I was in a Vinyasa class recently. Look, it’s not my fave, it’s a little bit too physical for my brand of yoga but, so? It’s good to taste different styles. And frankly, as a teacher, I LOVE being instructed. It’s nice to not have to ‘think’ or speak or ‘give’; to be able concentrate on my own practice. But equally as frankly, it depends on who’s instructing, more than the style of yoga being taught, and I’d be lying if I didn’t confess that it’s hard to ditch the teacher hat altogether and be 100% student. In most cases, I’d say it’s about 50/50. In this particular case, it probably came out at about 80/20. More on that later.
It’s hard to refrain from judging the teaching of others, particularly if what they’re doing goes against the principles of your own training. If someone instructs ardha shalabhasana with the right leg first, I’m likely to think, ‘nah carn, dude, you’re not following the proper direction of intestinal peristalsis in the colon!!’ I think that’s natural. I don’t try to deny myself these judgements. I’ve accepted I’m not going to be the Dalai Lama or Jesus Christ any time soon. But I do try to go away and contemplate whether my appraisals are valid or a biased product of my own indoctrination. I also try to consider some facts, beyond ideology.
In the vinyasa class, it wasn’t the colon that grabbed my teachery disapproval but an adjustment. In the tradition in which I trained (Satyananda Yoga), teachers don’t physically adjust students in asanas. In fact, the purest method requires teachers to sit down at the front of the class and fully instruct the session verbally, without even demonstrating postures (although teachers may have a sidekick demonstrate one or two asanas for clarification). The reasoning behind this is that it allows the student to become deeply internalised in their own practice, rather than focussing on watching the teacher all the time. It helps to place the student inside their own experience. It makes the teacher ‘conduit’, rather than ‘star performer’. It’s also an effective method for keeping students safe and for ‘listening’ to the needs of the students – due to the consistent observation. I do demonstrate in my classes, as do a lot of other Satyananda teachers I know (the traditional methods are relaxed somewhat in the outside world). But we do not touch people in Satyananda Yoga. And I like it. I’ll tell you why.
First and foremost, I’m not a physiotherapist. I’m not an osteopath. I’m not a chiropractor. I’m not a Doctor. I’m not adequately trained to manipulate parts of people’s bodies. We often go too far in the positions we verbally guide students to achieve, let alone getting up and attempting to push bodies deeper with ‘alignments’. I’m not saying I have no anatomical knowledge at all – I’ve got a decent amount. But touching and manipulating bodies is a whole nother field of education. It deserves a degree of reverence.
This aside, adjusting students without fully knowing their physical histories is fraught with risk. Teachers don’t always check for past or existing injuries, and even if they do, there’s a lot that students keep secret. I remember a story my friend, Tina (also a yoga teacher), told me. She was in a yoga class as a student, in a modified trikonasana to support a recent hip injury, when the teacher came and effectively ‘wrenched’ her deeper into the position without any warning at all. ‘I’ve got a hip injury!’ she yelped at him. He actually worsened her injury. The teacher laughed it off.
No, mate. No laughing. Not funny. Dickhead behaviour.
If one wants to avoid being a dickhead, one might try this: ASK A STUDENT IF YOU MAY ADJUST THEM BEFORE YOU TOUCH THEM. Follow this by asking if there’s any injury. Then consider the notion that a student might say yes you may adjust, regardless of wanting the adjustment, out of a need to demonstrate compliance – because you are in a perceived position of authority, because the student wishes to please you, because they don’t wish to feel embarrassed in a class full of people by saying no, or because they trust your judgement above their own.
Secondly, we don’t know the psychological histories of our students but we could hazard a guess, given the therapeutic benefits of yoga, that there could people in our classes who are using yoga as a treatment for trauma-related stress. Physical adjustments are not trauma-sensitive. Forms of unsolicited touch (and even solicited touch) can be highly triggering. Emerson and Hopper (2011) make some poignant observations around this is their excellent book, ‘Overcoming Trauma through Yoga’. An inclusive yoga environment respects that there will be students for whom adjusting is both insensitive and inappropriate. The same goes for verbally pushing students into positions of discomfort and challenging them to ‘endure’. Think about it, from the point of view of a student who has been forced to endure any number of psychological and/or physical violations. Cultivating this way of thinking is not the right approach for trauma-effected people.
If we’re feeling defensive around our right to adjust, it’s worth doing some Googling around adjustment injuries. They exist. In significant enough magnitude to explore the questions:
Do we REALLY need to adjust? And ‘why?’
Is a student at risk of hurting themselves? Ok. Can we move them out of danger by adjusting them verbally? For example:
‘I’m noticing your knee joint getting a little bit of pressure in that position, can you draw your weight back/straighten your leg a little/align your knee with your ankle?’
‘I’m a bit concerned about your lower back at that angle, can you roll your top hip open a little bit?’
Or even guiding the student into a self-managed adjustment by asking the question, ‘Are you feeling any strain or pain in any parts of your body in that posture?’
