“Hi Cecily! I was in your workshop Friday night at 1.1. Thank you so much for the insight and inspiration! I had a question I thought of as soon as I left the studio. Thinking about assists. What is your theory on them? I noticed you didn’t assist any of us in the workshop. Do you assist your students when you know their bodies well? Do you teach your teachers to assist? And when do you offer that assist? (When a student is doing a pose incorrectly? To enhance the students’ experience of the pose? Etc)”
When I received this note from Kayla in Pittsburgh, it reminded that I’ve been meaning to talk about assists and adjustments for a while.
Questions like hers come up in most of my workshops and Yoga Detour trainings. I often encounter teachers who have been told they have to use hands-on adjustments when in their classes. Maybe the owners of the studios where they work make this a rule, or perhaps it’s the students themselves who insist on getting more attention.
Before going any further, let’s differentiate between adjustments and assists. When I give an adjustment, I’m using my body to leverage the shape of yours. I impose a certain amount of force to encourage the result I’m looking for—whether that’s to push your hips back in downward-facing dog, square your hips in revolved triangle or get your hands to bind together in a seated twist.
When I taught Mysore-style Ashtanga yoga, adjustments were 90% of my job (the other 10% was teaching/reminding people what pose came next and showing them how to do it). Adjustments became an entitlement – if someone got more than everyone else, people might complain. I remember getting looks of frustration from those who had to wait longer than usual for me to help someone else before I could get to them for drop-backs or other poses that required a teacher’s assistance. I was so focused on helping people into the postures they were working on that I rarely gave much thought to just how “up close and personal” I was getting with my students.
I never trained in this form of physical manipulation with anyone other than yoga teachers. I knew so little about anatomy and had no clue about the importance of our nervous systems and how these adjustments could be overriding someone’s innate bodily intelligence.
Having grown up around dancers and gymnasts, I was used to seeing bodies bent into whatever shapes were required. Letting someone take my leg and lift it as high as they could is how I landed a coveted position in ballet school. As a gymnast, I was used to having a coach press my hips to the floor in middle splits, or guide my foot toward my head in a handstand. So when I first saw a yoga teacher take a student’s legs and cross them behind their head, nothing seemed out of the ordinary.
I saw this level of physical manipulation as something to strive for.
As a teacher, I wanted to know how to bend bodies to what the practice demanded. To be the necessary key others required to experience the true depth of these yoga postures.
As a student, I surrendered to my teachers. Surrender allowed for flexibility. When combined with their adjustments, my flexibility granted access to new, advanced shapes that would validate me as a serious practitioner.
Because there were certain poses I couldn’t do without someone else’s help, I saw adjustments as an amazing way to experience sensations that I otherwise wouldn’t have access to. I wanted the same for my students – to provide them a deeper experience that they couldn’t achieve on their own.
That perspective came crashing down around me when I learned more about movement and the body. I started to understand the role of the nervous system and how when something is “tight” in our bodies, it’s tight for a reason (and it wasn’t my job to overcome it). I learned more about active and passive ranges of motion, and the difference between flexibility and mobility.
When I started training with other coaches in the strength world, no one was using adjustments. They used assists.
Assists happen when I use my body to encourage your body to do something for itself. Rather than impose force on you, I get your body to harness the effort on its own. That could look like…
– Placing my palm just ahead of your fingers when you’re in Warrior Two, and asking you to reach toward me. We make no contact, but my hand acts as an external guide to create movement in your body.
– Asking you to balance on one leg, lifting the opposite knee in front of you. I’ll use my hand to push down on your thigh as you resist against it, creating active hip flexion.
– Encouraging you to find more overhead reach as you sit with your arms overhead and hover my hands above yours, asking you to touch your fingertips to my palms.
I use assists to help people experience movement.
They can occur with or without contact.
They can be physical (“squish my palm between your calf and hamstrings”), verbal (“close the gap between your calf and hamstrings”), or visual (“imagine squeezing an orange between your calf and hamstrings”).
In an assist, the practitioner creates movement, whereas, in an adjustment, movement happens to the practitioner.
Adjustments imply consent, while assists generate agency.
Assists are educational, based on the needs of the individual.
Adjustments are aspirational, based on an external agenda.
I get it – adjustments can feel good. Most of the time, they’re delivered with the best intentions, especially in a world where so many of us are deprived of physical contact. But here’s the thing:
As yoga teachers, it’s not our job to cater to those who crave touch.
We’re not trained for that. It’s beyond the scope of our practice.
Let’s leave physical manipulation to the pros – to massage therapists, physiotherapists, and chiropractors.
Let’s connect with our students in other ways. Let’s acknowledge people so that they feel seen and respected. Let’s learn their names and ask them questions about how they’re feeling, or what they did over the weekend. Maybe that includes a welcoming hand on their shoulder, or a hug after practice (or maybe it doesn’t). Regardless of how we choose to interact, let’s do our best to provide people with the support they need to have the best possible experience in our classes—using physical, verbal and visual assists that honour their needs and goals.
This is how I ensure my students are safe. Especially when working with those I don’t know, who show up to learn rather than have their bodies manipulated according to my agenda.
I hope that answers your question, Kayla 🙂
Yours in discovery,
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