The Language of Touch

Sometimes actions speak louder than words. Find out how a yoga teacher’s hands-on adjustments can help you discover the alchemy of alignment.

May 3, 2013    BY Katherine Pew

As a student, the ritual of moving through asanas that have been practiced for thousands of years was a revelation from the very beginning, before I knew anything about yoga philosophy or its spiritual roots. As I performed my first surya namaskars (sun salutations), I felt the inherent magic and mystery of the science of yoga streaming forth into every angle and groove of my body.

I felt a profound physical and emotional unfurling, as though my body was a clenched fist that I was unfolding and extending for the first time

I had my initial taste of asana 15 years ago in a tiny seaside town on the island of Majorca, Spain. I was staying with my friend Sancha and her yoga-teacher friend Darcy. One afternoon, Darcy led us through an informal class in the living room, making her way over to me as I was attempting trikonasana (triangle pose). As she gently lifted my drooping head in one hand and opened my top hip with her other, I felt a profound physical and emotional unfurling, as though my body was a clenched fist that I was unfolding and extending for the first time. Her knowledgeable touch guided my limbs into place, revealing the intricacies of the pose’s alignment. That awakening stayed with me, inspiring me to establish a regular yoga practice and eventually become a teacher.

Two years later, I found a teacher named Emily Mcdonnell, who taught at my neighborhood yoga center in Brooklyn. She was from Boulder, with long blond hair in loose braids, an unhurried manner, a mellifluous voice, and languorous movements. Her eight-week beginner sessions were comprised of a small group of dedicated students, and she gave us excellent hands-on adjustments in each pose.

As she intuitively coaxed my body into the asanas, I overcame my perceived physical limitations and became conscious of every muscle, learning to keep my back arm and hand straight in virabhadrasana II (warrior II) and to engage muscles in my legs and feet that I’d never noticed before. I found that when I could physically connect the dots of alignment in an asana—bringing the shoulders in line with the hips, the front knee in line with the ankle, and so on—my wandering mind found focus, and my thoughts could align as well.

At first, Emily’s assists were soft. As my flexibility and strength increased, her touch became firmer, and I ventured more deeply into the poses. In paschimottanasana (posterior stretch), she leaned gently against my back, easing me forward inch by inch. In balasana (child’s pose), she perched lightly on my sacrum, massaging the muscles along my spine.

As a beginner, it can be difficult to execute verbal directions. When a skilled teacher steers your body into the pose, you have confidence that your alignment is correct. If you’ve been paying attention, your mind takes note, and your body gradually begins to remember what to do on its own. Verbal assists are helpful (and, of course, some students are not very receptive to being touched), but there is no substitute for physical assists given by an accomplished teacher.

Evolution of a Yoga Teacher

During my teacher training at the Jivamukti Yoga School, we were required to observe classes with senior teachers to learn the assists they gave in each pose. We practiced these assists over and over again on our fellow teacher trainees until we got them right.

I learned to scan the alignment of the student in front of me at the start of each pose, observing what could be improved before committing to my chosen assist.

At first, my adjustments were weak, just grazing the surface. I also made the beginner’s mistake of trying to do too much, giving multiple assists in a single pose. Soon, I learned that technique doesn’t allow the student to go as deeply into an asana. It can also throw off a student’s stability, especially if you are helping to hold her steady in a balancing pose like ardha chandrasana (half-moon pose) or virabhadrasana III (warrior III). I learned to scan the alignment of the student in front of me at the start of each pose, observing what could be improved before committing to my chosen assist. As I gained competence, my touch became stronger and more self-assured.

I found that one of the best tools for learning the intricacies of hands-on adjustments was to practice giving and receiving ICPs (in-class privates), a teaching format developed by Jivamukti co-founders Sharon Gannon and David Life. An ICP is offered within the context of a larger class, so there is one teacher leading the class—which may have as many as 65 students in it—and another who focuses on just one student, wordlessly adjusting her in every asana. In the midst of a crowded, sweaty roomful of practitioners, the ICP teacher zeros in on every nuance of her student’s alignment. As teacher and student cultivate an intense concentration, the surrounding distractions recede, and there is a silent communion between the two.

During my training, when we had the opportunity to practice ICPs on our senior teachers, they had to patiently endure our mistakes as we accidentally threw them off balance and mistakenly pressed down on their middle backs instead of their sacrums in poses like adho mukha shvanasana (downward-facing dog). Improper adjustments can potentially cause injuries if a teacher exerts too much force when she doesn’t know what she’s doing.

It is crucial to have an understanding of your students' bodies, the level of their practice, and any past or present injuries they have before you push them deeply into a pose.

Even for an experienced teacher, it is crucial to have an understanding of your students’ bodies, the level of their practice, and any past or present injuries they may have before you push them deeply into a pose. If a student is new to your class, you can strategically press a single finger on the sacrum (to indicate that the student should lengthen the spine by taking the arch out of the lower back) or shoulders (to remind someone to let go of tension by dropping their shoulders).

I got to a point in my teaching where this hands-on style of teaching became second nature; all those years of tuning in to and investigating the minute subtleties of my own alignment had provided me with a sound foundation for helping others to do the same.

When our bodies are tense and out of alignment, our minds can get bogged down, too. But when we consciously perform the asanas, whether intuitively or assisted by the sure touch of a masterful teacher, a kind of alchemical transformation occurs. We find a weight is lifted, both physically and mentally. Our energy, which may have been sluggish or negative at the beginning of class, becomes light and pure. Right alignment unlocks the door to this elevated awareness.

Katherine Pew
Freelance writer Katherine Pew lives in Tucson, Arizona, where she teaches at Yoga Flow Studio and serves on the board of the Loft Cinema, a nonprofit art-house cinema.

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