‘Can you see your hand in that posture? If you can see your hand it might mean that the shoulder isn’t rotating enough. Maybe try resting the arm down by the side instead?’
Why not give the student a chance to locate the error and adjust themselves by guiding them to visual cues and to sensation? Who’s to say that a clearly expressed verbal instruction can’t be just as poignant (if not more-so) than a physical adjustment? And it empowers the student. It gives them complete control over their own experience.
If the student is in all sorts of pretzel trouble and just not getting the instruction, how about…
‘Can you come up out of that position for a moment? I just want to clarify the correct alignment. Watch me’ – and then have the student (or better still, all the students) watch you demonstrate. Even better, demonstrate the practice in stages and encourage students to avoid pushing past limitations. Emphasise that yoga is not about ‘mastering’ postures. It’s not about being pushed past your limits. It’s about being AWARE. It’s about setting an intention towards SATTWA, where the student has opportunities to explore the balance between not trying and all and trying way too hard. It’s up to the student to define these parameters for themselves, not for us to push and pull them into position or to promote an expectation.
This AWARENESS that we preach to students must extend to us as teachers, also – which brings me back to the Vinyasa class and the incident that spawned the whole chain reaction in my brain you see here.
The teacher had instructed Supta Udarakarshanasana (sleeping abdominal pose) with the knees and feet together. When I came into the position, I adjusted by crossing my top leg over. I had a lot of lower back tension, so I just independently modified the position slightly to give my body what it asked for in that moment. Not long after, I felt the teacher’s hands on my legs, drawing them back to the initial position. Why?
‘Thanks. The other stretch is better for me today,’ I said.
‘What’s the injury?’ she asks.
‘No injury, I just want to stretch out the lower back.’
‘Why do you NEED to stretch anything?’ she asked me with a gur-ific half-smile that suggested she was teaching me something profound about my ego in that moment – let go of your needs, young padwan, let go of your desires, raga and dwesha and all that.
I wish I’d had the foresight to ask her why she needed me not to take the stretch, why she needed to come and adjust me out of a minor modification? Was she attached to me having a particular experience? Was she attached to her sequencing? Did she observe I was experienced and wish to establish dominance? Who knows? But it didn’t feel right. There was a smugness lurking. Maybe I should’ve sung ‘let it be’ to her. That’s the teacher in me, desiring to teach her, the way she desired to teach me.
What I came to conclude from all this is that the least appropriate adjustment, in my opinion, is the adjustment made from the ego of the teacher. The adjustment that says, ‘I’m in charge here’ or ‘I’m the expert’ or ‘I need to show you something about yourself’. So, I modified a spinal twist? Calm your tits, lady! I’ll come to my own conclusions, in my own time. Or I won’t.
I realise I sound obstinate. Like someone who can’t be instructed. But I’m self-deprecating enough to be honest with myself, and it’s really not that. It’s because her actions run contrary to how I teach and to how I understand myself as a yoga teacher and to how I relate to my own students. And dogdammit, I think I’m right. I’m man enough to own this arrogance outright.
I have a student who comes to my class and practices the whole session about a minute behind everyone else. Do I care? Not one whit. She likes to marinate a bit more in the postures. Who am I to tell her not to? Were she doing headstand gymnastics up the wall and distracting everybody else from their practice, ok, I might step in and teacher things up, but she’s not. I’m offering her the practices and she’s directing her own practice. It’s obvious she is experienced, she’s not hurting herself, no harm, no foul.
When I see a student safely modifying their asana practice to suit themselves like this – self-managing their practice – I think ‘hooray!’ I respect it. I encourage it. Yes! They ‘get it’! They are doing YOGA. They understand above all else, that they are their own teachers. And I understand, in that moment, that I’m not the ‘expert’; that I don’t need to enforce my will onto students by adjusting them (without warning, without explanation) to fulfil some expectation I have for their practice. I don’t need to reinforce my power or my status as all-knowing ‘teacher’. My status is the same as theirs – we’re all yoga practitioners. I ain’t no guru and have no desire to be so. You want to cross your leg over in a spinal twist? You want to go slowly? You want to lie on the floor for an hour and do sweet nothing? That’s your business, kid.
Having said that, if a student specifically asks for a physical adjustment, then I will oblige to the extent that I feel qualified. I will try the verbal/visual methods first though, every time. Valid? I conclude so, for all the reasons set out above. You don’t have to agree. If you have been trained in your tradition to make adjustments, then you may have a plethora of ideas about why adjusting is aweballs and should be done. Some of them might be entirely valid. Some of them might be programming. If we’re all practicing Swadhyaya (self-study), we’ll come to our own truths around it and absorb those truths into our own teaching principles. Essentially, what I’m promoting is an adjustment process that is thoughtful and sensitive and that comes from knowledge, skill and higher wisdom, rather than from the ‘I = teacher’ identity or from the closed mind of tradition.
Just so you know though, if you do come up and adjust me without warning in a class and without justification, I will be secretly judging you behind my closed eyes… just so you know… hey.
© The Yoga Experiment, 2014