Yoga teacher Coral Brown says she’s probably performed thousands of hands-on assists on students over the past 20 years. When she traveled with her teacher, Shiva Rea, her role was to provide energetic alignment-based assists—meaning she helped students move into a deeper embodiment of twists, forward folds, backbends, and more. “To my knowledge, I never hurt anyone,” says Brown. “But looking back, I fully own that there is a danger, and potential for injury, in assisting.”
When she sustained a hamstring tear after a teacher gave her a deep assist, Brown says she realized that some assists can be too much—and she shifted her views on hands-on adjustments. “Rather than use an assist to practically do the pose for the student, I now use a guiding touch to teach students how to embody the pose on their own,” she says.
Like Brown, many other teachers are re-thinking their use of hands-on adjustments in public yoga classes, which are feeling scarier than ever for both teachers and students. After all, we live in an increasingly litigious society, and the #metoo movement has brought a heightened awareness to power dynamics. Vinyasa yoga teacher Jason Crandell says this is one reason why he started giving fewer manual adjustments. “It’s natural to crave the affection of the person in charge, and that can lead to big problems,” he says. “In my mind, that was a reason to be more reserved in how I interact with my students.”
Crandell says he’s also hearing a growing number of stories from students who’ve experienced injuries after intense manual adjustments, which he believes is a result of many teachers being radically undertrained to perform them. “We have fetishized range of motion through outlets like Instagram, often at the expense of the quality and integrity of a pose,” he says. “As teachers, we need to stop thinking about hands-on assists as a way to push students more deeply into a pose.”
ParaYoga founder Rod Stryker agrees, adding that manual adjustments may not be as helpful as they are made out to be. “Well-informed, deep hands-on adjustments—done skillfully—can feel good, but they’re not necessarily productive to the student in the larger sense or meaning of practice,” he says. “In fact, I’ve noticed students grow dependent on teachers who do a lot of hands-on adjustments, and they can even become emotionally reliant on being adjusted.” If a student’s safety is compromised in a pose, Stryker will perform a manual adjustment. Otherwise, he focuses on verbal and visual cues.
Whether you’re a teacher craving more information on how to navigate hands-on adjustments or a student wondering what’s appropriate, use the following guide to help chart this tricky territory.