Posted on November 05, 2016
Recently one of my yoga teacher trainees shared that she was uncomfortable offering a series of hands-on adjustments to fellow trainees as part of learning to work with students in the yoga room. These adjustments included broad palm compression on the tops of the thighs, shoulders, and the gentle neck traction from behind in Savasana - three common adjustments one might expect to receive in a modern day yoga class, and ones that many students report really appreciating. “Thank you! That felt amazing," we often hear in response.
I asked this student if she felt comfortable receiving any adjustments in Savasana. The response was 'no'. She felt adjustments in Savasana were too intimate, and were distracting during a time in class that should otherwise be relaxing. When she had received them in the past, these adjustments were something the student silently endured.
I then asked her, in front of the group, how many times in the last few years of practicing with me I had adjusted her in Savasana. She replied, 'Maybe a dozen', which prompted a suggestion to the other trainees that perhaps I had violated her physically 12 times in the last few years. It sparked the conversation I hope every yoga teacher training investigates about how, when, why, and with what permission we offer Hands On Adjustments (HOAs) as teachers. Simply asking, "Would you like a HOA?" is not enough. Plenty of people don't feel comfortable saying no.
At the time, the use of the word 'violated' seemed strong. Later I questioned whether I was even tactful enough in that exchange. I questioned whether I offered the inquiry respectfully and gently enough, as we never know what our students might be experiencing silently inside. I am grateful I can have a tender inquiry with my students like that, but also aware that it does open me up to vulnerability and fallibility. It seems HOAs have come to be an accepted modality of teaching in the Western Modern Postural Yoga environment. They are part of a silent contract we sign when we enter the yoga room…those who take yoga regularly in the public forum know to expect them. Those who don’t like them perhaps don’t practice yoga for that very reason. And in this conversation, we’re not even touching on the multitude of practitioners who are coming forward in blog and other forums discussing injurious HOAs they have received over the years.
The other side of the coin is that I have also received negative feedback from new students, or students in my own community who come less regularly to my classes. They have felt left out at times when I have not given them adjustments. From their perspective I seem to give preferential attention to my 'favorites'. From my perspective, I am making a conscious choice to give new folks some space until I know them better. I have no idea what is going on in the lives and bodies of my less regular students. Do they have back pain that day? Are they feeling receptive? Because I don't know them as well, I often don't feel as comfortable inserting myself into their practice (physically or otherwise). Again, asking is not enough. It’s too easy to say yes without genuinely meaning it.
Our studio recently received an excellent review from a traveling yoga teacher. She took classes from myself and several teachers who all happened to be graduates from my YTT program. She mentioned not receiving HOAs despite other students receiving them. She wasn't clear, but the implication seemed to be that she would have appreciated more. Since I personally err on the side of waiting until I get to know a student better, I typically suggest that trainees to do the same. I'm glad they gave her space, even if from her perspective she felt a little ignored. Better to err on that side of things, than the other. As a teacher, it is tempting to move in toward a student, either by offering verbal or physical adjustments, too quickly as a way of acknowledging them and welcoming them to class. For whatever reason, ‘adjusting’ a student’s practice has become, maybe without any of us really thinking it through, an expected part of the exchange. Perhaps that alone is presumptive. How can we as teachers know what a given student ‘needs’ to improve, better enjoy, or more safely engage in the practice. Then again, if we don’t ‘adjust’ others’ practices, what are we there to do?
To my mind, these questions should be investigated by a community of teachers who come to the topic with fresh eyes. I’d like to hear from students too. I’ve never taken a poll. It leads me to wonder how many students never come back to yoga because teachers can’t keep their hands to themselves?
I come from the yoga culture where HOAs are the norm. Though I have received many from my own teachers along the way, I don't offer strong adjustments. I never assist students with force in order to ‘help’ them to go ‘more deeply’ into a posture. My adjustments are usually directional only. I try to offer them as suggestions only, with an eye towards exploring a conscious placement or effort of the body for a specific purpose. I offer HOAs with the understanding that every body comes with its own particular variation of possibilities, and no two people will experience the practice in the same way. I commonly use only a handful of carefully chosen adjustments that I hope communicate specific information without feeling invasive. I am, however, reminded by my trainee who prompted this blog post that ‘feeling’ and ‘invasive’ are very personal experiences as well as relative terms.