17 Mar the art of hands-on teaching
yoga adjustments and yoga assists
as yoga teachers we have a variety of tools available to guide our students into their experience of yoga. From our own presence, attentiveness and energy to our verbal instructions, to demonstrating the pose, to our use of metaphor and story–telling. Then there is the hands-on approach which is referred to as and ‘adjustment or ‘assist’.
in this article, I show that there are inconsistencies with the use of the words yoga ‘adjustment’ and ‘assist’ yet there are tangible distinctions between them. I explore how we, as yoga teachers and students alike can shape our experience of yoga through one vs. the other.
6 reasons for the hands-on approach
- help avoid unsafe alignment
- deepen release and relaxation
- cultivate a connection with students
- encourage mindfulness
- provide insight into the energetics of a posture
- deepen the posture
yoga assists vs. yoga adjustments – confusing definitions
Sometimes within yoga circles the terms yoga adjustment and assist are used interchangeably yet sometimes they are used to refer to different intentions and actions of a yoga teacher. This lack of consistency in the use of the words ‘adjustment’ and ‘assist’ is problematic because it leads to a lack of consistency in the experience provided by teachers and received by students.
in the book ‘Yoga Posture Adjustments and Assisting’ by Stephanie Pappas which has sold over 10,000 copies worldwide definitions of the two are provided as follows:
hands-on yoga assist is:
‘the physical act of stretching, pressing, moving or touching someone while they are in a yoga posture…which lasts longer than an adjust….and intends to take them deeper in a pose and correct postural misalignments…” pg 4
hands-on yoga adjustment is:
“the act of making a simple, short alteration or correction to a yoga posture. …and uses a lighter touch than an assist. The aim of adjusting is to encourage a small movement, a subtle awareness, a change in position or relaxation in a body part.” pg 4
however I recently attended a workshop on adjustments from the Ashtanga lineage in which the exact opposite definitions to the above were provided which actually is more in line in with how I am accustomed to understanding the definitions. These opposing definitions are in line with the dictionary definitions of the two words:
“to give support or aid to; help”
“to change (something) so that it fits, corresponds or conforms; adapt; accommodate”
the vagueness in terms doesn’t stop there…Brian Cooper in his book ‘The Art of Adjusting’ doesn’t even refer to Assists at all but opens out his definition of Hands-on Adjustments into different categories;
“passive, active, resistance and partner adjustments”
Furthermore, Shiva Rea in her ‘Mandala of Asanas’ coursebook does not refer to hands-on adjustments at all and instead intentionally uses the definition ‘assist’ to refer to:
“the communication into the flow of prana and alignment within the asana”
then uses the term ‘enhancement’ to refer to:
“your hands are suggesting a movement that the student can activate for themselves”
hands-on to deepen the physical posture
to decipher the similarities and differences of yoga assists versus adjustments, it is useful to explore their use specifically within the context of deepening a posture. Let’s consider standing poses because these could be the most complex of hands-on teaching to provide.
similarities in adjustments vs assists in standing poses
when deepening a standing pose, both the assist and the adjustment share the same ultimate virtuous intentions regarding deepening the experience of yoga within a standing pose i.e. to facilitate the student in their pursuit of the experience of yoga, to bring integrity and safety to the posture and ultimately empower and serve the student and elevate the practice of yoga.
differences in adjustments vs assists in standing poses
let’s take the definition of yoga adjustment in accordance with the dictionary definition of adjustment;
“to change (in this case, the student) so that they fit, correspond, conform, adapt or accommodate (in this case, to the posture)”.
here the teacher’s intention with the adjustment is to place the student into the ‘ideal’ position so that they conform to the yoga posture in order to reach their potential. Therefore the yoga adjustment implies a posture-focused approach to yoga practice.
in this way, an adjustment involves a more intense experience than an assist does. A student is unlikely to forget an adjustment whether it is amazing or equally, whether it is terrible!
advantages of adjustments
builds the student-teacher rapport they could cultivate a stronger more direct bond between the student as a result of the deeper physical interaction.
provides great insight the teacher could fast-track revelations and insights about the posture to the student that perhaps the student may have never reached without the teachers guidance. This could provide the student with a sense of achievement and unlock the feeling of attaining one’s potential, which would then empower the student to reach that place within the posture on their own the next time in their practice.
disadvantages of adjustments
one-size-fits-all assumption of the ‘ideal’ posture-focused approach of yoga adjustments is not necessarily appropriate or realistic. According to renowned yin yoga and anatomy expert Paul Grilley, a student’s range of mobility is determined by their unique skeletal structure. However the ‘ideal’ posture approach implies that if only the student works harder, they could attain any posture, which according to Grilley, is simply not true. Grilley highlights that too often, yoga teachers incorrectly assume that restriction in a student arises from tight muscles but actually it could arise from bone-on-bone compression. Whilst an adjustment may facilitate a student to relax tense muscles, it cannot change their bone compression.
