Jessica Matthews, M.S., E-RYT500 is faculty in kinesiology and integrative wellness at Point Loma Nazarene University and professor of yoga studies at MiraCosta College, where she helps to grow and mentor the next generation of health and wellness professionals. A dynamic speaker, respected educator, fitness industry veteran and featured wellness expert, Jessica is a trusted and recognized go-to media resource, regularly contributing to numerous publications and outlines on topics ranging from fitness and yoga, to health coaching and career development. Additionally, she serves as ACE’s senior advisor for health and fitness education, and is the lead editor and author of the ACE Group Fitness Instructor Handbook: The Professional’s Guide to Creating Memorable Movement Experiences. You can connect with her at www.jessica-matthews.com, @fitexpertjess (Twitter and Instagram) and www.facebook.com/fitexpertjess.
Principles and Approaches to Hands-on Yoga Adjustments—VIDEO
To adjust, or not to adjust? That is the question. And the truth is, there is not a simple answer to address this hotly debated and sometimes polarizing subject.
Over the years, hands-on adjustments and assists have become commonplace in many yoga classes, even though this particular approach to teaching is not utilized in every style of practice. Amidst reports of yoga-related injuries and a rapidly multiplying number of yoga teachers offering classes everywhere from yoga studios and health clubs to clinical and community settings, this particular topic is eliciting a growing number of questions and concerns from both students and practitioners alike. While there appears to be general consensus that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to hands-on adjustments and assists, even amongst the most seasoned yoga teachers there exists a difference of opinion about how these techniques should be used, if at all.
“Although there’s never a clear cut right or wrong in discussions like this, I’m actually not a big fan of hands-on adjustments while a student is experiencing their yoga practice,” shares Kimberly Spreen-Glick, senior program director for EMPOWER! Events, and creator of Karma Warriors. “I’ve learned over the years that the purpose of an asana practice is not to get your body perfectly into a given pose, but rather the purpose is to use the pose as a tool to wake up, access and strengthen your body in ways you wouldn’t have been able to had you not chosen to step on your mat that day.”
In light of various types of learners in yoga classes, Jane Bahneman, M.S., E-RYT-500, co-founder of Blue Nectar Yoga in Falls Church, Va., personally supports the use of hands-on yoga assists when they are offered safely, properly and professionally.
“When considering learning styles and how our yoga students process information, many can really benefit from good kinesthetic cues (in the form of hands-on adjustments) that help them to feel the proper alignment of a posture,” shares Bahneman. “We can be told how to do a pose, shown how to do a pose, even just explore the pose extensively on our mats on our own, but oftentimes it isn’t until we feel a qualified teacher mindfully move our body into a specific postural alignment do those ‘a-ha’ moments happen.”
Assessing Intentions and Confronting Expectations
For many yoga teachers, the idea that hands-on adjustments must be a part of one’s teaching repertoire is often perpetuated by what we feel is expected of us, from both our peers and our students.
“I think a bias exists that if you, as a yoga teacher, do not offer hands-on adjustments, then you are not a good teacher,” says Claudia Micco, E-RYT-500, master trainer for YogaFit, who has been teaching yoga for more than 30 years. “In my opinion that is completely false, as each teacher comes with his or her own unique talent and style. Most students will intuitively resonate with a teacher that they feel safe with, regardless of whether hands-on adjustments are a part of the class experience.”
In fact, Bahneman notes that whether or not a teacher does or does not offer physical assists may be dictated by the policies of the studio, recreation facility or fitness center in which they work, which must be honored and adhered to at all times.
Stacy McCarthy, B.S., E-RYT-500, professor of yoga studies at MiraCosta College in San Diego, Calif., and author of the book Transformational Teaching Through Yoga Adjustments, agrees that the use of adjustments is highly personalized based on the students, the setting and the experience level of the instructor, and it is not something required of all yoga teachers.
“While yoga adjustments can greatly enhance any class, I do not recommend that all teachers offer adjustments, especially with students whom they have not worked with before and who are unfamiliar with their practice,” notes McCarthy. “The one exception to this is if a student is at risk of immediate injury. However, I would not recommend hands-on adjustments for instructors who do not have a strong personal yoga practice and who have not been trained in giving proper adjustments safely, clearly, confidently and precisely. We must remember that yoga adjustments are more than just having the correct technique of touch—an energy exchange, proper breathing and an appropriate state of mind also are needed to execute safe and effective adjustments.”
Even with extensive training in providing adjustments, Spreen-Glick urges teachers to be clear about the intention behind utilizing physical touch as part of their teaching, if they are choosing to do so.
“I think the primary benefits of a teacher placing his or her hands on a student in any way during a yoga class is to foster connection and to positively support the student on his or her own personal journey,” notes Spreen-Glick. “However, if teachers feel it’s their obligation to adjust their students in order to ‘fix’ them or their poses, or if they mistakenly believe that by providing adjustments it will make them a better or more attractive teacher, they may ultimately do more harm than good.”
