The power of NOT touching your students.

DISCLAIMER: I reserve the right to change my mind, tweak, alter and utterly contradict the views expressed in this newsletter at any time that seems appropriate :-).

A few weeks ago a student came into the office with an urgent question. She had overheard me explaining to another teacher why I don’t tend to give manual assists in class. Being a new teacher herself, she wanted some further clarification on this point. Quite honestly, she is not the first person to approach me regarding this topic, and I have grappled with this for quite a while. I will also wholeheartedly admit that I am never fully satisfied with my answer to this query because while I have been the recipient of truly fantastic, sensitive and even healing manual assists; I have also endured assists that have been incredibly injurious, careless, and harmful. The worst of these incidences was a full chiropractic facet adjustment on my cervical spine in the middle of a yoga class, which a few days later left me with severely limited range of motion in my neck.

That particular incident made me terrified to lay my hands on students for almost 6 months, and to this day I am not entirely comfortable being assisted by yoga teachers in general. However, it has lead to a very interesting, constant and personal debate over the benefit of manual assists/adjustments. This quandary became all the more urgent when I began to train teachers to teach.

As with most things, the answer lay not in the extremes of “never touch anyone in class” and “make SURE you lay your hands on every student at some point in class” but somewhere in that intuitive grey area. I started to contemplate this in my own practice of teaching with a simple pro/con list based on my experience as a student.

Pro:

  • Thought : “I would never have believed I could get into a handstand if my teacher Ginny had not lifted my hips up into my first one”
  • Thought: “I would never have dreamed of putting my rib cage on my thighs in paschimottonasana if Victor Von Kooten hadn’t spent 10 mins with me in a workshop guiding me into the pose.”
  • Sometimes the simple laying of hands can profoundly relax a part of the body or our nervous system in a way that we simply could not allow for. This interesting possibility could be unpacked further especially in regards whether a yoga teacher (even if they are a bodyworker) should utilize such a technique in a public class.

Con:

  • OUCH! That chiropractic assist was not fun… I don’t recommend this unless you are on your chiropractor’s table.
  • That time someone slammed their palm into my kidney in Ardha Matsyendrasana and initiated a back spasm that had me on my back for the remainder of the class.
  • Countless other unfortunate adjustments that sent me straight to the bodyworker/chiropractor the next day.

So how do we reconcile the informative and even healing power of touch with the countless cases of injury and trauma from over zealous hands? There is really no clear cut answer here.

I believe that manual assists are a LAST resort. A student will always be better served if they can respond to a verbal suggestion. Not only will they be better served but they are FAR more likely to retain and fully embody said suggestion as they continue to practice. As for the “feel good”, massage-like, assists - which I have been told are the reason many students come to class- I think those are best left to massage therapists and bodyworkers. In fact, it is worth mentioning here that I have learned so much from the various bodyworkers and chiropractors who have helped to guide my practice. A talented practitioner of these modalities can point out imbalance and dysfunctional patterns in the body in a way that an asana teacher might have difficulty seeing in a public class. Of course treatment also as the added bonus of feeling amazing!

That being said, I view my job as a yoga teacher as teaching people to practice on their own. From that viewpoint, excessive manual adjustment - whether “feel-good” or deepening a specific pose - can hinder a student’s progress because they may become dependant on that attention. While of course we want attention from our teachers in the form of a watchful eye, the truly skilled yoga asana teachers I work with seem to inspire me to go figure things out for myself. We have to be able to think/practice/feel for ourselves.

Certainly as teachers there are time when we absolutely need to use our hands to skillfully bring awareness to part of a student’s body- a task which is MUCH different than “taking someone deeper into a pose”. It has actually been my personal work to re-introduce more hands-on assists in my practice of teaching. The reason for this being two-fold. First, to make sure that I am not simply avoiding helping a student out of fear. Secondly, because many student’s learning styles favor a more tactile , tangible, kinesthetic approach and for these particular people, manual assists are the most direct and clear way of communicating an action or awareness in the body. So at the end of the day I try to follow a mantra that I learned in my very first training with Cyndi Lee: “How can I be helpful?”.

That is all well and good from the seat of the teacher but we also have the responsibility as students to speak up. I often have shirked this responsibility as a student by not speaking up when an assist was unwanted or began to feel injurious; especially when the assist was coming from a more “senior” teacher. Teachers, regardless of their experience, have no way of being 100% in your body as they lay their hands on you. So speak up! If you get hurt or feel uncomfortable with an assist, tell the teacher. If you receive an instruction or an assist that completely shifts your awareness and understanding of the pose, TELL THE TEACHER! If you leave a class just feeling confused… definitely go ask some questions!

I realize this is a touchy subject, and many people have strong opinions and profound stories- both positive and negative- regarding this very topic. As always these blogs are meant to spark conversation and dialogue through which we can all improve as teachers, students and practitioners. Please feel free to reach out to me in class or via email (below) if you have further thoughts on this subject!