risk of harm the ‘ideal posture’- focused approach of adjustments could potentially lead more risk of the teacher injuring the student either emotionally or physically. “if you push students into an aggressive compression, you risk injuring them…And if you imply that they ‘should’ be able to get their heels down or put their palms together, it can be very frustrating for a student, who may think, ‘What’s wrong with me?’” Paul Grilley (Yoga Journal article)
external aesthetic rather than internal experience- the adjustment assumes that the ‘correction’ of the outward physical expression of the posture from an external party, i.e. the yoga teacher, facilitates the student’s internal experience of yoga. It is difficult to determine whether this assumption is fair. My own experience would inform me that the outcome is mixed and so a case-by case approach is required.
co-dependency hands-on adjustments could lead the student to building a dependency upon the facilitation of their teacher and subsequently take them farther away from goal of yoga. In their expectation, anticipation, reliance or attachment to receiving an adjustment, the student’s attention is taken to their external environment rather than inward to their internal experience of yoga.
dis-empowerment rather than empowerment. An over-reliance on hands-on adjustments could also inhibit a students’ own ability to deepen their posture themselves and this would affect their self practice away from the teacher. Self-practice is a fertile ground for powerful and potent insights into the path of yoga so overlooking self-practising could be a huge inhibitor to the path and goal of yoga.
assists in standing postures
the teachers’ intention of an assist is to allow the student to find their potential and the aim of the assist is to adapt the pose to the student. Thus, the assist implies a student-focused approach to yoga practice. An assist could be considered as a more gentle approach, which allows time and space for student to attain in their own time/space/way of experiencing the posture.
advantages of assists
empowering allows the student to awaken their own internal-lead insight, giving them more freedom of experience to explore, feel and find their own interpretation of posture. The Real Flow Yoga approach works with this premise and hands-on assists are our teaching tools used to awaken and encourage a student’s instincts, intellect and intuition.
less risk of harm because more gentle, there would be less chance of risk of injury to the students’ emotional or physical wellbeing.
one-size does not fit all greater freedom for the student to express and experience a posture in a way that may not necessarily look like the deepest and most ideal version of the posture but does accommodate their individual needs
disadvantages of assists
too subtle or too superficial an assist is arguably less physically and emotionally demanding of the student and/or the teacher which leaves scope for potential not to be met within the experience of the yoga posture.
less connection between student and teacher because there is less physical contact than an adjustment, the assist offers potentially less depth of connection between the student and teacher, yet this connection can be a key conduit for transmitting the yoga teachings.
4 factors that influence the appropriateness of an adjustment vs an assist
between student and teacher can affect the effectiveness of the adjustment or assist. Subtle and subconscious forces are at play during the communication of body language, touch and intimacy. The preexisting connection and bond between student and teacher can influence this. A good-sense of familiarity is more likely to lead to an effective adjustment. If there is less familiarity, the yoga assist may be the less riskier and more effective teaching tool to use.
a student must feel comfortable and confident in order to be receptive to receiving a hands-on adjustment or assist. The student must feel a strong sense of trust in the teacher, in the yoga practice and also within themselves and their abilities to cultivate depth in yoga practice. The yoga adjustment requires a stronger sense of trust than the yoga assist.
it’s all about timing… not just within the arc of the class but timing within the posture. If given too soon or too late or for too long or not long enough, the effectiveness of the hands on adjustment or assist is impaired.
4. how ‘in-their-body’ the student is
a person’s kinaesthetic intelligence and level of embodiment could be good factors to consider when determining whether a hands on adjustment or assist would be most effective for them and their yoga practice.
kinaesthetic intelligence is defined as a person’s ability and skill in using their body to express themselves in addition to their co-ordination and fine and gross motor skills. A person with high kinaesthetic intelligence may be more inclined to learn better from physical touch as opposed to verbal cues because their intelligence is so physically orientated. Therefore a hands-on adjustment may be an effective approach for teaching them.