McCarthy suggests that teachers strive to see the beauty in each pose and to see the whole person whom they are teaching as opposed to solely focusing on the parts and the technique, which can detract from the positive intention behind hands-on adjustments and assists.
“Remember that this yoga journey is unique for every student, and that performing a pose is not about attainment,” says McCarthy. “Rather, we as yoga teachers are here to make the physical experience safer and more effective for the student, not to reshape them or their practice.”
Key Considerations and Alternative Approaches
With a conscious decision and clear intention, yoga teachers have an assortment of approaches they may wish to explore when it comes to offering adjustments and assists. To most effectively apply this type of teaching strategy, it’s imperative that teachers first hone their skills as a keen observer.
“The biggest mistake I notice is that teachers often do not observe before offering an adjustment,” shares Amy Opielowski, B.S., E-RYT-200/RYT-500, senior manager of quality and innovation for CorePower Yoga. “To ensure safety first, it’s important that teachers scan the room and adjust the students that need it most, aiming to ground students into a more stable expression of the posture rather than taking them further into the pose.”
Oftentimes the greatest support teachers can offer to students can be conveyed through a “hands-off” adjustment, in which the student is thoughtfully guided toward self-correction through the use of landmarks that allow the student to moves his or her body toward more refined alignment without direct physical contact from the instructor.
Mindful movement specialist and award-winning international educator Lawrence Biscontini, M.A., prefers this self-guided approach to adjustments, which empowers students to deepen their own kinesthetic awareness.
“The method of ‘putting hands to the solution,’ in which a teacher invites the student to move toward alignment instead of placing hands directly on the student not only assists the learner in that particular moment, but it also enables them to better self-correct in the future, which is ultimately our goal as teachers.”
If teachers are choosing to utilize direct physical contact, Micco suggests taking a less-is-more approach when providing hands-on adjustments and assists.
“Over the years I’ve had many people complain to me that they have been hurt in a yoga class because the instructor presses too hard, especially in a posture like child’s pose,” says Micco. “Unless you really know your anatomy and biomechanics, stay away from applying too much pressure, as we have no idea what might be going on inside a student’s body.”
Instead, consider utilizing a purposeful, light touch with students, such as Micco’s preferred featherweight fingertip touch on the shoulders or back. And always avoid grabbing or jarring touching, which can disrupt and create discomfort in a student’s practice.
When utilizing this directed type of touch, or any type of physical touch for that matter, it’s important to minimize the number of adjustments offered to any one individual at a given time, which can lead students to feel self-conscious about their practice. Micco stresses the importance of allowing students to feel and grow slowly within their practice, encouraging teachers to develop body empathy by imagining what a student might be experiencing in a pose, and utilizing keen observation skills to look, listen and feel for the cues his or her body is projecting in that moment.
To avoid what could be construed by students as an insensitive touch, McCarthy recommends teachers be fully present with the student being assisted, working with the student’s breath not only when providing the adjustment itself, but also when entering and exiting his or her personal space.
“I often see teachers sneak up on students, which can put them on high alert and cause tension in the mind and body,” notes McCarthy. “Remember that one of the primary roles of a yoga teacher is to create and maintain an emotionally and physically safe space for students.”
As teachers, we must ensure that physical touch is applied in a skillful and intentional way, which appropriately conveys the purpose behind the adjustment so that it is not misinterpreted by the student in any way. Biscontini recommends verbalizing where and how a physical touch will be executed before actually performing the adjustment, as well as checking in with the student afterward to ask how the assist felt in his or her body.
In addition to offering clear directions and soliciting valuable feedback from students, Opielowski suggests teachers also possess a clear understanding of all options that may best serve students.
“Allow safety and alignment to be your aim when working with students. In addition to hands-on adjustments, props may help a student discover a deeper sense of stability and alignment in his or her practice,” shares Opielowski. “Always consider how offering a block, utilizing a strap or incorporating any other yoga props can create instant support within a posture without the need for direct physical contact.”
No matter which particular approach you take to offering adjustments, asking students’ permission to enter their personal space and to provide an assist is absolutely essential. By emphasizing student autonomy in enabling students to determine how they would prefer to experience their yoga practice on that particular day, yoga teachers can foster a deeper sense of trust with students and ensure that a safe and comfortable space is maintained in which individuals can grow and thrive physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually.
In celebration of National Yoga Month, ACE is proud to present, for a limited-time, free one-hour recorded course to further explore the topic of intelligent sequencing. If you’re inspired to create and offer more compelling, thoughtfully structured yoga classes, watch as Jessica Matthews discusses how to utilize a science-supported blueprint for fostering more inclusive class experiences.