There is nothing better in class than receiving an excellent manual instruction (also called “adjustments” or “practical aids”) from manual yoga. The body falls into place and the nervous system relaxes. Unfortunately, the opposite is also true. There is nothing worse than receiving a poor or inadequate fit: the body stretches, the breath narrows, and the nervous system becomes agitated.
A good manual yoga fit skillfully communicates the actions of the posture to your body so that your body understands the posture more clearly. A bad fit is invasive and wrong. During bad adjustments, the teacher is working with a lack of experience and information or with an abundance of ego.
That’s why, over the last few years, I’ve advocated a paradigm shift – I think yoga teachers need to stop acting like stretching machines and leveraging on students ’bodies to intensify or“ improve ”a stretch.
Because? The answer is simple: this is a mechanically flawed approach to working with bodies and causes countless preventable injuries.
I’ve seen a lot of anecdotal evidence of this, and if you’re a yoga teacher, I’m sure you’ve done the same. During my workouts and workshops I ask students to raise their hand if they have been injured during a manual adjustment. There has never been a group where less than forty percent of students have raised their hand. I think you will agree that this is too much. As a community, we can drastically reduce that number.
A paradigm shift for manual yoga adjustments
So what’s the paradigm shift I’m talking about here? First, I ask teachers to stop leveraging the moving part of the student’s body. Instead, provide more grounding and stability to the part of the student’s body that is attached. Take for example the forward flexion sitting with wide legs (Upavistha Konasana). In this position, the pelvis and spine rotate forward on the bones of the thighs: they are the “moving” parts of the posture. The bones of the thighs are rooted to the ground, they are the “fixed” part of the posture. Do not add leverage to the pelvis and spine. Instead, press the thigh bones. Laying the student’s thighs down will allow the pelvis and spine to release even more into the posture without the vulnerability that comes from adding direct pressure on the pelvis and spine. This is just one of many examples.
Another component of this paradigm shift is seeing manual cues in the same way we see verbal cues. Manual cues, such as verbal cues, simply communicate the actions of the posture to the student. The idea is to use your hands to communicate directly with the student’s body so that he or she can better understand the posture. The idea is not to use your hands to pressure another student into the posture. You are not a stretching machine that is doing the student posture. (Listen to this Yogaland podcast to hear me talk more about this.)
Here are 10 more ideas to improve your approach to manual yoga adjustments during yoga class:
First, a note on ethics: While this is a major topic of discussion in a teacher training program, it is beyond the scope of this article. So I just want to say that teachers should never touch students inappropriately. Period. (To hear my wife, Andrea, talk about ending sexual misconduct in the world of yoga, listen episode 93 of Yogaland.)
1. Observe before adjusting
You will be quite busy during the class: you will be sequencing, verbalizing, adjusting, observing the dynamics of the group, managing the clock, adjusting the tempo, and so on. It can be difficult to pause and patiently see a student’s body clearly. Instead, you may notice the most obvious element of a student’s posture and look at making an adjustment that involves leverage. However, it is important that you observe your students before diving. This break will not only help you assess the room more accurately, but will also help you stay on the floor before trying to calm someone else down.
2. Turn off the lights first
When evaluating the room, look for dangerous or awkward postures. Adjust these people before you walk in and offer a “deepening” fit to someone who doesn’t really need any help. It is more important that all of your students work safely than deep down.
3. Create firmness, not intensity
Try to help your students find greater firmness, ease and integrity in their postures. Instead of trying to increase your range of motion, find out how you can help them feel more grounded and balanced. Adjustments that increase intensity can be dangerous, especially if the student is not grounded. Unfortunately, many teachers want their students to have “advances” in their class, as these experiences can create a bond with the teacher. Such self-centered adjustments often contribute to injury.
4. Stabilize the Foundation
One of the best ways to adjust your students is to help them create a balanced and stable contact with the ground. If a student’s postural base is off, the rest of their body will need to work even harder to maintain balance. Your effort will be distributed inefficiently, creating unnecessary tension throughout the body.
5. Help them find their way
It is common for students to take a step that is too long or too short. Helping students measure their pace correctly can be one of the most comprehensive stabilization adjustments.
6. Get to know your student before delving into a posture
Most students are close to their maximum range of motion (at least in the short term) before the teacher adjusts them. This means that your students are already on hand before giving them any manual directions. Your student is already at a point of stress and any additional movement in the posture should be gentle. There is a fine line between deepening posture and creating injury. A very fine line.
It is much safer and more skillful to work with a student you know well. And remember our previous point: you are not a stretching machine; do not exert force on the part of the student’s body that is already moving in the posture. Just use your hands to create more stability and grounding so that they can release themselves more deeply into the posture on their own.
7. Take your time
No one likes a hasty fit. Precipitated yoga adjustments are disturbing to the mind, body, and nervous system. Take the time to adjust your students and make sure people don’t touch each other 800 times in class. Less good adjustments are always preferable to more mediocre adjustments.
8. Observe how your students respond
Sometimes, when you adjust a student, you will feel them merge into the new position with comfort and relief. At other times, you will feel that the student’s body is resisting stress or tension. Sometimes a student may not want extra intensity or they are protecting themselves because they are injured. It is important to observe your student’s breathing and physical cues when adjusting them. Perceiving and responding to these signals is essential to developing a skillful touch.
9. Complement your hand signals with verbal cues
In most manual adjustments, you can only guide one or two posture actions at a time. To improve your student’s posture, provide a verbal indication that complements the manual indication. Suppose you are adjusting your student to the twisted Triangle by stabilizing his hips as he stretches and rotates his spine in the twist. You can verbally instruct them to reach through the hind leg and loosen the outer foot.
10. Ask the right questions
Don’t ask your students if they fit you well! You will not always receive sincere feedback, as very few students will feel comfortable telling you that they are not feeling well in the fit. Instead, ask your students, “Do you want more intensity, less intensity, or the same intensity?” You don’t have to ask this question every time you make an adjustment. But if you’re wondering if the adjustment works for them, this is the best way to do it.
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