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Adjuster? I Don’t Even Know Her

in YD News, Yogitorials

yes-no-chalkboardby Sara Kleinsmith

To touch, or not to touch? This is one of the dilemmas we experience as yoga teachers. In yoga, adjustments can be a matter of personal preference. Recently, I’ve had many discussions with teachers about adjustments and their opinions regarding the subject. If you are unaware of what an adjustment is, it’s what it sounds like – the yoga teacher puts his or her hands on you while you are in a yoga pose to help you deepen the pose or to help “correct” your alignment. For some yoga students, adjustments are a given, and they expect to have them in class. In fact, if you search Yelp reviews of your town’s local studios, you might find complaints about “hands-off” teachers. Some students become very used to this treatment, and some argue that it’s the only way they know they are doing something “correctly.” But is putting your hands on a yoga student the only way to ensure they are receiving the benefit of the practice?

One of the yoga studios where I teach recently implemented a new strategy wherein the students can let the teacher know if they prefer adjustments or not via “yes” or “no” cards. To me, this is a brilliant approach. A teacher at the studio recommended it, and she’s experienced enough to know that not everyone appreciates the hands-on approach. As yoga teachers, we must be aware of the different circumstances with which our students may be entering into our classes. For survivors of physical abuse, having a stranger touch you, even in a helpful way, is not relaxing. For some, touch is not appealing, and can even be damaging.

When I first started taking yoga, I received a damaging hands-on adjustment from a yoga teacher in fish pose. If you don’t know which one fish pose is, know it’s one you don’t want to be yanked into. But here I was, a novice student, trusting the professional with her hands on me. I believed she had only the best of intentions and enough experience to know how to guide my body.

My neck hurt for the following two weeks.

Now, this isn’t the teacher’s fault, necessarily. Teacher training programs often stress the importance of hands-on adjustments, as if they are a basic element of the practice. But with only 200 hours required to teach yoga, and with only a minimal percentage of those hours covering the topic of anatomy, how are we to know that the professional touching us has the proper training to do so? The answer is: we really don’t know. If your teacher has recently completed his or her first 200 hour training, they may not know what they are doing as they approach your body with their hands, their weight, their force. They may not be experienced or educated enough to make these adjustments on your body.

But what about the other teachers out there? The ones that have extensive anatomy training, or know the map of the human body from other manual therapy trainings they’ve had? If you have one of these teachers as your guide, you are literally in good hands…except for one thing. A teacher can know everything about the human body, and still not know ANYTHING about yours.

sara-adjustments

When a student first comes into my class, I do as many teachers do and ask them about their injury history, and history with yoga. I base our practice around how the new student responds. I absolutely give no hands on adjustments without prior knowledge of the student’s body, or without a dialogue as I’m giving the adjustment. If I put my hands on you, I will first say “I’m going to put my hands ___ and guide your ___ to do ___.” I will not put my hands on you without speaking if we have no prior relationship. If you come into my class, you can expect a hands-on adjustment, but not without a conversation. If you are looking for someone to push you deeper into a pose in silence, I cannot give you that unless you and I have had many classes together and WE BOTH understand the abilities and limitations of your body.

Now, this may make me sound like a stickler. And I’m okay with that. Because even though it’s magical to be in a silent meditative state and have a teacher push you further into a state of “bliss,” I’m not going to be the one that sends you away with a sore neck, or a torn hamstring, or causes you to feel vulnerable in a way you aren’t ready for. Even though we live in a litigious society, it isn’t the legal repercussions I’m most concerned with. I have insurance, as do the places I teach. My concern is for my integrity as a teacher and, if you want to call it this, my karma.

When you enter into a class I’m teaching, it’s my job for the duration of that class to protect you from both of our egos. This means that I promise not to arbitrarily place my hands on you because I want you to “look” a certain way or do something “correctly.” I’m there to keep you safe, to help you have an experience of your own body, mind, and breath. I’m there to help you learn more about your body and how it works, and I will do my best to keep you from hurting yourself. Whatever pains you come with, I want to help you alleviate, and whatever bliss you find, I want you to take with you. As your yoga teacher, I’m not going to give you an adjustment unless it’s a necessary step on the path of that intention.

