One of the most intimate aspects of teaching yoga asana is physically adjusting students. It's one thing to give students verbal instruction, but it's a different thing to actually put your hands on their bodies. Physical adjustment is a direct and personal form of communication. Done well, it can be transformational—but done poorly, it can be confusing to students and can even cause injury.
"Manual adjustments are a form of transmission," says senior Shadow Yoga teacher Mark Horner. "The teacher is transmitting information through the hands directly to the student." Use these guidelines to help make your adjustments a transformational transmission.
New teachers often struggle with adjustments, unsure of when they're needed. Horner teaches in Walnut Creek, California, and runs a workshop called the Art of Seeing and Adjusting. He says there are three basic reasons to give a physical adjustment.
One: Help a student move into a pose. "If the person is not doing the movement correctly, they're going to have a much more difficult time assuming the final shape," he says.
One example is Gomukasana (Cow Face Pose). Students often try to put their arms into the position without first making enough space at the shoulder joints before rotating the shoulders and elbows so that their hands can reach one another. You could use your hands to help the student find more space in the shoulder and/or elbow before the student reaches the arms back. You can also manually help them rotate their arms—externally for the top arm, internally for the bottom arm—to achieve the correct depth of movement in the pose.
Two: Help a student find his or her point of balance, the lack of which can make a pose feel unsteady.
For instance, in Uttitha Trikonasana (Extended Triangle Pose), people often come off their center because of tight hamstrings, distributing too much weight over the front leg and sticking the buttocks out. To help a student be more balanced in this pose, a teacher can stand behind the student and act as a wall—the teacher's hip to the student's buttocks. Then, the teacher can use one hand in their hip crease to help the student to cut the hip in, and another hand on the lower belly to teach the student to draw the navel in and turn from their center instead of from their upper body.
Three: Take a student into an expression of the pose that they are not able to do themselves. "Oftentimes, with a little bit of support, a person can have a different experience of the pose and see where they may be fighting it or overworking," Horner says. "With that support of the teacher, the student can achieve new sensations."
In Paschimottonasana (Seated Forward Bend), people often use their arm strength to pull themselves down, which leaves them overworking in the shoulders and neck, and unable to reach the deeper expression of the pose, in which the torso comes closer to the legs. You can help the student reach a deeper expression of this pose by using the inner edges of both shins to bear weight on the student's lower back, and then gently applying pressure to help them fold forward. Use your hands on their shoulders to keep reminding them to soften there, while telling them to move from the naval. They will go deeper with less struggle.
The decision about when to physically adjust a student is not one that should be made lightly. According to senior Iyengar teacher Anne Saliou of San Francisco, who also teaches a course named the Art of Seeing and Adjusting, teachers must make conscious choices about which students to adjust and how to adjust them. Saliou suggests that you not overadjust beginners because you're still forming a relationship and establishing trust with them; also, new students may get discouraged if they think that their poses are always incorrect. Saliou will, however, adjust beginners if she thinks they're at risk of harming themselves or if she can help them find more ease in a pose.
Before giving any kind of physical adjustment in a public class, make sure you have an intimate understanding of both the pose and the adjustment. That means, says Saliou, that you've received the adjustment yourself and have practiced it on others, including fellow teachers, good friends, your best students, and then newer students and even injured students. "If teachers have worked through the challenges of the pose," Horner says, "they'll be better equipped to help someone else with those challenges." And, of course, you should have an understanding of a student's limitations or injuries before adjusting them in any pose.
The most important thing to do before giving an adjustment is to determine your intention. This means observing the person in front of you and being clear about why you're adjusting him or her. Before adjusting, quickly determine the following: Are you trying to help a student with alignment? Or help find a deeper expression of a pose that they might not be able to find without your assistance? Are you adjusting a student in order to prevent injury? Or maybe they need to find more space for their breath? Know your intention before placing hands on a student so that your adjustment will be direct and useful.
Then there is the question of whether or not you need to ask permission. While Saliou will often verbally ask a student's permission, Horner is more inclined to establish a silent but energetic student-teacher connection before adjusting. Both agree, though, that you want the touch to be both firm and gentle. "In my opinion, casual touch has no place in a yoga class," says Saliou. "At the same time, the adjustment should be gentle. If you just grab the muscle and grip the fingers, and there is no give in the touch; the person is not going to be able to receive it."
Horner also says that it's important to keep your hands soft because they can give you important information about how an adjustment is being received. But that doesn't mean that the pressure can't be firm. It means that you should have a sensitivity and awareness in the skin of the hands, so that the outgoing energy of what you're trying to communicate doesn't overpower any proprioceptive information coming back in.
You can tell if a student is responding well to an adjustment, and if you can go deeper with it, by looking for these signs.
- Their breath is steady and even, not short or blocked.
- Their muscles and soft tissue give in to your touch and don't contract or freeze.
- Their face is relaxed, not scrunched.
Keep Them Centered
Finally, remember that, as a teacher, you are there to help stabilize your students. Horner says every pose is a balancing pose, from the more obvious one-legged Ardha Chandrasana (Half Moon Pose) to a seated twist like Ardha Matsyendrasana (Half Lord of the Fishes), because we are always working with gravity.
To help students maintain their balance, make sure you stabilize them even as you shift part of their body in another direction. "For instance, if you adjust someone in Ardha Chandrasana, then you need to stabilize the pelvis," says Saliou. "If you start to adjust the chest and don't stabilize the pelvis, the person is going to fall. One part needs to be stabilized in order to move another part," she says.
The same is true in a pose such as Parivrtta Trikonasana (Revolved Triangle Pose). "If I want to adjust the chest, I need to place my pelvis in a way that stabilizes their pelvis, and then adjust the chest with my hands," Saliou explains.
Horner says that, as the teacher, you also need to be on your own point of balance. "You have to be stable," he says. "You have to have your prana (life force) sunk down into your belly and be in your legs and in your feet. Then, when you put your hands on the person, you can do it in a way that doesn't throw them off balance."
Perhaps the most important thing to remember is that, like anything else, learning to adjust students properly takes time. Even the most seasoned instructors started by giving small adjustments to their students as they worked up to more difficult ones. Have patience, practice regularly, and you'll find that your skills and confidence will increase over time.
Karen Macklin is a writer, editor, and yoga teacher in San Francisco.