In my first teacher training, we were encouraged to put our hands on our students at every opportunity. “This is your work,” I was told. In my second teacher training, I was taught to assist verbally first. If that doesn’t accomplish your goal, demonstrate – just for one student or if it’s appropriate, for the entire class. Only as a last resort would we be hands-on. In a later training, I was encouraged not to touch my students at all. “You never know what your students are dealing with and touch can trigger trauma,” was the reason for this guidance.
Hands-on help is a major component of some yoga styles while others advocate never touching your students. I’ve had many students report to me that they were injured during an assist from a highly qualified teacher. As Ahmisa (non-violence) is the very first ethical statement of yoga philosophy, the ‘never touch’ school of thought certainly has merit. On the other hand, some people learn best kinesthetically. A physical assist may open new levels of awareness for a student and even prevent them from injury through misalignment.
Just a few decades ago, yogi’s around the world thought of hands-on help as “corrections”. You were doing something wrong, and your teacher was going to help you make it right. The problem with this term is that it assumes that the teacher knows better than the student about what is going on in the student’s body. Since yoga is an unregulated profession and the standards we have agreed to as a community (200 hours) are minimal, there are many inexperienced teachers out there leading classes. Inexperienced teachers with lots of enthusiasm running around ‘correcting’ their students is a scary thought.
Over the years, corrections softened into “adjustments”. Instead of implying wrongness on the student’s part, it indicates that your teacher can offer you a different perspective through their hands on help. However, the term adjust is a one-way transaction, rather than an exchange. In that first hands-on teacher training, I noticed that the experience of being adjusted by my fellow trainees was often uncomfortable, confusing, and even painful. I left the teacher training with a vaguely anxious feeling that I needed a lot more practice before I could confidently be sure that my assists felt good and helpful. I probably touched people over-zealously in the hopes of gaining this experience. After more than a decade of teaching I now know that the skill of giving helpful adjustments can develop slowly, observing teaches as much as touching, and not everyone needs or wants to be touched.
Currently, the term “assist” is gaining traction. Assistance implies that the teacher and student are working together to shift the student’s physical experience. While the teacher may have more knowledge or a different perspective as one who can see your entire body, they are working towards goals set by the student. I like this term because it honors the spirit of ahimsa, acknowledges the limitations of the teacher, and puts the locus of control back in the hands of the student.
There is no such thing as a ‘correct’ yoga pose. There is no alignment that will trigger enlightenment. The goal of yoga may change from person to person, but for me it includes getting to know yourself and your body, learning to focus, and being in the present moment. The approach you take to offering hands-on help to your students will depend greatly on your definition of yoga and what you hope to offer your students. My hope is that as a yoga teacher, you spend a good deal of time contemplating these questions and develop an approach to touching your students that reflects your own answers and experience.
Stay tuned for part two of this series where I explore the practical considerations of assisting your students in more detail.