Yoga adjustments are a direct and personal way of communicating and teaching yoga. To both the yoga teacher and student, navigating this world of yoga adjustments can feel like walking a tightrope. Done well, these adjustments can be transformational, as international yoga teacher Tim Feldmann describes from his own early experiences of a hands-on yoga practice. Physically adjusting students is not without its pitfalls however. Giving students verbal instructions is one thing, but actually putting your hands on a student’s body is another thing entirely: it can be seen as inappropriate, uncomfortably intimate, triggering, confusing or can even lead to physical injury if a student is pushed too far.
As you were starting out on your yoga journey and then training to become a yoga teacher, how did you view hands-on adjustments? Did you find them helpful?
Here is my personal experience. One of the very reasons I began practicing Ashtanga yoga was because I met senior certified teacher Lino Miele upon one of his first visits to Copenhagen, Denmark, my residence in 1999. At the time, he was one of the 2 main Ashtanga teachers in Europe (the other was John Scott). There were a few other teachers working in smaller shalas in Europe, yet most people were practicing either with Lino or John.
Lino’s hands drew me to him, so when he told me ‘you got to let me get my hands on your body’, my only question was ‘how do we do that?’.
Lino is /was what we used to call a ‘non-verbal’ teacher, using hands and gestures before verbal instruction. Verbal instruction was simple, ‘foot there’, ‘twist here’, ‘nose dristhi’, ‘continue’ .. that type use of verbal instruction. Lino skilfully and accurately expressed, supported and encouraged my asana aspirations with his hands alone. Under lino’s hands, my body became like soft clay. His adjustments with me were often firm, always caring and never off point, sensitive and intuitively advanced. I have had very few adjustments before and since with a similar level of skill, depth and kinesthetic understanding as Lino wordlessly embodies. When Lino puts his hands on you, you melt, you remember what surrender is. That’s the effect he had on me and I learned more by his hands than one would think possible. I am grateful to him to this day.
Why are adjustments are an integral part of the Ashtanga tradition? Are they an integral part of your teaching? Are adjustments necessary? If so, why?
A significant part of the teaching methodology in our lineage relies on physical adjustments. Helping the student get in and out of postures provides unparalleled kinesthetic feedback which is useful for understanding what an asana is about deep in the practitioner’s own body. Experiencing the internal sensations which accompany a correctly-embodied posture gives the student an internal map to identify and recreate the physical mechanics that constitute these, sometimes complex, postures. Without such deeper-embodied knowledge, yoga’s beneficial aspect of body and mind are significantly curbed.
Of the three means available to us when learning asana – verbal instruction, visual queuing and internal sensation – sensation is by far the most useful for idiosyncratic experience and deep internal mapping.
Hence, the emphasis on adjustments is a crucial part of the methodology of Ashtanga yoga, as far as I can see. I have met a good bunch of yoga practitioners and teachers advocating no adjustments, but after having practiced with an experienced teacher’s adjustment, I realize the immense potential. But of course, adjustments are tied into the very modality of teaching too.
I have not come across another yoga method or style which teaches in the format that traditional Ashtanga yoga is taught – the Mysore Style teaching, where the student practices at her/his own pace and within the sequence appropriate to her/him. This format provides the time and focus to teach by physical instruction as the teacher is not simultaneously involved in making the whole class move along. Ashtanga’s Mysore Style, this individualized practice method, ups the meditative aspect within the practitioner and makes words much less necessary if not downright disruptive at times. But of course Ashtanga yoga can be taught without touching and only by verbal cueing, It’s just not half as efficient learning, as every single bit of information then has to pass through the intellect, then the tongue first.
How do you know for sure as a teacher that an adjustment is needed?
First of all, in my experience, there is no 100% certainty! Nowhere. None. Whether I am right and you are wrong…whether God exists..kale is healthy or whether an adjustment is needed…it is always a percentage game for me. I am puzzled and envious in equal part of people who sit with 100% certainty as I find my innate nature of questioning often tiring and confusing.
Nevertheless, assessments are necessary and decisions need to be taken every part of every day in our human lives. As they say, you gotta chose your actions based on imperfect intel. In regards to teaching yoga, I find that with a proper level of education about how to navigate the outer and inner landscape of our body and mind, with a decent, lived knowledge of how we as people react and maneuver in body and mind, if we have spend thorough time with yoga asana and the underlying philosophical foundation ourselves (and other such necessary aspects of a yoga teacher), we begin to see things a little more clearly. We begin to be able to estimate certain signs in the practitioner and intuit which tool might be of better use and which of lesser efficiency. We then either choose to step in to instruct by hand or word, or we choose to step away and let the aspirant find it him/herself. Then again, we step back for a moment to assess how our approach takes root, if it settles as intended, if a detailing is necessary or if an undesired reaction is sparked upon for which we need to dig a little deeper into ourselves and our knowledge base.
It sounds complicated, but it is a reflection game. You’ve got to observe, think and act accordingly: pull in all the aspects which have an effect on the outcome to estimate a move – whether it is teaching yoga or driving a bike through city traffic.
