I teach the Ashtanga primary series as well as "basic" hatha classes, and as part of my teaching practice I often adjust students. One of my regular students recently injured her back. She and her chiropractor agreed that it was during one of my adjustments in a twist. I realize now that because this student is very flexible, I didn't have the biofeedback that I usually have in an adjustment, letting me know when I allowed her to reach her "edge." So I pushed her too far into the twist.
My problem now is that I feel disinclined to adjust students as vigorously as before (even though most regular students really appreciate the help). I've developed a fear of people being injured in my class, and this distracts me, especially when I'm teaching inversions and arm balances. And I feel a rift in my relationship with the student who was injured: Although she continues to come to class regularly, she sometimes contradicts my suggestions; and I feel like she is nervous when I approach her to do a simple adjustment, as in Downward-Facing Dog.
How can I recover my confidence while keeping my classes safe for all participants?
Read David Swenson's reply:
It is unfortunate that one of your students was injured in a class. As teachers, we must take all precautions to avoid hurting our students or ourselves. However, if someone is injured in class, we must take responsibility for the situation and do whatever we can to facilitate both a physical and an emotional recovery for the student and ourselves.
First, we should sincerely apologize for any pain or suffering we might have caused and then suggest directions of action to heal. This could be a referral to a chiropractor or massage therapist, for example. We must also learn from our mistakes and understand what went wrong and caused the problem.
When adjusting students, we are asking for their trust and attempting to facilitate and support their practice. Adjustments are not always about creating greater depth or flexibility. Truly, an adjustment is meant to enhance the lines of energy in the specific asana. We must understand when flexible is flexible enough. The very flexible person needs to work on developing strength. The strong and tight person needs more focus on finding length. The word yoga means balance, so, on a purely physical level, we can seek balance between strength and flexibility. We can also seek balance between the internal and external aspects of the practice. When giving adjustments, we must learn to hear, see, and feel with our hands. This is a skill that takes time to develop, just as a chiropractor or massage therapist must develop this subtle sense in their hands. In the beginning, it's wise to err on the side of caution.
When I facilitate teacher trainings, we focus a lot of time and energy on this realm of teaching. As we begin to adjust, we move slowly and steadily, following the breath of the student. We may choose to stop at 30 percent of our power. The choice as to how much pressure to apply comes by observing the student's breath, body language, and speech.
To regain your confidence, I recommend easing back into the realm of adjusting. Modify your approach a bit and take it slowly. Ask for feedback from your students and develop the internal awareness and subtle sensitivity needed in your hands. Remember, yoga is a healing activity, and as teachers we are there to enhance and support the healing effects that yoga has to offer. Grow from your experience—you'll become a better teacher because of it.
David Swenson made his first trip to Mysore in 1977, learning the full Ashtanga system as originally taught by Sri K. Pattabhi Jois. He is one of the world's foremost instructors of Ashtanga Yoga and has produced numerous videos and DVDs. He is the author of the book Ashtanga Yoga: The Practice Manual.