Tracey L. Kelley
The Adjust and Assist Hubbub
Updated: Apr 27, 2020
In the yoga community and, more accurately, in the yoga industry, there's a lot of discussion about whether or not teachers should adjust or assist students during practice. Numerous reasons abound in both the pro and con columns.
I believe the pros far outweigh the cons, with some caveats.
In certain circumstances, yoga classes have a "no-touch" policy, and usually with good reason. In sessions with minor children or trauma-sensitive participants, an instructor needs to respect ethical and moral guidelines for practice. Certain facilities and community-based programs also implement a no-touch policy, primarily for liability insurance reasons. As an instructor, I understand and agree with these standards, especially when a variety of people come and go in a group class, or teachers rotate through a schedule -- you simply don't have the insight to help each individual.
In my group and private classes, however, it's never a question: there will be adjusts and assists. That's because I don't teach to "strangers". I prefer we meet before your first class, talk awhile, review your goals and particular issues. That's when we outline the process, and you give me permission to work with you in a certain manner. I also make it a point to pay attention: if someone comes into a session with a certain energy, or I see how he or she is moving into practice, both of these things influence whether or not I adjust and assist. In addition, I can't do this from the front of the room, never leaving the mat: I prefer to practice alongside you, or walk around, or get down on the floor to listen to your breath. In these ways, I continue to learn about you and your practice.
And I make the message clear: it's always your practice -- I'm simply there to guide you in the best way possible. There will be days when you don't want to be bothered...or you're recovering from a particular physical issue...or you simply want to take Child's Pose instead of Downward Dog because that's what feels right...or you need a hug but don't want to talk about why.
Knowing you, understanding your presence in that moment, helping you create space...any adjusting and assisting is influenced by these and many other factors as well. As your teacher, it's my responsibility to pay attention to these details, and maybe not approach you at all except with a whispered verbal cue. That can still be an "adjustment" or an "assist" -- but it's also respectful of your individual needs, which may not be those of other members in a group class setting, and thus shouldn't be broadcast as part of session instruction. Plus, while verbal cues are integral to a well-guided session -- a teacher needs to know when to allow silence. So I can be quiet and still attentive to your needs with a bit of hands-on instruction.
Some naysayers think adjusts and assists reinforce only the physical aspect of yoga, implying there's a "right" way and a "wrong" way to do yoga. I disagree. First, I want you be safe, and if a pose is challenging you in ways that sport injury, I'm going to put a stop to it and show you a variation suitable for that moment. This type of demonstration doesn't always come forth properly in a verbal cue. Second, certain alignment is often important, because third, breath is important. If a pose forces a negative change in your breath, I'm going to spot that in a number of ways -- facial expressions, chest compression or fluttering, raggedness. If I don't "get in there" with you, allow for re-positioning, breathe alongside you, neither one of us will have an understanding of what you're expanding in that pose, much less develop any stillness that should come from your practice. Conversely, a DVD or online class isn't going to help you know when to move into or beyond "your edge"--that sweet spot that helps you experience more in your yoga journey. I've found that never leaving my mat and teaching from the front of the room doesn't permit me to witness these opportunities. My birds-eye view of your practice as I walk around adjusting and assisting is where I can be your guide to this type of discovery. More importantly: students often desire this type of attention. And if I can serve them well, that's my duty. I could write volumes about this, but I'll close here: we choose to practice yoga with a real, qualified person because we hope we can expand our practice beyond what a DVD or online video can provide. At all times, there should always be a clear understanding of personal space permission, regarding all aspects of yoga instruction, between both student and teacher (sometimes teachers have boundaries as well!) Once allowed, this shared physical presence is vital to creating a practice that's progressive, safe, interactive, and meaningful. The relationship between a student and teacher can be a source of joy, knowledge, enlightenment, and deep trust. I'm honored by every student who allows me to have this hands-on experience with him or her.
Photo courtesy of Yoga Journal