The power of human touch cannot be understated. It can be incredibly beneficial to have someone place their hands on you as a form of therapy. Studies have shown that touch can be healing, both mentally and physically. Conversely, however, the nervous system controls your muscles’ ability to stretch, so if you, as a teacher, approach someone who is tense, you may be doing more damage than good. It is important to always consider your intentions when adjusting a student. For students out there, don’t be afraid to start a dialogue with your teacher. Ask them why they are doing what they are doing and let them know how it feels when they touch you. Always ask for what you need and listen to your body. It is the greatest teacher.

~

Sara Kleinsmith is a yoga teacher, writer, and anatomy geek in Austin, Texas. She has been featured in Yogi Times, Elite Daily, Elephant Journal, and Thought Catalog. She is thrilled to be added to the list of voices for YogaDork. To learn more about her work, go to www.sarakleinsmith.com

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25 comments… add one

  • Lisa

    Some adjustments are needed but sometimes the student and teacher need to be aware if the student isn’t ready for a pose. I got hurt at a yoga conference when a well known teacher pulled me up into ‘wheel’ pose. I was attempting to get into it and the teacher said that we weren’t moving on until I got into that pose. She proceeded to grab me and pull me into the position. Needless to say, I couldn’t hold the pose when she let go and fell to the ground. I was fine until a couple of hours later when my shoulder starting hurting. It hasn’t been the same since and it’s been over 6 years.

  • Amen. That’s the difference between “assisting” and “adjusting.” Cheers to Sara for drawing a line.

  • Great piece. I teach trauma sensitive yoga in which there is no touch, but even my “regular” teaching has become pretty hands-off. In my view, yoga is about learning deep inner listening and finding internal guidance, and that is not aided by an external assist. Many students, even when given the option, don’t feel comfortable saying they don’t want an adjustment, or letting the teacher know if it’s too much. Your practice of hands-off until a relationship is established is a sound one, and should become an essential element of all teaching practice.

  • VQ2

    I’d left a teacher who’d whistled to himself to purposely block out my very audible protests right-on-the-minute-with-no-hesitation while positioned me into something I would not be ready for, for many months … turns out that defection had become permanent.

  • mmbuja

    The teachers at my local studio usually have us raise our hand before our first ohm (while everyone’s eyes are closed) if we do not want to be adjusted. I really like this approach because it ensures that no one is judged for their decision.

    Personally, I LOVE adjustments/assisting and actively do not get as excited for classes where I know the teacher will not adjust. If I just want to listen to a teacher with no adjustments included I would simply utilize a service like Yogaglo. I feel as if I am wasting my money if a teacher will not adjust.

  • Earl

    Thank you for a fine article. As a middle age male vet with numerous injuries, i prefer not to be touched or pushed at all in yoga class. I do yoga for the therapeutic effects and the mental calming, and would prefer not to have to deal with the disruption of having some one in my personal space without my approval or opinion.

  • K

    Wow, someone feels that she’s wasting her money if the teacher doesn’t assist – is that yoga or massage you have paid for? That’s a really unfortunate view. I generally enjoy being assisted but am pretty hands off in my own teaching …

    People’s bodies are complicated – adjust one part and another may move to compensate

    People’s bodies are different – my tailbone just doesn’t tuck – my top hip won’t stack right over my bottom hip in triangle even though I know this is the idea. How annoying to have someone yanking on my hip!

    Engaging in convo with one student can be pretty disruptive to that student’s own practice and to the group – I don’t want a convo when I practice, and it’s uber annoying when the whole class waits for the teacher to converse with a single student. Ok, you can say I’m doing xyz to abc … does the student really understand that?

  • mmbuja

    Definitely yoga that I paid for- I’d be so happy if unlimited massages were $150 per month!

    As I stated before, but I’ll go into financial detail now with it, if a teacher is not willing to assist, I would much rather pay $20 for Yogaglo per month as opposed to $150 per month for a similar experience.

    I am saddened you felt the need to label my view as “unfortunate.” When you charge money for yoga it becomes a service and especially if you charge $150/month there will expectations with that service.

