Hands On, Hands Off: The Pros and Cons of Hands On Adjustments in Yoga Practice
I recently had this conversation with a friend named Asananda X. The following are some of Asananda’s writing that have been posted to the web.
"If It Ain't Broke..."
"They're Synthetic, Jackass!"
"The S.S. Persia--Ship or Nazi?"
"Finding Union Within the Animal Rights Movement"
I hope you find this conversation on hands on adjustments in the teaching of yoga interesting, informative and enjoyable.
Hands On, Hands Off: The Pros and Cons of Hands On Adjustments in Yoga Practice
A question from Asananda X: Hey Carl.
If yoga is a personal practice, on some level, why should we even adjust anyone--unless they are going to hurt themselves, of course--if the adjust is more about "pushing them a little farther" than just an awareness guide?
Carl’s Answer: In my opinion there is no actual need for adjustments. First I think I will explain a little about the idea of a personal practice and then I will explain my opinion on some of the benefits and drawbacks hands on adjustments.
When you are working in a group class you are taking a class. It is not actually a personal practice. But your experience is still personal in a group class. When you are working one-on-one with a teacher you are still having someone else show you; this is still different than you alone doing your own personal practice. In the end personal practice is something you do alone, with yourself. Nevertheless, there is a certain amount of learning that can happen in a group or one-on-one with a teacher that is worthwhile. In fact, since it is hard for us to see ourselves accurately, it is very important for each of us to spend a certain amount of time with someone else who can help us see ourselves more clearly, whether this is for the use of how your body performs postures, breathing exercises or for you to understand your habitual patterns of thought and behavior in social settings. Someone else’s perspective can be very helpful in our pursuit of a process of self-development. Having clarity and perspective on ourselves is part of what yoga is actually about. And just like the fact that our experiences are our own while practicing in a group class, even if someone is adjusting you, your experience of that adjustment is always going to be your own personal experience. But in the end your own process is invaluable and when someone else is helping you see things for yourself, they are not making the decisions for you and in my opinion they should not be trying to either.
As far as adjustments are concerned, there are several different functions they can potentially serve. An adjustment can help you feel something in your body that you might not have been able to have access to otherwise. An adjustment can help a teacher get a practitioner into a pose more quickly without as much intellectual information about how to get into the posture; sometimes the intellectual information does not help get the practitioner into a posture initially and sometimes the intellectual information, even if it is accurate, can get in the way of a student getting into the posture or finding certain aspects of the work in a pose. But feeling things from inside can help a student fall into a more appropriate position without as much mental resistance and then the intellectual information may fall into place and make more sense.
An adjustment is a communication between the teacher and the student: a way of getting information across more quickly and directly. Sometimes people think that physical adjustments are corrections. Usually when I give an adjustment I do not think about them that way. I am often moving a person from a place where they were okay to a place where they are getting a different kind, quality or depth of opening, helping them feel something that is a little different or sometimes a little deeper and sometimes I am getting someone to feel something a little less deep or less aggressive.
When I adjust I like to have verbal communication at the same time. I want to try and make sure that the adjustment that I am giving is respecting the space and boundaries of the person I am adjusting, and I also want to see if the person I am adjusting can feel the intended benefits in the way I am perceiving that they are receiving them. So part of the verbal communication is to make sure that the person being adjusted is conscious of the shifts in the benefits they are receiving from the posture. Then they will often be able to duplicate some of that experience for themselves. So the adjustment and the communication can help a practitioner cultivate the ability to perform the postures for him/herself with a greater degree of internal awareness and sensitivity, which in the end could help a practitioner make the shift towards developing his or her own personal practice without the need of as much external guidance. So it is simply something that might help you feel or understand something more quickly, better or from an experiential perspective. In the end the real juice of practice happens when you develop the skill to allow yourself to experience things from your own perspective rather than thinking that you need to rely on someone else’s way of looking at, seeing or feeling things.
Therefore, I do my best to honor each individual’s personal experience and try not to limit what they are experiencing. Different people feel different physical effects from the same posture with the same alignment and even the same adjustment. But I also try not to limit the practitioner’s experience merely to the physical shifts. This work is far more complex than that. There are always a lot of things going on in each posture and in each of us there are a lot of different things going on at once.
