A Touch of Kindness
Stepping carefully around my students lying in Savasana, I make small adjustments to their poses, gently turning palms upward to create more opening in the chest and moving props that obstruct outstretched limbs. As I bend down to nudge a block away from a student's foot, I notice some congestion in the space between two resting bodies. Moving closer, I try to see in the darkness. Is it a bunched-up blanket? And then, my heart melts. It's a couple, holding hands, completely relaxed. They aren't congested—they're connected! By joining together, they have created a space where they feel safe, supported, and truly seen.
In healthy loving relationships, this is what we do for each other. And for partners who practice yoga, offering simple, loving adjustments to each other's poses can be a great way to deepen a practice and cultivate more sensitivity to each other, physically and emotionally.
A gentle, hands-on assist can help to deepen a twist, giving your partner a delicious feeling of spaciousness and release. Stable support can make a pose like Ardha Chandrasana (Half Moon Pose) accessible, freeing your partner to experience the more subtle actions of the pose. Beyond the physical, giving and receiving adjustments throws new light on how your emotions and actions affect each other. If you're feeling grumpy or bossy, you will notice how those emotions come through in your touch and the impact that has on your partner—and then you can make a conscious effort to change that. If you strive to be more considerate or supportive, adjusting a partner's poses is a great opportunity to practice that. If you tend to want to always be in control, here is your chance to let go a little and let someone help you.
Remember the game Trust, where players take turns wearing a blindfold and being led by a partner? Remember how hard it is to let go and step confidently when you're the person blindfolded and the awareness that opens once you do? How attentive and in tune you are when you're leading, lest your partner misstep? In a similar way, exchanging adjustments with those you have deep relationships with—whether your partner, your best friend, or your parent—can open a new window of awareness on the give-and-take that happens in supportive, loving relationships. In partnerships on or off the mat, there is really no leader but rather two followers who continuously respond to each other's balance, breath, strength, and willingness to play!
A Loving Hand
Just as you might strive for a balance between effort and ease in a particular pose, look for a balance between tenderness and strength, between yielding and supporting, when you exchange adjustments with your partner. Do this sequence together, going through poses 1 through 5 with the same partner assisting. Trade positions and repeat the poses, and then come into Savasana (Corpse Pose) together.
Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog)
Standing Partner: Stand at your partner's head in Downward-Facing Dog Pose, with one foot in front of the other. Place your hands on either side of your partner's pelvis and gently press up and back, as if you were trying to help lift the pelvis off the waist. Observe your partner's breathing; it should naturally deepen.
Practicing Partner: Respond to the up-and-back pressure that your partner is giving your hips by pressing down into your hands, keeping your neck relaxed. The combination of your partner lifting your pelvis and you reaching down will give you a delicious lengthening between your ribs and hips. Stay for 5 to 10 breaths.
Ardha Chandrasana (Half Moon Pose)
Assisting Partner: Stand beside your partner's hips, close enough that you can provide stable support as he or she comes into the pose. Place one hand on your partner's top hip. Place your other palm against your partner's top palm and offer a little resistance. Your job is not to press into the hand or hold the hip, but rather to offer a point of reference for establishing their balance. From here, they can open more fully into the pose.
Practicing Partner: From Down Dog, step your right foot forward between your hands. Inhale as you shift weight onto your right leg, reach your right hand forward, and place your left hand on your left hip. Extend your left leg behind you. Let the energy of extension in the left leg rebound down into your right foot and stabilize your standing leg. Since you and your partner are both touching your left hip, you can hold hands for a moment, and then extend your left arm up. Press your palm into your partner's, feeling the warmth and stability that allows you to open into the pose. Hold for 5 breaths and repeat on the other side.
Urdhva Dhanurasana (Wheel Pose)
Assisting Partner: Stand at your partner's head and step your feet wide apart, keeping your knees bent. It is helpful to stand about a foot from a wall for support in case you need it. Invite your partner to firmly grip your ankles. As your partner inhales and lifts into the pose, bend down and slide the palms of your hands beneath the shoulder blades. Can you do this with both clarity and tenderness? Imagine that you are holding your partner's heart in your hands.
Practicing Partner: Lie on the floor with your knees bent and your shoulders in front of your partner's toes. Hold your partner's ankles. This will help your shoulders, triceps, and chest open when you come up into this backbend. Inhale as you lift up, and allow this pose to be both active and receptive. Backbends are often thought of as heart-opening poses. Engage the muscles of your arms and legs, but let your partner's guidance relax and open your heart and chest. Stay for 3 to 5 breaths.
Jathara Parivartanasana (Revolved Abdomen Pose)
Assisting Partner: Set your partner come into the twist. Place one hand on your partner's top hip and the other hand on his or her shoulder. Keep your touch light. As your partner exhales, gently stretch the hip and shoulder away from each other. Part of your job here is to tune in to your partner's breathing so that your assists match his or her inhalations and exhalations, helping make space on the exhale.
Practicing Partner: Lying flat, extend your arms away from your shoulders. Exhale and hug your knees into your chest. On your next exhalation, lower your knees to the left. With each exhalation, allow your body to become more open and receptive to your partner's assist. Can you deepen into the opening? Stay for 10 breaths and then repeat on the other side.
Upavistha Konasana (Wide-Angle Seated Forward Bend)
Assisting Partner: Kneel behind your partner. Place your palms firmly on the tops of his or her thighs, fingers pointing toward you and your thumbs in the hip creases. As your partner begins to fold forward, slowly pour weight onto the legs. Try to avoid leaning your body against your partner's back—allow the forward fold to happen at your partner's own pace. Your job here is to ground the legs, creating the stability needed for the spine to lengthen forward.
Practicing Partner: Begin sitting upright and balanced on your sitting bones, with your legs wide. As your partner begins to stabilize your thighs, slowly walk your hands forward and begin to fold. Give your partner clear and honest feedback about how much weight feels helpful or restrictive. Stay here for 10 breaths.
Tips for Giving and Receiving Gentle Assists
Cyndi Lee is the founder of OM Yoga and the author of May I Be Happy: A Memoir of Love, Yoga and Changing My Mind.