by 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.
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