Sunday, February 7, 2010

Adjustments: the magic of touch

This post was inspired by a lovely post over at Bab's Babble!

Adjustments - to give or not to give? - is a big topic among yoga teachers today. Perhaps it is our puritan heritage, but in Canada, America and Australia, touching strangers (or even friends) is not a big part of our daily lives. [Woe betide the traveller who goes to continental Europe and is faced with the barrage of face-kissing strangers!] So it's not surprising that many of us have trouble bridging this uncertainty in the yoga studio.

For me, verbal cues are the foundation of teaching - an adjustment is never a replacement for that. But physical adjustments are like the icing on top of the student-teacher exchange. As a teacher, I personally give a lot of adjustments for the simple reason that I love receiving them. I absolutely love feeling the strong, competent hands of a teacher helping me to expand my limits in a pose and taking my body to places I didn't think it would go. I quiver with happy anticipation when a teacher stops to connect with me and take my postures to a deeper place.

For me, touch is a very important resource as a teacher, and the student-teacher energy meld that takes place is one of the parts of teaching that I treasure most. It is one thing to tell someone to do something and totally another to feel under the palms of your hands the way in which their muscles move and to work with them in a pose. When you adjust someone you get a deeper sense of how their body works and that in turn enables you to give them better instruction. I also find that adjustments help me connect with my students individually, and give them one-on-one attention even in a group setting, which I think every student seeks from a teacher. For this reason I try to touch every student at least once during a session, even with a big group.

Here are some things I have learned about giving adjustments:
  • Every now and then remind people that they are not doing something "wrong" in order to receive an adjustment! but rather that you see their potential to do more in a pose. Say something like: "If I adjust you, it means that you're doing something right, and I'm just helping you to explore it a bit further." A lovely teacher friend of mine bypasses negative perceptions by calling them "assists" instead.
  • Never go straight to a new student - let them see other students getting adjusted first. Always start with a simple "feel good" adjustment like Child's Pose or Supine Twist until they become comfortable with your touch and you feel confident adjusting them.
  • Body language is a big indicator of whether or not people will be receptive to a 'big' adjustment. Watch them carefully as you approach and if the student seems unreceptive, use a verbal cue or a simple touch instead.
  • Always follow up an adjustment or verbal cue with encouragement: "very nice", "great", "beautiful", "well done", so that the student feels they are getting something for what they are giving!
  • Instruct their breathing ("inhale - lengthen", "exhale - soften") as you adjust and ask how the pressure is to get a sense of how they are feeling in the pose.
  • Even the most advanced students can benefit from an adjustment - don't avoid them. Fellow teachers are probably especially likely to enjoy a good assist - and if taking a fellow teacher's class, encourage them to return the favour!
  • Be mindful of the other student's time when giving an adjustment. Occasionally you get distracted helping someone and leave the rest of the class in a pose for far too long! With experience you get a sense of how long to adjust the student while still leaving yourself time to get back to the front of the class for the next pose.
And finally, remember that giving adjustments requires training and practice. Don't guess - KNOW what you are doing and how to do it. Learn how to use your hands in an appropriate, non-sensual way and how to give adjustments to sensitive areas of the body, including thinking about when you need to ask someone's permission. Know which parts of the body you should (muscles) and should not (joints) touch. When learning a new adjustment, always practice first on a willing yoga-friend who can give you feedback on things such as pressure and placing of your hands and body.

My absolute favourite adjustments (NB these are vague descriptions only and not intended as instruction on how to give the adjustments!) to give include:
  • Downward-facing Dog: Standing in front of the student and pressing back on the sacrum. Alternately since I am very small, on larger students especially men, I stand behind them and bring a strap around their mid-thighs, then lean my weight back against the strap. Both of these help bring tension off the arms, lengthen the spine, and work the weight onto the heels.
  • Child's Pose: simultaneously press down on the sacrum and forward and down between the shoulders, lengthening the spine.
  • Twists: You can always get deeper in a twist with someone giving you a helping hand!!
  • Halasana: I love the way people gasp in surprise as their feet touch the floor behind them for the first time, with only minimal guidance. I love this one because people really feel a sense of 'accomplishment' after this adjustment and next time will be confident to try it on their own.
A great resource for adjustments is Stefanie Pappas' "Yoga Postures Adjustments and Assisting" - lots of photos and great explanations of verbal cues as well as hands-on adjustments.

So what do you think folks? As a teacher, do you give adjustments? As a student, do you like receiving them? And what are your favourites to give or receive?


  1. I wonder where the UK stands in terms of touching? I'm never sure. We have a reputation for a "stiff upper lip" mentality, whereby we don't let emotions show. I see myself, however, more continental - I grasp people firmly by the shoulders and kiss them on both cheeks. Even strangers! Way to freak Americans out :) (I do try to restrain with Americans, certainly at first!)

    Anyway, that is by the by. I do give adjustments but I am very very cautious about them. Because I have scoliosis and other joint/muscle issues and have been badly adjusted because of this I never adjust someone unless I am sure that I know their medical history/injuries.

    Also like you say, I try not to just grab random strangers! I always ask for permission to enter a student's space.

    I love partner yoga because of the adjustments you can give each other. My favourite is partner in downward dog and me in downward dog but with my feet on their lower back.. Awesome!

  2. I found your blog through Joy of Yoga & really enjoy your posts. I love adjustments if I am confident the teacher knows what they are doing; yet, I shy away from adjusting students, I really should work on that. Practicing with a yoga-friend is a good idea. A favourite to receive/give is for Trikonasana/Triangle Pose- Standing behind so student can lean back a bit, stabilize hip with one hand using the other to carefully peel the chest, ribs and belly slightly up toward the sky, allowing it to feel more like a backbend- feels great! Many Thanks

  3. one complaint i often hear from friends is frustration over teachers who don't give physical assists/adjustments. as a teacher, however, im always hesitant to give assists to new students, and like to establish a relationship first where i can understand their boundaries and practice better. that said, however, i think some savasana lovin' never hurt no body... as long as permission for touch was granted beforehand.

    nice post :)

  4. I love the word "assist". How perfect. Thanks for the link and the great post!