A New Approach to Yoga Manual Assists or Adjustments
There are many reasons why you may choose not to manually assist or adjust one of your yoga students. Among them are worries of causing injury, especially due to overstretch. No matter how in tune you are with your student, it is nearly impossible to know from the outside how much force is appropriate. Additionally, you may be concerned that in providing outside leverage and control you are taking away a student’s body ownership and agency in their practice and enquiry. Additionally, this teaching focus may perhaps prioritise execution of a shape rather than the journey of discovery it may take for a student to get there on their own. This is not to say manual assists are all bad. With a skilful and compassionate teacher in an environment of trust and dialogue, outside support can help a student explore possibilities they never thought possible. In time, now knowing the lay of this new physical frontier, the student may find their own way back.
In fact, manual assists don’t have to be forceful or provide any leverage at all. A teacher can be there simply as physical and moral support; steadying balance, foundation, and distribution of effort. A teacher can be there with their hands to provide feedback or outside landmarks, such as ‘breathe into my hand’ or ‘lean back into me.’ Much of the importance of this hands-on technique is the human relationship in which the teacher is present with the student, sees them, and holds a compassionate space of non-judgment.
But much of this learning can happen without the physical presence of a teacher through a self-assist. This technique has become foundational to my teaching and has opened up a whole new approach to providing manual assists, adjustments, and student ownership over their own unique alignment. Now that social distancing has taken touch away, this new approach is even more important and relevant. Be sure to combine these techniques with a classroom environment that emphasises the communal, human, and relational experience of those in the room. Even if we lose physical touch, or even the ability to be in the same room with our students, we can do our best to let them know we are there with them and that they are in a community of practitioners.
There are many self-assist techniques, but here are my top three.
Touch to Move
Whatever assist you were about to give your student, can you ask them to do it for themselves? A student’s own hands can have great effect on the thighs, the hips, the neck, the head, on opposite arms and more. Additionally, the student will most likely only apply mild force and leverage and will be much more responsive to warning signals from the body if they are going too far.
- Use your hand to externally rotate the front thigh in any standing pose
- Use both hands to tilt the pelvis forward or back for forward or backward bends
- Use hands to turn the ribcage open in triangle pose
Touch for Feedback
Sometimes what we need is a little help in feeling what our body is doing. Your students can use a hand, a prop, or an outside object like a wall to receive sensory feedback from breath, movement, or muscular activity. Basically, you are creating a listening and feeling device that helps the student understand and experience what is going on in the shape and in their bodies. Whatever you are using you can push into it, or pull away from it, or simply feel the activity underneath it. This type of self-assist is effective in bringing breath into different regions of the body and encouraging muscular activity (especially isometric contraction). Touch for feedback will reveal when you have lost awareness or energy in a specific region of the body or a shape and help you have an outside target to re-enliven the pose.
- Place the hands on the outside of thighs in utkatasana and press thighs into the hands
- Place the hands on the sides of your ribs to explore the breath in any shape that allows
- Try my Hit the Wall Hatha practice to explore the use of the wall in a variety of shapes
This one is super simple and surprisingly effective. Instead of actually placing your hands on a student, tell them to imagine your hands are there. Then guide them through the action you intended to assist without actually touching. That’s it! Imaginary hands are surprisingly effective and work well in spots that are hard for a student to get to on themselves. They work even better when students have already felt actual hands in the same location earlier in the sequence. For example, you could sit and place hands on belly, ribs, and chest for breath and then repeat that breathing process with imaginary hands in any shape you’d like.
- Imaginary hands can lift the hips in downward-facing dog pose
- Imaginary hands can push the sacrum in and up in a forward fold
- Imaginary hands can be placed anywhere on the body to breathe into
Bonus: Compassionate Touch
Any time you brings hands on your body, can you ensure that your touch is kind and compassionate? Can you bring the type of touch you might bring to someone you love and care for (parent, partner, child, animal). Let your touch self-sooth. Hug and embrace yourself! This type of touch will release oxytocin and be a powerful agent of stress-relief.
Photos by Yoga and Photo by Cecille