  • VQ2

    If I had the cash, I wouldn’t even care if I never get adjusted, ever again at $150 per month.
    This may account for my going to a Yogea Artflow Yoga class and points roughly nearly as fusionistic; and as middle path a class I could find. Yanking and cranking does not value make; and in fact, they have (unknowingly to them – I’ve had insulin resistance issues) been entered into without an experienced MD’s level of by-the-eye information …

  • K

    So … “I’d be so happy if unlimited massages were $150 per month!” this sounds like for you, yoga is a low cost alternative to a massage. If you want a massage, go get that!

    I should humble myself and say yes, yoga teachers SHOULD work for free and it is a clear sign of greediness that we do not. (that is sarcasm). A live teacher also differs from an online video because the person sees the students and gives cues based upon the students in the room.

    I don’t know where you practice, but in most studios offering unlimited monthly arrangements, there are multiple teachers to choose from. I’m not against assisting, but the idea that it is better than becoming mindful of your OWN body’s movement I disagree with.

    Seriously, there are a limited number of yoga poses (and just one teacher per class, aside from studios that have assistants) … how many assists does a person need in warrior 2? Part of the practice is moving your own body, uniting your own body and mind, and if there are people who avoid coming to my classes because they want a massage and don’t get one … good riddance!

  • VQ2

    No, it’s not a question of massage or “value-added”, or anything like that.
    The student probably does not practice aparigraha to the extent you do or might espouse ;-) . Maybe the student wants to be prodded into an inversion or pulled into a backbend or twist that they can’t get into on their own. [Ashtangis, keep your eyes and inner mind's-ear voice closed on these ... this may not apply to those suited for the sterner stuff.]

    Maybe, just maybe the student has no proprioception and little kinesthetic sense … this may not be about Warrior 2 at all …

    Explain why come there still exists – in some studios – in class privates, then? As a costly, massage-ey (and otherwise self-indulgent and conspicuous consume-y – to me) alternative to hogging the group’s instructor as a matter of policy or need on the part of the student, during a public class of any larger-than-small size?

  • mmbuja

    I am trying to separate my own ego from this conversation, but I am quite happy that your attitude and view is not dominate at my studio. The teachers that I work with come across as much more accepting of others views that differ from their own.

    I’d love to have the luxury of choosing a class based on teacher, but I work and commute for 12 hrs a day- so I only have a choice of one instructor per day. Fortunately, my instructors all assist. It’s also important to note that I never implied teachers should work for free. $20/per drop in class? That’s a debate for another article!

    From your response it seems that this issue may be very emotionally charged due to specific incidents that occurred in your past- I am talking about my perspective and how I derive value from my $150 investment per month. Someone like VQ2 stated he does not find value in adjusting, I do, and I do not believe one view is better than the other. Some find value in community, some need to go to a studio to help discipline their practice, etc. I am quite blown away by your exclusionary attitude given that you are a “teacher,” in addition to your “good riddance” comment.

    I am all for becoming more mindful of your own body. For some poses, like chair pose, I struggle with the proper alignment and it’s taken me a few months of help from my teachers for my body to go into a proper alignment naturally. A teacher is there to help and guide you (for me that means physically and spiritually), not just to call out poses.

    I certainly receive stress relief from yoga as I do massage, but obviously massage and yoga are not equal (I am seriously confused that a teacher is proposing they are the same). I also gain exercise, attachment to my community, and self-reflection through yoga.

    I was using humor to break what has become a charged debate with the massage comment. It’s so important to laugh daily….I’m all about stress relief ;)

  • K

    What you pay for a drop in is more than many instructors make per class. If I had to pay $150/month for yoga, I wouldn’t be able to on my yoga teacher income.

    You claim to like the idea of being open to others’ ideas, but seem to feel like your instructor is doing something wrong by not assisting up to your standard … to me, that’s not being open to others ideas! Maybe you can learn something even from situations that frustrate you, rather than seeing them as a waste of money. Your comments come across as very judgmental.

