Hands on adjustments are specifically something I started paying attention to after moving to the US a decade ago. Many styles of asana leverage the use of hands-on adjustments. Where the yoga teacher uses some part/s of their body to physically adjust, enhance, modify, or correct a student’s yoga pose. The intention of the adjustment giver is to move the yoga student into some capacity of a fuller experience of the pose – at least bodily.
Hands on adjustments has been used on and off through the years. By yoga teachers all over. But in 2022 this topic needs a revisit and more contextualization. Because many yoga teachers are unclear about whether they should or shouldn’t be using HOA.
What amplifies this confusion is the fact that many modern yoga asana schools here in the US teach HOA as central to their curriculum. As a USP. “We’ll teach you how to correct everyone’s pose”, is often sold to teacher training students.
I understand how this can be appealing to unassuming students because they feel the need to understand & know this to teach yoga asana. Especially if you’re entering a yoga teacher training program looking to enhancece your asana understanding.
But before we deconstruct HOA. Let’s look at some cultural context…
- If you don’t already know my yoga story, I share it in Episode 1 of my Let’s Talk Yoga podcast – yoga in India vs USA. I was born and raised in Southern India. For the past decade, I’ve been calling Seattle home. On the podcast, I often share the cultural context of many aspects of mainstream yoga. Because at the end of the day, yoga is a cultural practice in India. The more context you have, the more you’ll be able to stay deeply connected to your yoga as a teacher & student.
- Let’s explore the cultural context of what HOA in India is like. Firstly, I want to clarify that HOA is a modern off-shot of asana development & evolvement. It’s not something that is tied to yoga for eternity like the 8 limbs or other aspects of philosophy. I’ve been trying to trace the origins of HOA. While there’s no clear start of it – I think we find some traces of it Sri T. Krishnamacharya. Then moves further into BKS Iyengar and Sri. Pattabhi Jois lineages.
- But here’s another aspect of Indian culture. In a traditional teacher-student relationship, the yoga teacher has a very hands-off approach. Literally. Touching each other whether it’s hugs or handshakes etc… is more alien to the traditional setup. In fact many traditional shalas, the relationship between teacher and student is very formal and one of reverence. The new age yoga studio culture is very different. Many or most of my Indian yoga teachers, rarely offered hands-on adjustments. It was used as a last resort. And offered once in a while. The teacher didn’t really go about adjusting every student in the room as a norm.
Questions to ask yourself about hands-on adjustment yoga…
- Reflect on how you have been trained or educated in asana. Specifically around HOA. Did your teachers use them? If yes, on whom? Was it specifically for some students? For ex-I assist pregnant students in Supta Baddhakonasa. Or was it across the board as a thing they did in class? Because the yoga style is used as a USP.
- How did you feel recieving an adjustment? What do you remember about it? Is there a specific adjustment that gave you a “Ah Ha” moment or made you feel really uneasy and uncomfortable. I’ve received some fantastic adjustments. They were far and few. I’ve also been given uncomfortable adjustments by both male and female teachers. That left me feeling off.
- Most importantly what was the intention behind the adjustment? Did the adjustment really enhance your proprioception? Or add some value that previously didn’t exist?
Types of adjustments…
There are 3 main categories of adjustments…
Verbal adjustments are the best kind of adjustments. This is essentially you using your verbal communication skills to communicate what you want the student to do clearly. Use your words or instructions in a highly skillful manner. To get a particular point across or achieve a certain end goal in class. You can get very skillful in your instructions by being very precise, direct, and communicative in your “instructions” during asana class.
Non-verbal adjustments are best paired with verbal adjustments. These involve using your own body safely to show what needs to be done. Sometimes this involves showing what not to do in order to get them to see what needs to be adjusted. For example – in Virabhadrasana 2, the bent knee tends to roll in for most people. Showing them that on your body and then how to correct it by rolling it out to the little toe side.
Hands on adjustments are the third type of adjustment. Where you physically use your body to adjust someone else pose. While this has value, it really needs to be explored more in-depth which I’ll get to it in a bit here.
Which approach is best?
- It’s important to not be rigid while exploring which option is best. Because there are many people who have benefited from hands-on adjustments and many who have suffered.
- Personally, I use verbal and nonverbal 99% of the time. Where I use words and my own body to get the message across. I also aim to preempt what could go wrong in a pose and address it as part of the learning process itself.
- But occasionally, I’ve had to use hands-on assistance. Especially when helping a pregnant student set up for some poses. Hands-on adjustments need to be done well. With care, consideration, and most importantly with consent. If the student says no, you then resort to your other 2 options with kindness and respect.
If you teach hands-on adjustment yoga listen up…
- Consent is key. In the next part of the conversation, I’m assuming you’ve gotten consent from the student every single time.
- Also assuming that you’ve been trained really in asana and have had very good experiences with adjustments.
- Your intentions are pure, clean, and using hands-on as a service, not as a special feature of class
- There are certain areas of the body that are okay to touch in adjustments. While I initially thought I’d give you a list of body parts for this part of the conversation. I realize it isn’t this simple. Because it really depends on the pose in question. For example, if it is a triangle adjustment, and someone is falling forward, you have to consider how you approach the person on which side and how to help draw the shoulders and upper back – well back. What goes wrong is we assume that adjustments are standardized.
- We forget to take into consideration the following… body proportions, for example, some people are heavier on their chests, or hips or have longer arms, shorter torsos, etc…Couple this with age, mobility, preferences etc… You can’t standardize everything about adjustments. A few common things yes. But not all.
- Also the adjustment will vary based on the experience of the student. A beginner will relate to an adjustment very differently than an experienced student
- Male and female teachers offering adjustments. The experience of the teacher. You can communicate a lot through touch.
- Even with hands-on assistance you can use props, for example, use a towel under your palm, or a block or a strap as needed. Really depends on the adjustment, person, and pose.
How to move forward?
To sum it up – get more skillful at verbal and nonverbal. especially coz many of us teach virtually. It’s high time we started making this a norm in asana classes. Leave hands-on for only last cases or special cases. Always obtain consent, and be intentional and mindful. You don’t need to spend money on adjustment workshops as their time has passed. They were relevant at one point maybe but not in the current yoga scenario.
If you’re really keen to have better information about hands-on assists, work with a teacher you trust and learn from them. The teacher should embody all qualities of respect, humility, knowledge, and pure intentions. There are many stories in the yoga world about teachers misusing a student’s trust. Let’s put that to an end and put the focus back on high-quality work.
I hope this helps. Let me know in the comments below if you have any questions or something you’d like to share.