When we take time to reflect on why we do the things we do, we come to understand it better ourselves so that we can bring that understanding to others. — Jessica Haessly of Yoga Story
You may take several yoga classes and never have a teacher physically touch you. In those classes I can get just as much out of the practice from the spoken word as I can from classes where the teacher comes around to adjust my alignment or deepen my stretch. The practice is ultimately yours and you get out of it both what you put into it and what you’re willing to receive. I enjoy taking classes from a variety of teachers because it keeps me open to different personalities and teaching styles and challenges me to find harmony among mind, body, and spirit no matter what’s going on outside of me. I do believe, however, that touch is very important, whether it’s a handshake, a hug, a pat on the back, or a high five. When we bring positive, intentional touch into our human experience, we let down walls, connect for a moment as one, and give space for the possibility of healing. The short answer to why I use hands-on assists in my teaching practice is because I like to receive assists. When I receive them as a student, my attention is drawn even more directly to the moment, I feel and learn about what my body is doing and can do.
Calming the Mind & Deep Relaxation
When a student is in Warrior 1 (Virabhadrasana 1), and I say, relax your shoulder blades down your back, it is a joy for me to watch the student(s) make that adjustment on their own. It lets me know 1) that they are listening and that what I’m saying is connecting with them and 2) that they are aware of their body and how it can move. But when we come into a pose there really are a lot of things going on. In Downward-facing Dog (Adho Mukha Svanasana), we’re pressing the ground away, pressing into thumb and forefinger, rotating the forearms in toward thumbs, the abdominal muscles are engaged, inner thigh muscles are strong, heels press toward the grown, hamstrings draw toward the back of the room, hips are lifted, and while all this strength and stretching is happening, we’re lengthening the spine to create space, letting the head hang heavy, neck, face, and jaw relaxed. We don’t normally cue all of these attributes of the pose in class because that’s a lot to think about for a workout that is meant to calm the mind. We need space and silence in class to find how the pose is best translated to our body, and it is in that space and silence, sometimes speaking a cue or two to help, that I may come around and rest the front of my feet on your hands to keep your hands pressed into the mat and steady as I bring my palms along the low back to press the hips up and back. Similarly in Child’s Pose (Balasana), I may come around, press the heals of my hands onto your low back to help bring your body deeper into the pose. The deepening assists help keep you grounded, and teach your body how to relax more deeply.
Safety & Proper Alignment
Often in the physical practices of yoga we use phrasing like, observe how the pose feels in your body, or, if there’s any pain, adjust or come out of the pose. These are good things to say, and as students and practitioners, I believe it’s important for us to develop our own practice, to take what we learn in live and online classes and from any articles we might read, to become our own teacher. If we follow yogic philosophy, everything we need is within, which is why as teachers we often use the word “guide.” And as a guide, my main job is to bring you safely through your practice. I may have people in class who are brand new to yoga, and if that’s the case, I may take the pads of my fingers to the knee of a student who is in Warrior 2 (Virabhadrasana 2), to draw the knee toward the pinky toe to prevent knee pain. In Side-Angle Pose (Parsvakonasana) or Reverse Warrior (Viparita Virabhadrasana), I may bring my hand to the front of the shoulder and roll the shoulder back to open the chest and help guide the shoulder to stack on top of the other. Opening the chest and stacking the shoulders facilitates ease of breath, focusing on the lengthening of the side body. In every pose we should either be strengthening or stretching the body; we should not be straining. Our face should always be soft, and our breath should always be smooth and steady. If the head is lifted in a Forward Fold (Uttanasana), I will say, relax the neck, let the head hang heavy, while also, drawing my forefinger and thumb to your neck in a C-shape to physically guide the relaxation of the neck, keeping it safe rather than strained. A teacher, in any setting, is there to create a safe and welcoming atmosphere whether by words alone or words and touch. My hands and the words I speak are for health and healing; that is my intention always.
There are a number of reasons a person may not want hands-on assists, and I want to respect a person’s desire not to be touched. So, I ask. Much of the way I teach is learned, whether from my teacher training program, observing classes, taking classes, or reading articles, I take what is helpful to me, those things which I connect most with and bring them into my class. At the beginning of class when people are in child’s pose, I let them know (just as I have observed other teachers let their class know), I may come around and do some hands-on assisting; if this is something you would not like, please feel free to flip up a palm. This makes the decision safe for the student, so they don’t have to feel singled out if they are the only one who does or doesn’t want to be touched, and it frees me from having to ask every individual as they walk in whether or not it’s okay for me to physically assist them in poses. Now, I may not ask the same students each time, but if my hands are ever met with resistance whether by a new student or a returning student, it is my job and my desire to respect that because things change from moment to moment and day to day. We all have days where we just need to be in our own space and move without any interference. And what is this practice but an opportunity for us to give ourselves space to be?
I’m speaking as though my classes are full of people, and in the spirit of honesty and authenticity, at the moment they’re not. This, however, is at great benefit to the students who do arrive because my focus will be specifically on what their body needs in that moment. This is also a great benefit to my spirit because my gratitude is that much greater toward those who do show. Often I say to my husband, I got to teach today! I quoted myself above not to be arrogant but because I truly believe that each of us has something within the core of our being that can touch someone else. That touch can be physical as a hug or ethereal as a parting word. When we are touched by something or someone, we awaken to a new way of thinking and being, even if just for a moment, and if that touch heals us, that moment stays with us forever.
Be blessed. Namaste.