    I’ve been fortunate not to have met many people with this view in yoga, but I have met similar views in other lines of work, and yes, that has most definitely informed my views on this! And I do assist, including more restorative / “feel good” assists that aren’t all about alignment – I just still think your views are incredibly judgmental. And yes, if I encounter someone with judgmental views that are essentially toxic, I would rather than person just not come back than share that energy with me.

  • K

    And, um, I suppose your life has dramatically changed now that you have found the “correct” alignment in chair pose? With the help of hands on assists?

    I’m not saying yoga and massage are the same. I’m saying people who “demand” assists (and do not seem to see value in sensing and moving their OWN bodies) are probably more interested in something akin to “massage” than to any aspect of yoga.

    I mean, I’m sure tons and tons of people have, you know, injured themselves in chair pose, but alignment is a pretty small part of yoga.

  • Sam Louise

    mmbuja: You may not be aware of the differing perspectives of yoga students. One student wants full on adjustments for nearly every pose, another only for poses s/he is having difficulty with, and yet another doesn’t want anyone to touch him/her. Some yoga instructors stop adjustments after the class student number reaches over 15-20 students. Please don’t be so hasty to make a judgement about in-class adjustments. Instructors are damned if they do and damned if they don’t. We can’t please everyone.

  • mmbuja

    K,

    I fail to see how labeling others energy as “toxic” because they disagree with you is being open to others views. I am still in shock that someone could label a view about yoga adjustments as toxic. I never made personal attacks on you or said “good riddance” because I disagree with your stance. In fact, the roughest personal comment I made was that I was happy your attitude did not prevail at my studio and I continue to delight in that fact.

    I live in a highly populated area, so I have no choice but to learn how to handle and embrace differing opinions than my own. Again, for me, this comes down to paying for a service and receiving it. I have built relationships with my teachers and they all are highly aware of my love of adjustments. They realize that our studio is a business and businesses thrive by making customers happy. It’s not about a “demand” (your words not mine), it’s about offering what your customers want. I would not hold up a studio at gunpoint if they did not offer adjustments, I’d simply stop giving them business (and this would of course be after speaking with teachers and/or contacting the studio manager).

    While you are obviously being incredibly sarcastic about my chair pose struggle, it was important for me physically and mentally to improve on that pose. Given that you labeled by view on yoga adjustments as “toxic,” I am surprised that you are so insensitive to my chair pose journey. Just because a pose is not “high-level” does not mean it is not difficult or important to do with proper alignment.

    In regards to your comments about class pricing, you simultaneously imply that it is not enough, but then say you wouldn’t be able to afford it yourself. It’s a contradiction so I don’t feel a need to entertain the comment.

    My strong reaction to your comments is due to my world view that I do have an expectation that my teachers are calmer and more spiritually enlightened than me. You have now made me more open to the fact that some teachers do not possess those qualities (yet), and I (without sarcasm) thank you for reminding me not to place teachers on a spiritual pedestal.

    In closing (no, I am not a lawyer), I have been critical of the practice of not adjusting. I do not make personal judgments about teachers based on if they adjust/assist or not (e.g. I do not label them a bad person or “toxic”- to borrow a term from you), but I do think they should be offering that service. The fundamental difference between our two arguments is that I am being critical of a practice, not a person.

    Let’s all keep in mind I began this conversation applauding that my studio creates a space that makes both camps of people feel comfortable.

    Sam Louise,

    I appreciate your response as you simply requested I think about others’ perspectives and did not make a written judgement of me as a person because I disagree with you. I appreciate your differing perspective while simultaneously disagreeing with you.

  • VQ2

    As someone who only in the beginning, was interested in “being adjusted” – but without the requisite disrespect of my boundaries (and I admit they were shifting) that the aggressive, rigorous style demanded, I sympathize with you, mmbuja. When these stupid (to me) adjustments started getting even more aggressive, despite my history of rejecting them, that’s when I’d made my move to another studio. And now, I never look back.

    And don’t let anybody be all snobbish on you on their conception of a “low level” pose. The person with average potential will be in these floor poses for the first ten, twelve or fifteen (or the entire longevity of their practice lives, for that matter; or when they get older/diseased, etc …) and there is no need for any yoga professional to pooh-pooh “Powerful Pose” or “Fierce Pose”, or whoever actually interprets this particular pose in a positive, encouraging way …
    I liken this attitude to, in music, a virtuoso pianist pooh-poohing Hanon fingering exercises and never ever keeping up with them every day beyond their first couple of years…

    As for me, I learn much better from verbal, alignment-oriented cues.

