Contemplating the Pros and Cons of Hands-on Assists

February 9, 2017    BY Jaimie Epstein

There has been a lot of discussion, both civil and otherwise, both rational and sensational, in the virtual satsang of the yoga-sphere about the pros and cons (well, mostly cons) of teachers using their hands to guide students through asana practice. And although I admit to being a little biased on this subject (full disclosure: I am a Jivamukti teacher, and hands-on assists are integral, though not necessarily essential, to the method), trying to keep an open mind and understand the possible drawbacks has forced me to change the way I both teach and think about teaching. Truth be told, I’m not thrilled about that! But resolving to evolve is what I signed up for when I committed to practicing and teaching yoga. And understanding that the only constant is change, and being willing to embrace it, is the key to evolution.

That doesn’t mean that switching up my mind- and hand-set has been easy. The thought of keeping my hands tied behind my back while I teach makes me weep. Using my hands is, I feel (and I think most of my students would concur), one of my greatest tools—and even (dare I say it?) gifts. Touch can provide powerful somatic information while having the potential to do so much more. Touch connects, repairs the rift of separation, conveys caring, provides healing, and is yoga itself. To me, depriving students of touch diminishes the experience, just as not being able to chant in class or not being able to discuss Krishna or the sutras would. And touch is efficient—especially if you call out alignment cues and breath counts for the entire class, as I do.

For example, I recently addressed a student by name and asked her several times to take her feet hip-width apart for padangusthasana (big toe pose), traditionally done with feet separated. And still her feet remained glued together like the layers of plywood veneer—and no, she did not say to me that she preferred to keep her feet together in that pose. Of course, if a student doesn’t respond to a cue, it must be the teacher’s fault, right? I must not have been clear, although it’s hard to know how much clearer “take your feet hip-width apart” could be. But if I had just tapped her on the feet to bring attention to them, and then given the verbal cue—or even just nudged her feet apart myself—there should have been no chance for misinterpretation (and I would have saved a lot of time and energy that I could then have offered to other students).

Words don’t always work. Students often think the cue doesn’t apply to them, that they are already drawing their right hip back or pulling their lower ribs in, or whatever. I know: I’ve been that student and can still be. New students in particular often lack the proprioceptive skills to be discriminating, as do those who have not lived much in their bodies and who spend the bulk of their waking hours sitting, without time out for dancing or playing soccer or walking in nature (which, alas, in a culture that entails long commutes to jobs and long hours at desks, is a lot of people).  

I also love receiving assists—good ones, that is (the art of assisting is another topic entirely). I go to a Mysore-style practice specifically for the one-on-one physical dialogue I have with my teacher. If, for some reason, I don’t get at least one juicy assist, I feel utterly cheated. I live for a full-frog assist—it makes my morning. Yes, I value the conversations my teacher and I have about, say, the baby steps to take as I work toward a challenging asana, or how to find yet more lift and length going into camel when I thought I was already maxed out, but for me there is nothing like having hands take me where I can’t always quite get without them. After a great hands-on assist in, say, revolved triangle, I have a somatic imprint, the residue of the assist that gives me a “there” to get to by myself—my body has a trail marked with blazes to follow when I do that same pose later on my own.

Still, I have discovered that we don’t live in a world in which everyone loves to be touched in class (or even touched at all). For one thing, people have injuries and don’t always inform their teacher about them. (I have even had teachers in my class who haven’t mentioned their injuries.) Perhaps most critically, a staggering number of people have been victims of sexual violence (an American is sexually assaulted every 98 seconds, according to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network), which means that the chances of at least one of those people being in my class on any given day are pretty good. There are many ways I have tried to address these sad facts. For a while, I put a little bowl of pennies at the front of the room and announced that if anyone didn’t want my hands on their body they were welcome to take a penny and place it on their mat. No one ever did. I tried giving everyone a deity sticker and asking them to place the sticker on their mat if they didn’t want to be assisted. Everyone just took the Ganesh and Krishna and Siva stickers home.

Other teachers have been more successful in helping students communicate their preferences around being touched. Poker chips work for Giselle Mari, who teaches in the Bay Area and around the world: Ante up by placing one on your mat and she’ll keep her hands to herself. Tamar Samir, who is based in New York and leads retreats in beachy locales, uses Yoga Flip-Chips, which, she says, empower both the students and herself: “Students appreciate being able to choose when they’d like to receive assists and to communicate their needs in a clear, yet subtle, way.” At her Colorado School of Yoga, Gina Caputo added a checkbox to her intake form that allows students to opt out of assists when they sign in. She chose this method over asking people to raise their hands, to put a card next to their mat, or to say yay or nay to an assist in front of the whole class—because, she says, “Trauma studies have shown that in public or pressured situations like that, only a small percent of trauma victims will be honest about their desires.” The checkbox gives them the privacy to express what they are comfortable with.

Resolving to evolve, to practice yoga, and to see the bigger picture means not living in a past that might never have existed at all—and not living in a state of wishing the world were other than it is. It means living in the state of what is.

I long for a world in which an innocent and helpfully intended touch wouldn’t be unwelcome or have the potential to cause trauma. A world in which you could ride a bike or skateboard without donning light body armor. In which you could eat a peanut butter and jelly sandwich without worrying about sending the kid next to you into anaphylactic shock. But that isn’t the world we live in. Resolving to evolve, to practice yoga, and to see the bigger picture means not living in a past that might never have existed at all—and not living in a state of wishing the world were other than it is. It means living in the state of what is.

So now I either have a private chat with new students before class about whether they want to be assisted or I ask them during class before I lay hands on them. While not perfect, that seems to be working, for now. It is, as all aspects of yoga are, a work in progress.

Jaimie Epstein
Jaimie Epstein is an 800-hour Advanced Certified Jivamukti Yoga teacher, vegan food foodie, and Sanskrit geek. Nada, sound, is one of the five tenets of the Jivamukti Yoga Method (the other four tenets being ahimsa, scripture, meditation, and bhakti), and so crafting wicked-fun playlists has always been part of her teaching process. She finds it just slightly ironic that she now practices ashtanga daily at a Mysore studio, where the only music comes from the constant rhythm of ujjayi breath.... Read more>>

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