‘embodiment’ in regards to yoga practice is a student’s familiarity to a pose, whereby their physical expression of the posture is the manifestation of the yoga itself.
it is no surprise therefore that yoga practice increases a person’s kinaesthetic intelligence and embodiment. Therefore, I would argue that hands-on adjustment are most effective for yoga students that already have a regular and intermediate practice and show high levels of kinaesthetic intelligence and embodiment because they are already well-versed in yoga practice and so are open and receptive to the communication of physical touch.
furthermore, students with lower levels of kinaesthetic intelligence whom are less ‘embodied’, thus more likely to be beginners at yoga, a hands-on adjust may be too intense and may not be the most effective or appropriate teaching tool for a teacher to use.
on the other end of the spectrum, my experience is that a student with a very high kinaesthetic intelligence, with a stronger sense of embodiment of the yoga practice would also not really gain much from a teachers’ hands-on adjustment because the adept student already would have a strong sense of the posture for themselves and may be experiencing the ‘depth’ within the posture on a more subtler, intrinsic way and thus a teachers hand-on adjustment, may just feel invasive or distracting and thus would detract from this deeper experience of yoga.
I have found that assists allow for more scope to be student-lead and so would be appropriate for a student irrespective of their level of yoga practice, kinaesthetic intelligence or embodiment. Therefore the effectiveness of a hands-on assist would be more dependent upon the other aforementioned factors i.e. trust, familiarity and timing rather than how ‘in-their-body’ the student is.
10 tips for the hands-on approach to teaching
by adhering to the Real Flow Yoga principle qualities of mindfulness, trust and authenticity, you can rest assured in the high quality of your hands-on approach to teaching yoga. Be mindful of your breath, body, movement and touch as well as your students. Trust yourself and your student and cultivate your students’ trust in you. Let your touch be guided by your authentic intentions to serve the student and the flow of yoga.
here are some tips for effective hands-on yoga teaching:
before even undertaking the hands-on approach, it is useful to first ensure that you have provided as effective verbal queuing as possible so that the student has a chance to attempt to find the posture for themselves first. Furthermore, it is important to ask permission, either at the start of class, addressing the class in general, or asking the individual ‘is this OK’ before or as you begin to make contact.
2. your intentions
recognise why it is you feel drawn to provide the hands-on approach. it should always be to serve the student and the process of yoga, if you feel like you’re only doing it out of routine or a sense of obligation, or to please your own ego or your students ego, then it may be worth reconsidering.
3. alignment principles
consider the student and the posture in a holistic way. A posture should be ‘steady yet comfortable’ (sthira sukam asanam sutra 2.46) which is the guiding assertion provided to us by Patanjali’s yoga sutras. An indication of comfort and safety would be the observation of a smooth calm and steady breath and a lengthened and well aligned spinal column. First remove any immediate sign of risk to student’s safety in the posture and then refine the posture by giving primary focus to the integrity and quality of breath and spinal positioning.
4. your own yoga practice
it is essential that you understand the posture yourself, preferably in an embodied way, in order for you to assist or adjust a student in the posture. It is necessary to understand the principle emphasis within the posture as well as the key target areas in the body that create stability and enhance mobility within a posture.
5. your body language
be mindful and deliberate in your use of space and how you get yourself into a safe, steady and comfortable position as you approach the student. When initiating contact with them ensure that you are grounded and balanced yourself before attempting to reposition them.
6. your breath
use your breathing to encourage and inspire your student to breathe into the posture and the assist/adjustment that you are offering them.
7. your touch
the intention in your hands and your touch is as important as it is within your speech. The message that you convey in your touch needs to be clear and confident for it to be effective. Be confident and firm but build the firmness gradually during the hands-on and ensure that your contact is for an appropriate duration.
8. stabilise before mobilise
ensure that your hands offer support, balance and stability before you then offer depth within the posture. If the student is unable to balance, they are unlikely to gain any benefit from the hands-on.
9. let the student guide the depth
allow the student to participate in the assist / adjustment. Read their response to your touch and go with them, their breath, their movement. Work with their resistance rather than against it, coaxing them gradually and with patience. Never rush, push, pull or force a student into a place against their will even if you perceive that there is some potential that they can attain.
10. exit the hands-on with mindfulness
make sure that you come away from the hands-on assist or adjustment as mindfully and attentively in which you entered it. If you come away too quickly or without care it is likely that you destabilise your student. Maintain the intention in your touch all of the way until you have not only physically but also energetically completed the assist/adjustment.
there are no universal right or wrongs when it comes to yoga adjustments versus yoga assists. It’s not a case of one being better than the other, but it is important for the yoga teacher to determine the appropriateness of use on a case-by-case basis. The hands -on teaching tool allows for experiential learning but ultimately the effectiveness of it as a teaching tool depends on how the student then takes the information received and integrates it into their understanding of the posture and their experience of yoga.
Real Flow Yoga Teacher Training Course is 200 hours and accredited by the Yoga Alliance. See more about the course here