The system of Integral Yoga Hatha, encourages students to develop awareness of their own innate inner intelligence. The teacher can be instrumental in this by guiding the students to move beyond simply following instructions to feeling what they are experiencing. This will lead to the students becoming more observant of the ingrained patterns that obstruct their enjoyment of the present moment. It is the teacher’s job to foster an environment where it is safe to see and release these patterns through an indrawn, sensitive focus.
Most of our teaching is done through verbal instruction. If for some reason our words have not adequately conveyed what we want to get across, then we have to decide if physically adjusting the student is the best next step. Physically adjusting our students can either disturb or enhance their experience, depending on how it is done and how it is received. Just as our words need to be used properly to support this inner experience, our touch also needs to be used consciously and skillfully, if it is going to be useful to the students.
What are some problems that can arise from the teacher’s use of touch in a class?
1) The touch is initiated from a place of power, control, or the need of the teacher, rather than from a place of service. (“I’m the teacher. I will adjust you because I know better.”) It is tempting for teachers to physically manipulate student’s bodies into a form that we perceive as “better.” Even if the teacher is truly coming from their heart, the student may perceive it differently due to their own issues of past abuse. Some students may not want to be touched, but feel that they don’t really have a choice in the matter.
2) The student experiences the touch as an intrusion or an interruption of their inward experience. They experience our intervention as more invasive than helpful.
3) The student is caught off-guard and surprised.
4) The student gets hurt. Sometimes the teacher’s adjustment creates a momentary experience of exhilaration; the student loves being placed deeper into the asana than they’ve ever gone before. But then later discovers that she is in a whole lot of pain!
5) The student feels uncomfortable because she perceives some sexual intention on the part of the teacher.
6) The student misses the opportunity to discover for himself his own unique way to adjust the asana.
7) If the same students are adjusted again and again, it may appear that they are getting special attention by the teacher (or being picked on).
The skillful use of touch With all of the above in mind, you have probably also experienced how a skillful adjustment of our students can really enhance their understanding of an asana and feel wonderful. The right touch can be worth a thousand words. You can convey certain things more clearly through your hands than through words. The sensation of touching, in contrast to verbal direction, can move directly into the body without any intellectualization from the mind. The full attention can then rest on the sensations, not on the thinking process. With the right approach, most students are receptive to being touched. Some ways to build this right approach are:
1) Prepare yourself. Probably the factor that will have the most impact on making teachers good at adjustments is our own practice. An effective adjustment requires a quiet and observant mind not skewed by ego. As our own sensitivity and attunement deepens, as we feel more connected to the Whole, our touch will have more potency to help dispel the illusion of separateness. In addition to our regular practice, it is usually helpful to take a moment before class to clear the mind and open the heart. This will connect us to the part of us that can sense when a hands-on touch will be more effective than verbal direction, or when we might put our hands on one student, but not the next student. This preparation will help us to get unstuck from our own samskaras and to understand the asana from the perspective of the student’s body and energy.
2) Do you have their permission? We can’t assume that the student will welcome our touch. There are different approaches to getting the student’s permission to adjust them. Some teachers briefly discuss their use of physical adjustments at the start of class, making it clear that the students can always decline. Some ask permission each time they touch a student; others drop this once they have developed a connection and rapport with the student. You would probably approach a new student differently than an old-timer. However, with any student you want to be respectful of their space, make eye contact, and approach mindfully, so that they are not startled.
3) A good touch conveys acceptance, respect, and awakens the spirit of self-discovery. When something doesn’t look quite right, we may not be sure of the source of the problem. Is the student adapting the asana through listening to her own inner intelligence? Is she avoiding certain areas of weakness? Whatever may be the case, the teacher should start off with respect for and honoring where the student is at that moment, rather than barging in to “save the day” by crunching the student into some ideal of the asana. If we completely honor exactly where the students are at in their asanas, it will help them to learn to accept themselves as they are now. When we adjust the students, we are not making them or their asana “wrong,” or even so much “correcting” them. Every body is unique, and most of our students are not going to look like the pictures in the yoga calendars. The best touch gently guides the students how to create more spaciousness and to discover where their patterns of resistance are so that they can open up those places.
4) If there is a lack of extension, grounding may be what’s needed. The student may be collapsed and in need of a lift and extension. However, what may help them more is to see that they are well grounded (sthira), and then they may find ways of creating spaciousness (sukha) themselves. This solid foundation is especially important in standing poses. But even in an asana like Paschimottanasana, if the teacher applies a gentle pressure to ground the femurs, the student may naturally release further into the pose.
5) Get feedback. An adjustment is a two-way process. Find out how the student feels with it. Make sure that they feel comfortable to let you know if your intervention is not working for them. Do not be overly sensitive if a student wants you to back off. Their feedback is crucial, and it may not be verbal. See how their whole being is responding to your touch. It should foster a sense of ease in the pose. After the adjustment, the student should be able to maintain the position with sthira and sukha.
6) Use of breath. Let your breath flow in harmony with the natural rhythm of the student’s breath. This will help to bring the teacher and student pranically and mentally in synch and open to mutual learning.
7) Adjusting during class or after class? Adjusting someone’s asana is a sensitive interaction requiring focus and an unrushed mind–both of which may not be totally available to the teacher during the group experience. The teacher needs good judgment to assess if the student will be served better by meeting after class.
8) When we sense some attraction for or from a student, it behooves us to be careful about physical contact. Even without any attraction, it is best to avoid erogenous zones. A trick that could be useful to keep your awareness focused in the right direction: Assume the students can read your mind! Early in my teaching career, I had a “bad” experience that made me very cautious about adjustments. I was putting a gentle forward pressure to a student (who happened to be a friend of mine) in Paschimottanasana. It turned out that she was at her edge, and my little “gentle help” ended up injuring her. She said that the forward movement felt good, but afterwards the pain arrived. It took a number of years, but as I’ve gained more experience and sensitivity, I gradually regained confidence in my adjusting skills.
May these reflections help you to deepen your connection to yourself, your students, and the One that has become us all.
Swami Asokananda, E-RYT 500, a monk since 1973, is one of Integral Yoga’s foremost teachers, known for his warmth, intelligence and good humor. His teaching comes out of his own practice and experience, having absorbed the wisdom of his Guru, Sri Swami Satchidananda since the age of nineteen. While he enjoys sharing the practical wisdom of the yogic philosophy (especially the great Indian scripture, the Bhagavad Gita), he also loves his practice of Hatha Yoga, and is one of our primary instructors for Intermediate and Advanced Hatha Yoga Teacher Training. He presently serves as president at the Integral Yoga Institute in New York City. Before this position, he served as the President of Satchidananda Ashram-Yogaville® and Integral Yoga® International.
(from the February, 2010 IYTA Newsletter)