I recently bumped into a new teacher just out of a 200-hour training who was getting her first opportunities to sub and was excited because, she said, “I can practice my assists.” My jaw dropped. My eyes bugged out. Noooooo, I wanted to scream. That is such a big no! First of all, you do not practice on students. You practice on other teachers. On willing friends. And you practice and practice, and practice some more. Second of all, if the entirety of your assisting experience comes from a 200-hour training, no matter how comprehensive, no matter how intelligent the training, I can assure you that you didn’t learn enough about the human body and the impact one body can have on another, to have more than the slightest idea what you are doing.
Perhaps one reason for the controversy around assists is that there are probably a lot of teachers out there who are laying inexperienced hands on students. For its 200-hour certification, Yoga Alliance requires 25 hours in Teaching Methodology, which is a huge, amorphous umbrella without any actual requirement for the number of hours spent learning assists, or even for actually learning assists. When I did the 300-hour Jivamukti teacher training, 16 formal hours of the curriculum focused on the principles of assists, which allowed us to practice (under supervision) on one another. But that’s just the beginning. No one teaches at Jivamukti centers with just 300 hours. The Jivamukti apprenticeship program, which gets you another 500 hours of teaching credentials and a shot at teaching at a Jivamukti studio, hones skills further by having apprentices shadow mentors in class for months, mimicking their moves and being corrected. Besides all the hours spent under their mentor’s in-class supervision, apprentices are required to practice receiving and giving assists one-on-one (for a total of 60 hours) with other apprentices/teachers in the classrooms of yet other teachers, where they are invariably prone to, um, get more guidance. It’s an awesome system, but even 800 hours of training does not a master or mistress of assists make—and I don’t pretend to be one, even a decade in and with thousands of teaching hours.
Like yoga students, assists are not one size fits all. What feels good to me may not feel good to you. What works for a 175-pound man probably won’t work for a 110-pound woman. What suits a veteran yogi probably won’t suit the yoga newbie. What helps in a private class may not be useful in a group class. Just because someone has super-open hips doesn’t mean she wants you to smash her navel into her feet in baddha konasana (bound angle pose) from the get-go.
Like yoga students, assists are not one size fits all.
Assisting is a means of providing information to the student much more efficiently than words often allow. Rather than making someone feel they’re wrong, an assist is about helping someone find more openness, more freedom, and greater alignment with sacred geometry. It’s about facilitating the movement of energy. Touch doesn’t have to be forceful. Sometimes all I need to do is use one finger, say, to encourage more softening behind the heart center.
There are lots of guidelines from various teachers around assisting, which come from their own experience and sensibility. One teacher friend says not to assist downward facing dog so that your face is hovering above the student’s butt. However, because keeping my face completely out of butt proximity would delete some very effective assists from my repertoire, to that I say, you can always change your drishti (gaze). Some teachers say not to touch hips or necks because so many people have whacked-out sacrums and have suffered neck injuries. I don’t wrench hips into an alternate universe, but I do adjust from there unless I know there’s a reason I shouldn’t (duh!). And I’ve learned to leave necks alone, because necks seem to be particularly sensitive—what creates a deep sense of expansion in one person can feel like an unwelcome chiropractic adjustment in another.
While some teachers say not to have full-body contact with students, I feel nothing but joy when my teacher offers me the full weight of her body in paschimottanasana (seated forward fold). And, yes, I love it when she stands on my back thigh in hanumanasana (full split)! But I weigh a lot more than she does, so standing on back thighs in hanumanasana is not something I offer as an assist to my own students. When I taught in New York, it wasn’t the fashion for men to go shirtless in unheated classes, so if they did it was acceptable not to assist them because of the sweat factor. But the yoga culture has changed everywhere, and in Boulder, where I now teach, having bare-chested men in class is normal, and it seems curmudgeonly to withhold assists—have towel, will adjust!
Assisting is an energetic exchange, a transmission of shakti (power) from teacher to student, and the teacher’s intention must be pure. If there’s something unresolved between you and the student, it’s best to keep your hands to yourself. If you don’t want to touch them because they’re sweaty, don’t. If you are attracted to them (hey, it happens), be hypervigilant about how you are touching them.
Maybe I’m lucky (or not!), but I can recall only one instance of assisting a student I might have wanted to date. I didn’t realize until after I’d laid my body on his back in upavistha konasana (wide-angle seated forward bend) that, Hey, he’s pretty hot and maybe this wasn’t such a good idea because I don’t want to accidentally be transmitting that vibe from my belly to his kidneys and make him uncomfortable—whoops! On the flipside, after a student asked me out and I declined, I was super-cautious about my energy around him (lest he think no didn’t really mean no).
A bad assist is worse than no assist.
Assisting is a dance—an ongoing dialogue between you and your students, and between you and yourself. Just as my practice has evolved over the years, so have my thoughts about assisting. So here are a few nuggets worth keeping in mind if you’re thinking of offering hands-on assists:
• A bad assist is worse than no assist.
• Know why you are offering an assist.
• If you aren’t totally confident, step away from the body.
• Is it about you or the student?
• If you have not personally embodied it, don’t lay it on a student.
• Bits ‘n’ pieces, as my friend Giselle Mari says, aren’t always where you think they are. (You may discover, say, that when you press your foot down on a dude’s back thigh in janu sirsasana (head-to-knee forward bend), there is more underfoot than just his thigh! So tread as gingerly as you would if you were walking in the forest on a moonless night without a flashlight.)
• Keep your bits ‘n’ pieces to yourself.
• If it doesn’t feel good to you, don’t offer it to a student.
• It never hurts to ask.
• Simply breathing with someone can be an awesome assist.
• You never really know how much force you are exerting.
• Don’t pat someone down as if they’re going through airport security…or like you’re making nice.
• If you’re going to touch someone, make it meaningful.
I have received my share of horrible assists—and I don’t necessarily mean horrible in terms of “I thought that person was going to hurt me!” (Although once when I was in child’s pose, the teacher put so much pressure on my thoracic spine that it felt like either my nose or my neck was gonna break.) Rather, there were times when I felt that I was given bad or incoherent information (like, “What the heck was s/he trying to communicate?”).
The reality of teaching, whether you use hands-on assists or not, is that a student in your class just might get hurt. We are spiritual beings living in physical bodies. Bodies get hurt. You can break your ankle stepping off a curb. I can wake up with a tweaked rotator cuff from sleeping funny. Assists often get a bad rap, but students can just as easily get injured from a poorly sequenced class, or a class with long holds and not enough alignment instructions.
Which is why we, as teachers, must bring as much intelligence and consciousness as possible to all aspects of our teaching. We must constantly keep learning and reflecting. And when it comes to assists, the bottom line is: Do your homework. And if you’re going to offer hands-on assists, offer them with integrity and only the purest intention.