Through self-adjusting, she says, students learn to explore and "own their own practice" in a way they couldn't by simply listening to and receiving physical adjustments from their teachers. (Following our conversation, Lee also blogged about self-adjusting. For more of her thoughts, check out her blog.)
Starting from the Beginning
As Donna Farhi writes in Bringing Yoga to Life, self-adjustments begin at a very basic level the moment a student steps onto the mat, because for many students, opening up to the practice of yoga is an adjustment in self-perception.
"When we enter an asana," Farhi writes, "we start by feeling what is . . . We simply feel how we are and offer ourselves complete acceptance for whatever we are bringing to the mat." She continues, "When we can bring an accepting presence to our observations, we begin the process of befriending ourselves."
Farhi calls this gentle approach "a crucial first step" in the practice of yoga. It's the most fundamental self-adjustment we can offer students, who so often go through their daily lives in an agitated, critical state of mind. Teaching people to approach their practice with gentleness can be revolutionary.
Cyndi Lee illuminates this idea further: "I often refer to gom, which is a Tibetan word that means 'getting familiar,'" she says. "That's what yoga is—a practice for getting to know ourselves. Depending on how that evolves, your physical practice can extend out to be a template for your relationship with yourself. So it's good to touch yourself!"
All Hands on Deck
In considering self-adjustments, it's important to put some thought into which poses lend themselves well to self-adjusting, as well to practice how to make instructions clear to students.
There are different approaches to teaching self-adjustments. Valeri, for example, categorizes self-adjusting into "directional" and "resistance" assists. Upavistha Konasana (Wide-Angle Seated Forward Bend), for example, can be taught with a resistance self-adjustment: Valeri tells students to place their fingers under the inner thighs, backs of wrists facing outwards, and use the forearm to externally rotate the groin muscles while rolling the femur into neutral at the midline of the body. In this case, she says, the resistance comes from the strength used by the arms to teach the thighs correct alignment, an action that cannot be done easily through the mind alone.
On the other hand, teachers can offer both resistance and directional assists in Virabhadrasana II (Warrior II Pose), according to Valeri. She instructs students to take the hand to the outer thigh on the bent leg, which provides a resistance assist due to resistance between the thigh and the hand, which keeps that leg in alignment. She also instructs students to take the fingertips of the arm on the same side as the straight leg to the lower ribs in order to move the hip toward the thigh, which is a directional cue.
Jason Crandell sprinkles self-adjustments throughout many poses in his classes, teaching similar self-adjustments in different poses that share a common foundation, such as forward folds. "If I have students in a forward fold and I want to teach them how to rock the pelvis forward, I have them take their hands to their hips to literally do it, because the hands and fingers are so well connected to the brain," he says. "When we physically mimic verbal cues, the body picks up on that subtle cue, and it becomes a learning process."
Similarly, for backbends, Crandell offers the verbal cue "ground the thighbones," for which he also tells students to place their hands on the fronts of the thighs and push in. He'll then instruct students to take their hands to the sacrum and guide it down, then use the fingers to lift the ribs and the chest.
Lee cites Parsvottanasana (Intense Side Stretch Pose) as another example of a pose that works well for self-adjusting. For example, when doing the pose with the right foot forward, she would instruct the student put the left thumb on the right big toe to push down, and the right hand in the right hip crease to ease the hip back to help the hips square.
In addition to helping teach good alignment, self-adjustments like these take students a level deeper in their understanding of asana. Lee says the Parsvottanasana instructions are a good example of cases when students "start to learn some of the universal relationships in yoga, like 'move down to go up.'"
This teaching tool also helps "imprint energetic circuitry," as Lee puts it. "You give people a way to make connections in their own personal bodies in a way they will remember, because they did it themselves."
Lee feels there aren't any poses that should be excluded from self-adjustments, because she sees self-adjusting as going beyond physical touch. For example, she says that with the right foot forward in Virabhadrasana II, "you can look at the left thumb but bring your mental awareness to the right knee instead and then move it to the right [without using the hands to self-adjust]."
Just as you'd be mindful of harming your students when you give them a hands-on adjustment, you need to make sure you teach them to be gentle with their own adjustments so they don't force movement and harm themselves. For example, if a student has an injury in the sacrum and SI joints, squaring the hips may further aggravate that injury. "Sometimes the body is trying to intelligently protect you by not opening up," says Valeri. She adds, "When we teach self-adjustments, we have to look at the physical but also the emotional underpinnings of a student's individual pose."
Crandell also warns against taking self-adjustments too far. "Just like all adjustments we receive from someone else, I think at some point we have to stop. In Triangle, you could futz with your hands throughout the entire pose—but at some point, let it be. It's like trying clothes on: You shift, shake, move, and make subtle adjustments. Eventually you just make sure it feels like clothing fits and then let go, or it becomes a neurotic pathology."
In every case, though, being specific and brief is essential. "Self-adjusting has to be taught in the right way—with curiosity and with precision—or students will just get confused," adds Lee. "The same is true for regular adjustments. I don't recommend offering more than three instructions per pose."
From Hand to Body to Mind
Fundamentally, self-adjustments are about giving students the ability to create greater body awareness so that they can explore their own practice, both in the studio and at home. At the highest level, says Valeri, self-adjusting becomes a sort of affirmation, a way to create "a sense of confidence and support from within."
"When you give yourself an adjustment, it's inevitably a subtle adjustment—a subtle way of informing a new awareness and pattern of movement in the body," adds Crandell.
Lee puts it more directly: "Most people don't walk around touching their sacrum. But in yoga class, you can put one hand on your pubic bone and one on the sacrum and tilt the pelvis, and it ignites curiosity, acceptance. It shifts peoples' relationships with their bodies in such a cool way. That's huge."
Tips for Introducing Self-Adjustments
Keep with the theme. Offer adjustments that help students access the pose or action on which you're focusing. For example, in a backbending class, you might instruct students to use their fingers to help guide the pelvis into a neutral position right at the beginning of class, then return to that adjustment throughout.
Provide support. Self-adjustments can be a useful tool for helping students explore a pose while bringing a bit of ease to it. Perhaps you've got a class full of fierce Virabhadrasana I (Warrior I Pose) practitioners, but you see a lot of fatigued arms raised. Invite your students to bring the hands to the hips and offer a hip-squaring self-adjustment.
Be playful. Many students are bashful about touching their bodies in nonhabitual ways, even in the yoga environment. Let your tone of voice and your own body language set a tone of ease and lightness, especially when you're trying self-adjustments for the first time or with beginners.
Ask for input. Your fellow teachers and the wider yoga community are great resources for ideas on self-adjustments that you might not already know. Check out the Yoga Journal blog and other community areas of the Yoga Journal site as a starting point.
Meghan Searles Gardner is a yoga teacher, mom, and writer in Boston. You can email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.