Hands on Adjustments for Introverts

March 18, 2014    BY Kat Heagberg

I’ve never been much of a hugger. I mean, I tend to think of myself as a friendly person—just not “bear-hug” friendly. If I run into an old friend at a coffee shop, for example, I’ll most certainly greet her with an enthusiastic grin and a warm “hello,” (likely followed by a shared pot of chai and nice long conversation, too), but I’ll probably keep my hands to myself. I know we “yoga people” are often stereotyped as “touchy-feely,” but I’m just not a touchy-feely kind of girl. I’m more the type to secretly cringe when I hear the words “grab a friend . . .” in class. (Can I grab a friend and discuss parivrtta trikonasana instead? Please?)

Needless to say, hands-on adjustments have never been my favorite part of teaching yoga—especially when I was a new teacher. In fact, I remember crying tears of frustration when I was first introduced to these adjustments in teacher training. Performing physical adjustments seemed to come so easily to everyone else (which of course may not have actually been the case), but I kept struggling to figure out where and how to place my hands; it just didn’t make sense or feel intuitive to me. While I had an easy time verbally instructing someone to internally rotate their back thigh, I was at a loss when it came to offering a hands-on assist that provided the same result.

So what happened? Did I give up on hands-on assists forever? (No.) Did I actually learn to like them? Honestly, I think I did. It’s not that my personality changed drastically (it’s true, you don’t actually have to be a touchy-feely person in order to give skillful hands-on adjustments), but some combination of learning more about the assists themselves (and practicing them) and learning a lot more about myself (one very fortunate side effect of yoga practice) shifted my perception (and my confidence) considerably.

Be Yourself

Personally, I found that my perception of hands-on assists changed for the better once I learned how to give them in a way that honors and supports the introvert that I am. For me, that means I spend a lot of time practicing adjustments with trusted friends and fellow teachers before I introduce them in class. It means I give fewer physical adjustments than many other teachers do, and will usually wait until I’ve gotten to know a student before I give them an adjustment. It means that I give “strong” adjustments sparingly, and more often will give simple, guiding adjustments (like placing a hand on a student’s lower back, encouraging them to feel the movement of the breath there). It also means that I really empathize with the fact that some days some people just don’t want to be touched (and I don’t touch those people). My way of giving adjustments is certainly not the only way, or the “best” way, but it’s the way that best acknowledges and supports my individual strengths and personality.

Personally, I found that my perception of hands-on assists changed for the better once I learned how to give them in a way that honors and supports the introvert that I am.

Just as with teaching in general, if we try to play a role, or morph into someone else, or attempt to please everyone, we end up burning out—and not really being much help to anyone. If instead, we teach (and adjust) from a place of reverence for the unique individuals that we are (and that our students are), then we’re offering the very best that we have to offer. True, not every student will be drawn to your particular style, but that’s true for any teacher. 

Stick with the Adjustments That You Feel Comfortable With

You don’t have to know every hands-on adjustment ever invented. You don’t have to know an adjustment for every pose, or address every possible misalignment. Start with picking just a few that make sense to you and slowly build up your repertoire from there. For a long time, there were only about three hands-on adjustments that I felt comfortable enough to use in class. Often I’d end up just giving one, or maybe two, assists in the entire ninety minutes. Initially I had this idea that in order to be a good teacher, I needed to put my hands on every single student in class, but I couldn’t actually bring myself to do that. It seemed inauthentic and counterintuitive—less like being helpful and more like trying to fill a quota. Instead, I now aim to make a connection with every student—to recognize and honor their presence in some way. This might mean giving an appropriate and relevant adjustment, but it might also mean offering a verbal suggestion, stating something positive about their pose, or even just smiling and greeting them by name.

Practice 

You wouldn’t teach an asana before you’ve practiced it yourself and really understand how it feels in your body, would you? (At least I hope not!) Same goes for hands-on adjustments. Recruit a friend, your partner, your roommate—or better yet, schedule a time to get together with some fellow yoga teachers and practice on each other. The feedback alone is invaluable. Let’s be honest, most of your students probably won’t tell you if an adjustment didn’t feel so amazing, but your fellow yoga teachers will (and should) offer constructive suggestions, and together you can figure out what works and what doesn’t. These experiences and newfound insights will do wonders for your confidence in the classroom. 

Know Why You’re Giving the Assist That You’re Giving 

I’ve found that the more I learn about anatomy and alignment, the easier hands-on adjustments become. No longer do they seem like complex choreography that I have to memorize, but they actually feel intuitive and make sense. Years ago, when I would learn a new assist, I would frantically take notes on how to stand, where to put my right hand, my left hand, etc. (and then tearfully attempt to make sense of those garbled notations later)! Once I started seriously studying the body, however, all of that changed. Really, it’s the function of the assist that matters, and just as with individual asana practice, the form is there to serve the function. Bottom line? If you don’t understand the purpose of an assist, don’t give the assist.

Bottom line? If you don’t understand the purpose of an assist, don’t give the assist.