What are the benefits and disadvantages of offering adjustments to beginners?
Besides the above words, it is important to remember that physical contact between people is a primal thing. It has the possibility to bypass layers upon layers of intellectualizing and, as we all know, our minds are not always our own best friend. Modern psychology and trauma treatment are painfully aware of the limitation in word/thought based therapy and there is currently a large branch within these modalities which is using somatic approaches to treat many unfortunate psychological and physical conditions, such as PTSD to give one example.
When we approach ourselves and others through the body and with the body, we sometimes have the possibility to go straight to the source and find trust and foundation in a way we just cannot do when applying the thinking-factory.
What do you need to know about any student’s limitations or injuries before adjusting them in any pose?
I need to know that we are all vulnerable and often hurt individuals. It is an innate human condition. I need to know that I always must proceed with care and in a slow and gentle manner to undercut the potential of adding to the innate perpetual pain which is present in us all.
When in doubt, we ask the practitioner.
Is it important to ask permission before adjusting and if so, what is the best way to do so?
Trust needs to be established before any work can be done. Without trust, nothing can be accomplished between two people and a yoga class is no different. We establish trust step by step.
I might just say hi and welcome you when you walk into the Mysore room the first time, help you put your mat down, show you how to do a sun salutation, gently move your two hands together or correct an elbow on the first day, then send you home half puzzled by the minimal amount of movement, but with a clear sensation that we are working together on your new project – your practice.
When basic mutual respect is clear, we move on until the moment when words and actions intersperse fluently and from that moment, we proceed with hand or word depending on what is the more efficient tool. What I am saying is that permission can be asked wordlessly too, if we are willing to listen with care; that the head doesn’t know it all and it often knows something different t our heart, stomach or gut. The knowledge centers in the body must all be given a chance to communicate, otherwise we end up in an entirely intellect-based niche of reality and personally, I cannot see how that is desirable nor useful.
Because of the sensitive current debate around adjustments, many yoga teachers are refraining from making adjustments at all. What is your opinion on this?
It’s maybe for the better. I have met many individuals who teach some kind of yoga who know very little about what yoga is and what it tries to accomplish. Moreover, it takes a long time to understand the body, to somewhat develop an ‘x-ray vision’ on what happens under the skin. To try to encompass what happens with the aspirant when we talk to or adjust her/him equals playing chess, having to guesstimate your co-player’s next five future moves.
But I assume you ask in reference to the #metoo awareness campaign which focuses on sexual trespassing between people and often in the form of abusive of power. Perhaps you will allow me to reiterate what I wrote in an article in that regard earlier this year: ‘In working with students on beginner and advanced asana, the line can be hair thin between appropriate and inappropriate touch. In the attempt to always respect a student’s mental-emotional boundary of touch I ask all our teachers at Miami Life Center to keep physical adjustments simple, clear and light (in ‘low-voltage zones’ as the brilliant David Swenson calls it), and keep their hands in unquestionable non-sexual zones in our classes. Only when trust is firmly established do we draw upon adjustment techniques which require a more skilled accuracy of anatomy, pin-pointed hand and body positions with lucid precision so the practitioner can learn deep-seated body mechanics without any misunderstanding of intention or boundary.’
In the 11 years we have been teaching yoga at Miami Life Center, we continuously commit to honor our students’ healthy boundaries whether of physical, emotional, mental, religious or sexual kind. Safety and trust within our community is targeted by conscious use of our 4 pillars—simplicity, honesty, compassion and integrity— Miami Life Center’s foundational values.
How can a yoga teacher gain the necessary confidence and skill in making adjustments?
Practice, practice, practice!
Which means personal time on one’s own mat over many years, with a strong sense of curiosity, love and interest in the subject of yoga, yogasana and preferably a fair bit of anatomy and physiology training too.
This is not something we can learn in a weekend workshop.
How can the power dynamics between student and teacher affect/complicate the offering and receiving of adjustments?
The teacher-student relation is a sacred bond. It is not to be taken lightly.
This bond is not dissimilar to the parent-child relationship. Trust must be earned. Permission must be granted slowly. Social conventions and personal boundaries are a significant part of the field we operate in as yoga teachers and should always be respected.
My teacher used to say ‘slow growth is good growth’. If we progress with care and an open ear and mutual respect for each other, learning thrives and knowledge can be passed on with minimal interference.
At the end of the day, we are in the business of passing on the deep wisdom accumulated over centuries by men and women of the highest intellect and deepest insights. We are tiny conductors in this grand circuit, so let’s not ‘mess up’ but ‘wake up’ and seek out the methodology and path which carry least suffering and most healing for everyone involved.
Tim Feldmann is the director of Miami Life Center, the yoga shala he founded with his wife Kino MacGregor and Matt Tashjian. He was set on the yoga path by his first teacher Lino Miele and is Authorized to teach directly by the founder of the Ashtanga Yoga Method, Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, and his grandson, R. Sharath Jois. A practitioner of the Advanced A series Tim is dedicated to Ashtanga Yoga’s traditional method.
To find out more, visit timfeldmann.com and miamilifecenter.com.
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