I’d always struggled with Prasaritta Padottanasa (Wide-Legged Forward Bend). Naturally tight hamstrings coupled with a mild sacral imbalance would trap me in resistance as I ventured forward, the floor six inches/miles away. And then one morning my teacher tucked her thigh in front of mine as her warm hands, more suggestive than insistent, gently lengthened my spine forward and down. She whispered in my ear, “I’ve got you,” and then, on a deep exhale, something finally let go as my crown effortlessly kissed my mat. Since that day I have never doubted the magic of hands-on assists. The power of touch is undeniable, and as a yoga teacher and student, I have found that well-executed adjustments can deepen the yoga experience on many levels.
Foundation and alignment
A strong foundation and refined alignment are crucial to yoga asana. They keep us safe from injury, open the nadis (energy channels) to receive prana, and create the strong roots from which our poses can continue to grow. Verbal and visual cues may not always be sufficient to impart these concepts, as there may be a lack of body awareness among students. Overly wordy instructions also have the potential to take students into their heads and out of their bodies.
A teacher might discuss the precise placement of the pelvis during a standing twist. A student often hears the cues, and even understands intellectually, but fails to translate the information to their body. When someone is struggling to integrate the words, the teacher can use their hands to guide the pelvis into the proper position, at which point the student will often exclaim, “Oh!” as the light of understanding dawns.
Once they’ve experienced the intelligence and stability of the foundational principles, the student can continue to safely explore and refine the asana.
Support and stability
The key concepts of adjustments are support and stability. Yoga is at its most exciting when we are dancing along the edges of our comfort zone. This is the place where fear is most likely to appear, and yet surrender is most vital.
Take Sirsasana (Headstand) for example. This pose is ripe with fear potential. You’re upside down, verticality is illusive, and the chance of falling out is high. It is hard to find your breath and appropriate action when you’re just trying to stay upright.
And then your teacher comes to you and stabilizes the pose by wrapping their strong hands around your calves (No chance of falling now!) and deftly rolls them in and up to guide and support your exploration (There’s internal rotation! And ascension!). Finally, they let your legs go, because you’ve GOT this, and rest their palm on your lower back ribs to remind you of their reassuring presence and your breath. And for a moment you become a conduit between heaven and earth, a lightning rod for prana, and a deep love for this once frightening pose is born.
Hands-on assists and the teacher-student bond
The unique relationship between teacher and student is incredibly rich and layered. With yoga’s rising popularity, classes are often huge and impersonal. Your teacher may not even know your name, much less your temperament, challenges, and strengths. Physical touch can help deepen the teacher-student bond. To touch and be touched is a testament to trust, a nod to mutual affection. Touch can soothe, encourage, and immediately ground us in our bodies and the moment.
To best benefit from adjustments, look for a teacher you implicitly trust. Communication is key, and you can let your teacher know if you prefer to receive adjustments or not before class begins. During class, a clear “No thank you,” or “Too much,” or “More, please” can keep the conversation open without disrupting the flow of practice. Following class, feel free to thank your teacher and offer any necessary feedback. If you’d prefer not to receive hands-on adjustments, it is important to honor your boundaries.
We’re all in this together
As teachers and students, we are all links in the chain of yoga’s ever-evolving wisdom. I will often calm a rattled student by gently placing my hand on their sacrum, as my teacher did to me, and their teacher did to them, as perhaps their teacher did to them too. With this simple, soothing gesture, I can let my beloved student know, “I’ve got you,” as I honor the sacred lineage of those who have come before.