Remember That Everyone Learns Differently

While I don’t dislike receiving hands-on adjustments, I can pretty much take them or leave them most of the time. I think a lot of this has to do with my learning style. I tend to understand things best when I’m given verbal instruction. For example, for years in nearly every asana class I attended, I would receive an adjustment that would, in one way or another, serve to externally rotate my upper arms in downward facing dog. While this adjustment felt nice enough, I didn’t have enough body awareness at the time to understand its purpose, and I continued to drop my inner armpits, collapse in my chest, and scrunch up my shoulders when I did down dog on my own. 

Eventually I began to dread the inevitable adjustment which, to me, reinforced my idea that there was something “wrong” with my down dog and that I was incapable of seeing or fixing it myself. One day, instead of adjusting, a teacher simply asked me to externally rotate my upper arms, and everything clicked. The adjustment I had been getting for years not only made sense, but I was able to recreate it in my own body, though I couldn’t help but wonder, “Why didn’t anyone just tell me to externally rotate my upper arms until now?” 

But here’s the thing: Just because I am primarily an auditory learner, it doesn’t mean that my students are. While a physical assist is probably not the best way to get me to understand a particular action, it might be the ideal tool for some of my students. If I want to be the most engaged and effective teacher I can be, it’s important for me to learn how to give hands-on adjustments. Just as we all have our own preferred learning styles, we all have teaching tools that tend to come easier for us, too. I’ve always been pretty good at giving verbal cues, but if I only studied and practiced verbal cuing, I would be doing my students a disservice. In order to be a well-rounded teacher, I also need to learn how to give visual demonstrations and hands-on adjustments. The more we develop our teaching skills—even (especially) the skills that don’t come as easily to us at first—the better equipped we are to serve all of our students, not just the ones who learn like we do.                

The more we develop our teaching skills—even (especially) the skills that don’t come as easily to us at first—the better equipped we are to serve all of our students, not just the ones who learn like we do.

Props Are Your Friends 

Some of us need bigger personal space bubbles than others (and there’s nothing wrong with that)! So at times, using a prop to assist in lieu of your hands can help both teacher and student feel more comfortable (and as a result, lead to a more effective adjustment). Especially with newer students, I often find it helpful to use a strap. Placing a strap across the fronts of a student’s thighs in down dog and drawing back will help to root their thigh bones back and take weight out of their upper body. This is similar to the classic “hands-on-sacrum, press back” assist, but is less precarious for the pelvis and less “up close and personal,” too. 

Contemplate the Unique Value of Hands-on Assists 

I used to view hands-on assists solely as a means of correcting a misalignment. As a result, I didn’t give them very often, since most of the time I tend to be more efficient with my words than with my hands. But words can only do so much. Example: When I see a student working really hard in down dog, I might give the strap assist mentioned above, or, if I want to help someone experience a center-of-the-room handstand, I might support them on the way up, then ask them to squeeze my fist with their thighs and press their heels up into my other hand to help them balance. In both cases, I’m not so much correcting a misalignment as giving the student a richer, or more stable, experience of the pose—lightening their load, so to speak, and offering actual physical support. No matter how clearly I speak, this isn’t something that I can do verbally. 

In a physical sense, supporting a student in such a way can certainly be useful—it allows their time and energy to go toward maintaining healthy alignment—but on an emotional level, the benefits are extraordinary. How wonderful is it to be supported in that way? Not because you’re doing something “wrong” that needs to be “fixed,” but just because you’re a human being trying your best, who (like all of us) could use a little support sometimes. 

Mindful touch communicates acceptance, kindness, and shared humanity in a way that even the most eloquent words cannot.

Especially for those of us who are decidedly non-touchy-feely, it can be easy to overlook the emotional benefits of physical contact. I know I often find myself surprised by how genuinely wonderful it feels when my teacher places a hand on my back, or offers a pre-shavasana foot rub. In fact, several recent studies have highlighted the numerous psychological benefits of touch. Mindful touch communicates acceptance, kindness, and shared humanity in a way that even the most eloquent words cannot.  

It’s Okay Not to Give Hands-on Assists

Assists can be fabulous teaching tools, but you can absolutely teach a fabulous class without a single hands-on assist. If you’re truly uncomfortable giving a physical adjustment, your students will sense that, and the assist probably won’t be that helpful or enjoyable for them. It’s better not to touch anyone than to do so with hesitation, anxiety, or fear. If you’re feeling uncertain, stick to verbal cues and demonstrations at first, and build confidence by attending workshops and trainings and by practicing your assists with other teachers first.

Kat Heagberg
Kat Heagberg is the editor of Yoga International and has been teaching yoga since 2005. She loves to write about ways to make challenging poses more accessible, the power of language in yoga culture, and to offer encouragement and advice to new yoga teachers. Though she initially trained in alignment-based styles of yoga (which continue to inform her practice and teaching), Kat likes teaching vinyasa flow best of all. Read her work and take her classes here on Yoga International!

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