Learning to Back Off in Yoga

Paschimottanasana yoga pose
Photo by David Williams

Back off: is it a question, a statement or an admonition? In my teacher training we were continually told to “keep our hands on our students,” by adjusting, assisting and helping to deepen the experience of a pose by taking students to their edges. Surely you’ve experienced a deep hands on adjustment, or even seen photographs of teachers doing things like laying across a student’s back during a seated forward bend (Paschimottanasana), in order to give them an extra bit of stretch.

Aaaaaah. Or was that, ahhhhhh?!

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Did the student ask for the assist? Why do we (teachers) assume that everyone wants to go deeper?

I’ve experienced both sides of this delicate coin: As a student, I’ve allowed a teacher to push me farther than I knew my body could go, and have suffered an injury more than once. As a teacher, hurting a student is my biggest fear.

Part of practicing raja/classical yoga includes embracing Patanjali’s eight-fold path of yoga, which includes the yamas, the moral, ethical and social guidelines for the practicing yogi. The first of these is ahimsa, the practice of non-violence, which includes refraining from inflicting physical, mental and emotional violence on others.

In yoga practice, I think of ahimsa as “do no harm” and apply this tenet to myself as well as those in my charge. It wasn’t until I was a yoga teacher that I came to appreciate the importance of practicing ahimsa—and how difficult it can be to practice regularly, in each and every moment. What I’ve learned is this: there are many ways of assisting students, not all of which involve a physical component. Doing no harm may sometimes mean asking whether a student would like an assist at all. Sometimes it means not assuming that every “correction” you offer will be helpful to your students. There will be times when explaining the mechanics of a pose will be a better way of assisting a student to find their fullest expression of a pose, by letting the deepening come gradually from within. And reflecting back on your students the best in them allows you to be in tune and empathetic.

And as a student, the concept of ahimsa has taught me to trust in myself, and to speak up when I would prefer to not receive hands-on assists. I’m also better at saying “when” during a particular assist if I’m coming too close to uncomfortable edges. Yoga is not a competition with yourself or your teacher, nor is it a place to silence your inner knowing. When you choose to not receive an adjustment, your teacher isn’t judging you and it doesn’t signal to the class that you’re not trying hard in your practice. Chances are is that no one else is really concerned with it at all.

Ahimsa is important for the physical practice of yoga. The Hatha Yoga Pradipika, the main text outlining the physical practices of yoga, asks us to be pure with our intentions and in our bodies. It states the importance of avoiding excessive practices and being honest, humble and modest. Like the yamas and niyamas (the five internal practices of observance), yoga in all of it’s forms, takes time to learn and integrate.

The next time you’re on your mat, whether as a teacher or student, take a moment to back off. Pause and reflect on the beauty of your students or the way your body feels in a pose if you’re the student that day. And remember that edges are not always smooth, and challenges not always kind.

How do you integrate ahimsa into your practice as a teacher or student? When do you find yourself “backing off?”

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