Hands on adjustments are a relatively common but also quite controversial aspect of yoga classes. Strong adjustments have been known to lead to snapped hamstrings or popped knees, and Pattabhi Jois, the father of the Ashtanga Yoga system, has been rumored to have faced so many lawsuits for these kinds of injuries that he stopped returning to the USA altogether. There’s also an emotional danger: touch is a very common trauma trigger for some people, and the wrong kind of touch could cause a panic attack or flashback.
For these reasons and more, a lot of teachers I know have begun avoiding hands-on instruction altogether. Many teachers would rather leave their students in an unsafe version of a pose than risk the adverse consequences of touching them the wrong way.
And yet, if there’s anything my students requests more of, it’s adjustments. The potential benefits are huge: when there is kindness, sensitivity, responsibility, consent, and clear intentions, hands-on adjustments can illuminate a pose, prevent injury, or even help a person heal from trauma.
I’ve seen students in Savasana go from relaxed to totally blissed out with a simple press of their shoulders. I’ve seen lightbulbs switch on when I guide my students’ hips into place. Some people simply can’t understand a verbal cue (especially when it’s something like “spiral your upper deltoid up and back”), but when I use my body to speak to their bodies they get it immediately.
We live in a very thinking-oriented culture, and we rarely take the time to feel. We are also deeply, desperately touch deprived. When in your life are you touched in a way that is healthy, safe, and nonsexual? Shaking hands? Standing next to that dude on a crowded bus?
In a yoga class, you are asked to get sensitive to what’s happening in your body in each pose. This doesn’t always work, and many students simply go through the motions while actually thinking about what to have for lunch. When a teacher you trust puts their hands on you, though, there’s nowhere else you can be but in your body. I’ve asked students in an adjustment how they feel, and all they can say is “Mmmmmm.” When you are that connected to sensation in your body, you go a-verbal, as if your mind is offline.
As beautiful as that blissed-out, a-verbal state can be, though, teachers must also acknowledge how vulnerable it is. We need strong boundaries and good resources in place when we offer our hands so we can handle it when and if issues arise. In my classes, I usually don’t touch students who are brand new to me, and ask them permission before I do. When I do touch, I steadily increase pressure to give them the opportunity to tell me it’s too much or to feel them tensing up—they may not feel safe to say “no,” but if I feel them resist I’ll back off.
I also don’t assist with the intention of getting them closer to a visual expression of the pose. My assists are about helping them find stability, space, and information. None of this is foolproof, of course, and I’ve made mistakes before. You can’t control everything about the class environment, and you can’t read your students’ minds. Acknowledging the difficulty, though, shouldn’t scare us off from continuing to learn about an aspect of our teaching that could deeply benefit our students.
When I asked my students what they thought about all this, they agreed: “Mmmmmmm."