I would also distinguish between deeper and farther. Often when I am adjusting I bring people out of the pose a little, less far, to help them experience deeper opening. I do not push people farther. Usually, even with the most flexible practitioners, more integrity and length in a pose will be deeper than when the student has gone farther without attention to the integrity of the pose.
And usually when someone is going to hurt themselves I like to handle that primarily with verbal directions to as much of an extent as possible because I want them to understand as much as possible about how they were running the risk of injuring themselves and what not to do. When someone is doing something not so bad for themselves, but it is mildly damaging, I might even be willing to let them feel a certain amount of how they might be causing harm so that in the future they will not want to duplicate what was originally causing damage. Of course I will judge by degrees. If someone is really running the risk of hurting themselves and injury is about to happen, the first thing to do is get the student out of the pose; and that does not require a hands on adjustment; it requires clear concise directions to get the student out of the pose as soon as possible.
There is also the aspect of hands on adjustments as a transmission of energy or something from the teacher to the practitioner. This is a potentially complicated subject that has its benefits and its real big downsides but viewed from the simplest perspective this can be seen as the simple demonstration of care from a teacher to the practitioner. Shamans, healers and doctors of more traditional cultures often use hands on techniques as part of the assessment and as part of what will help unlock the healing process within the individual. Chinese medical practitioners learn a lot from reading the pulse. They will read the pulse from several different locations in the body. Palpating (examining with your hands) an affected or injured area can offer a large amount of information about some of what might be going on for the practitioner. And a yoga teacher can learn a lot about a student if they are really skilled at hands on adjustments. In my opinion, this kind of skill takes years of experience and years of studying how the body works. And in the end the simple manifestation for this should be the care of the teacher for the practitioner. Just like some people lament that western doctors have lost some of those skills in caring for their patients, there might be something to this. However, there is a huge downside to a naïve perspective of this aspect of hands on adjustments. Simply stated, the teacher may not have the students best interests in mind or the student might not perceive that their best interests are foremost for the teacher. Even if it is not the case, a practitioner perceiving an intention from the teacher that is not in line with the practitioners needs in practice would be detrimental to the process of healthy practice and is a reason to exercise extreme care and caution in using hands on adjustments.
The simplest way of expressing the positive benefits of an adjustment that expresses the care of a teacher for the student is that it should transmit something that feels good to the student. Even something this simple can be quite positive and can help unlock the healing potential of the individual. But this kind of hands on adjustment should be a positive experience and feel good to the practitioner. If this kind of hands on adjustment is not a positive experience for the practitioner for any reason, the appropriateness of the adjustment would be, at best, questionable and at worst abusive.
So sometimes hands on adjustments are informational and sometimes they are simply meant to feel good to a person. It is well worth understanding that not all hands on adjustments that are meant to be informational actually help the student understand what they are doing better and sometimes what ends up happening is sort of like hand holding where a teacher is continually giving the same adjustments to a practitioner and the practitioner many never learn from that; and not all hands on adjustments that are meant to feel good do. This is where it is important for the yoga teacher to be aware and observe how adjustments are received and/or whether a different method of instruction would be more beneficial to the particular student. I am not prepared to say anything cut and dry except for the fact that these issues, like all issues in the process of developing a personal yoga practice, ultimately need to be determined on a person-by-person basis. What will be most useful to the particular student in question is the most important determining factor and since we are all so different there is no one right answer.
And since not every student wants to be adjusted physically, that is also worth honoring. I try, but, since I am human, I sometimes fail at this. As a yoga teacher one of the things I take most seriously is trying to understand the person I am working with from their own perspective. It is never fully possible but the attempt to put yourself in someone else’s position and see things from their perspective is always worthwhile.
Hands on adjustments are never really necessary but in the end a personal practice is you ALONE practicing on your own. Nothing is necessary. Not even practice. But since people learn in many different ways and on many different levels, adjustments can help a teacher communicate certain things more quickly. Since, sometimes a good adjustment simply feels good, that in itself might be enough. And since, sometimes hands on adjustments communicate the teacher’s care and concern for the practitioner, if this is received as being helpful by the practitioner, it can be extremely worthwhile as long as the possible abuses of this are taken into consideration and the students needs are the first priority.
Hopefully that covers the subject thoroughly enough.
Asanada’s reply: Thanks for your thoughts. "Now f**k off, Carl!" ☺
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