  • K

    You say in your comment “when “you” charge x amount for a class” – that is what the studio charges, not what the teacher receives. I do think referring to “wasting” your money if you do not receive a physical assist verges on toxic. Nothing about yoga entitles you to a specific physical assist, and yes, I think there is something unfortunate about referring to your money as “wasted” if you don’t get an assist. I wouldn’t refer to a student as “wasting” my time if they didn’t like a class. My good riddance was addressed to people who feel they “waste” money if I don’t cater to their specific wish that day and apparently (if the money was “wasted”) found nothing else of value in a class if they did not receive touch, or enough touch.

    I’m sure the studio managers know you well!

  • ACK

    I am okay with some adjustments (a simple nudge to straighten shoulders in warrior 2 for example) but some are so intrusive. I’ve had a teacher sit down behind me (crotch to back) to push me into something (yuck) and one push my knee down in a supine twist (ouch. It’s lower back issues keep that knee off the ground.) I’d love a yes/no card to signify my preference.

  • ACK

    I am okay with some adjustments (a simple nudge to straighten shoulders in warrior 2 for example) but some are so intrusive. I’ve had a teacher sit down behind me (crotch to back) to push me into something (yuck) and one push my knee down in a supine twist (ouch. It’s lower back issues keep that knee off the ground.) I’d love a yes/no card to signify my preference.

  • ACK

    I am okay with some adjustments (a simple nudge to straighten shoulders in warrior 2 for example) but some are so intrusive. I’ve had a teacher sit down behind me (crotch to back) to push me into something (yuck) and one push my knee down in a supine twist (ouch. It’s lower back issues keep that knee off the ground.) I’d love a yes/no card to signify my preference.

  • mandinkus

    What stands out to me is the need for communication and some level of relationship between teacher and student. I do think just about anyone might need at least a minor adjustment from time to time to ensure a safe and beneficial action or pose…sometimes all the verbal instruction and cueing in the world may not substitute for a gentle and instructive nudge in the right direction. I think there is a huge difference between a teacher you have come to know and trust approaching your body without his or her own agenda for what it should or can do–and discussing what they would like to accomplish with the adjustment, rather than just grabbing and yanking. This seems to be increasingly difficult to accomplish as class sizes grow ever larger.

  • Please enlighten me. What does that “yoga teacher” in the image think she is doing?

  • VQ2

    Yup! Kyphotic me, wants to know, too …

  • Iyengarnut

    Good article!

    You mentioned explaining what you are going to do before you do it. I’d like to add that it also makes a world of difference when the communication continues after the adjustment, and becomes a two-way street.

    The best teachers at my studio all ask a question (such as”how does that feel?” or “what does that change for you?”) after any significant adjustment.

    By contrast, some of the newer teachers and assistants (not yet certified in Iyengar) fail to do this, which breaks the trust for me. I’ll give you one example: In a backbend over a chair with a rolled under the back to accentuate the bend, an assistant teacher correctly saw that the rolled blanket was too high on my back. It needed to be a bit lower.

    So far so good. But when he pushed the blanket in the proper direction it went too far, lodging under my lumbar spine (way too low and very uncomfortable) and I got pretty terse and un-yogic. I don’t blame him for not being able to place it perfectly in a situation where I’m face up bent over a chair. It’s hard to see the back anatomy and place a blanket perfectly on the first try when a person is in that position.

    The problem was that when he moved the blanket, he didn’t communicate to see whether that caused pain or discomfort. If he had simply asked, how does that feel, I would have felt that we were working together and I wouldn’t have gotten stressed out…I would have just said, oops, now it’s in the lumbar.

    Instead I kind of panicked, which he dealt with well, re-adjusting to the perfect position, and the teacher came over and verified, so it ended well. But just an example of how much difference it makes when the teacher checks in with you on how the adjustment feels for you.

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