I pretty much agree with Grimmly in terms of the difference between adjustments and assists, although I don't think there is a clear line and I probably don't apply the differentiation as rigorously as maybe I should. In my view, adjustments are when a teacher either says something or touches/moves your body in a way that helps you find the right alignment in a pose or refine an element of your engagement in a pose. They can be verbal or physical and can range from cuing subtle processes to plain old physical modifications. Adjustments might sometimes be necessary, say if a person is at risk of injury, or other times may just be a way for a teacher to pass on an insight.
Assists, the way I see them, are when a teacher physically helps you to get deeper into a pose. They may not involve direct touch - for example one great assist is to loop a towel around someone's thighs when they are in downward facing dog and pull back. But there are many assists that involve a high degree of physical contact between the instructor and the student, on areas of the body that might otherwise be reserved for intimate touch: thighs, back, belly.
Generally good assists are possible when the student and the teacher have already established a high level of trust and familiarity. In addition the teacher's touch has to be professional and respectful. In yoga teacher training, as with other hands-on disciplines, we are taught how to touch people in a professional way: with the palms of the hands and not the fingertips; firmly and decisively, not brushing or lingering; asking permission before touching an intimate area of the body. Nonetheless, bad assists do happen, and happen rather a lot I'm afraid - I personally know several very experienced practitioners who have been injured during a bad assist. Thankfully I never have been, although I have been privy to an uninvited view of a male teacher's, errrr, "family jewels" in one memorable assist. Whether intended or not, there are the endless possibilities for sexual energy to come into play when it comes to the act of touching or being touched.
At the end of the day, we are all individuals and everyone has a different comfort level when it comes to being touched. Both teachers and students will have to figure theirs out the hard way: by trial and error. That said, I think it's important for all practitioners of yoga to know that you have the right to refuse an assist, and you don't need to justify or explain this. Period.
So, if you are uncomfortable with the idea of being assisted or with assists that you are getting from a teacher, what can you do?
- If you have an injury, past or present, be sure your teacher knows about it. In a perfect world, teachers would get to spend time getting to know each individual student. But in the real world, you need to take responsibility for your own safety and comfort in a class by arriving early and letting the teacher know.
- If you are in the course of getting an assist and it feels wrong, vocalise it straight away. Don't be embarrassed to use your voice in a yoga class! Say "a bit gentler please" or "that's enough thanks" or, if worst comes to worst, "stop, please". If your teacher is any kind of good teacher, they will stop what they're doing immediately. Afterwards, you can talk about it together.
- If you don't want to receive assists during the class or if you are uncomfortable with the assists you have been getting, talk to your teacher about it and ask them to respect your comfort level. Chances are your teacher will welcome your feedback and be happy to work within your comfort zone, but they might not know what this is unless you tell them.
There are going to be many different ways to deal with this depending on the situation. But I think one rule applies no matter what, and that is this: don't keep silent.
- If you can, address it straight away with your teacher by talking to him or her in private outside of class. There is always a possibility that it was an honest misunderstanding. In this best of worlds, you might simply ask if you can give them some feedback and say "I wasn't comfortable with how you touched me in that pose," and that would be that.
- If you don't feel comfortable explaining (but assuming you want to continue with this teacher), you can simply ask them to stop giving you assists and to give you verbal instructions only. You DON'T have to justify your request - it's your body and you are in charge of who touches it.
- If you don't feel comfortable talking directly to your teacher, or you want some moral support, talk to another teacher, student or a friend, and that person can help you communicate with your teacher.
- If you suspect a deeper problem, you may want to reach out to fellow students to see if anyone else is feeling the same way. Chances are that if the teacher is abusing their position, you are not the only one to have noticed it.
- Finally, if you have asked the teacher to stop and they disrespect your request, or if you believe that some serious abuse is going on, then it might be time to talk to the studio.