The Future of Hands on Assists

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused some major shifts within the yoga industry. We’ve had to re-evaluate how we stay connected with our students, fully embrace online teaching and navigate what the future of the industry looks like without the studio industrial model as many studios close amongst the tough business climate.

One of the hot topic issues pre-pandemic was the use of hands on assists or adjustments in yoga classes. With the #metoo movement and the abusive shadow side of several popular yoga lineages coming to light, many wondered – what’s the future of hands on adjustments/assists?

As yoga becomes more inclusive, trauma sensitive (thankfully), we must take the time as teachers to examine the efficacy of hands on touch with our students. Do our students want to be touched in a post-pandemic class? Did they ever want to be touched? 

Controversy and Unwanted Touch

The Ashtanga yoga practice, developed by Sri K. Pattabi Jois has influenced many vinyasa and flow style classes. Along with the rigorous style of physical practice, Jois popularized the usage of hands on adjustments in classes where the teacher utilizes his or her hands or body to physically manipulate the student into an asana.

The truth behind the intention of these “adjustments” has surfaced as many students of Jois came forward with stories of sexually abusive touch performed under the guise of surrendering to the pose. Students of their “guru” Jois were afraid to speak up or refuse the adjustments because the guru – student power dynamic led them to feel disempowered.

Knowing these murky origins of hands on touch, how can we not re-examine the usage of it going forward. The Yoga Sutra gives us some excellent outlines to navigate this field of inquiry using the concepts of ahimsa (non-harming), satya (truthfulness) and brahmacharya (right use of energy).

The basic guiding principles are:

  • Understand your intentions for a hands-on assist so that your adjustment will be direct and useful. Ask yourself, “Why am I giving a hands on adjustment, and can I accomplish that same goal via other means?
  • Always ask permission before touching a student (get their consent)

Verbal Cueing and Communication

There are many lineages and exceptional teachers who feel that verbal cueing is far superior to hands on assists. Using your skills of communication to guide a student gives them agency over their own body to deepen their self awareness and find and honor their physical and energetic boundaries in that moment. These are the major goals of yoga as a system of health.

When we physically adjust a student’s body, it could be interpreted as us imposing a set standard on what yoga asana is meant to look like for every student. It denies our individuality and uniqueness and limits inclusivity.

There is a difference between an adjustment and an assist.

An adjustment is when you use your force to place the student a certain way. Adjustments include placing hands on a student and moving their body deeper into a pose or holding them in an asana for time.

An assist is guidance from you that allows the student to find their own expression of the asana. Assists are aspirational and hold space that the student can find their own way there. They include point presses, verbal cues, and your presence as the teacher.

In asking many students and teachers over the years, many prefer assists over adjustments. As we navigate a post-Covid world, understanding the role of touch and consent in a yoga class has become more important than ever.

Here are some questions to consider to help you navigate these changing times.

Prompts for Contemplation

  • How do you define physical adjustments in yoga?
  • What’s their purpose? What benefits might they offer and how are they helpful?
  • Are their different categories of kinds of adjustments? If so, what are they?
  • In what contexts could adjustments be harmful to students? Are there ways of mitigating these risks?
  • How are manual adjustments superior and inferior to verbal cueing?
  • What knowledge or skill set is required for a yoga teacher to perform adjustments?
  • In your original YTT, were you taught to give physical adjustments? If so, what was the stated purpose of these adjustments? Has your view on adjustments changed since your original training?
  • Have you had an unwanted physical adjustment? If so, how did it feel? What was your communication (or lack of) like with the teacher in the moment?
  • Do you give physical adjustments (assuming consent has been given)? How and why?
  • What’s your approach? What’s your energy towards your student as you do so?
  • “Why am I giving this adjustment, and can I accomplish that same goal via other means?”

Important Articles for Further Study

5 Influential Yogis Weigh in on Yoga Adjustments: When, Why, and Whether to Give Them

Yoga Is Finally Facing Consent and Unwanted Touch

Permission to Touch: The Complicated Matter of Hands-On Adjustments

Here Are Good Ways Yoga Teachers Manage Touch and Consent

I teach to learn what I don't know.

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