It is only recently that, sat in a kitchen, glass of wine in hand, I was putting the world of yoga to rights and telling my friend and fellow teacher, that I have been getting a lot more hands off in class.
I remember the days, when all I wanted to do was learn these great assists.... times have changed.
So, what is an assist? You may hear it called an adjustment, but I think assist describes it as it should be... a hands on cue to take the student deeper in their experience of the asana (not necessarily deeper in the asana itself!), and occasionally to offer a correction. I love receiving a good assist, which is why most teachers cannot wait to get their hands on their students... they know the value that this work has. Sometimes, verbal cueing does not convey the message, and an adjustment embodies that trusting relationship that is built between the student and teacher.
So why have I been stepping back? One of those reasons has come from my osteopathy studies. As a healthcare practitioner, it is vital (and legally required) that I ask for consent from patients, so why do we assume as yoga teachers, that it is ok to touch our students without permission? I now always start the class with the opportunity for students to let me know if they do not wish to be touched or assisted, for whatever reason. That can remain in the domain of their privacy. Ahhhhhhh! That famous touch. How many trainings have I been on, that say: "An assist can be very powerful, some of your students may not have been touched in a long time, so you might be the only person to touch them" (as if you have the gift of healing)....!! Well yes, exactly, and there might be good reason for that which as a teacher we have no insight to, or any right to make assumptions about.
Some teachers will just ask to be told 'no' as they go to make the assists (each to their own, I can only give my own opinion), but how hard is that to do discreetly if your head is on your shins? If you are already being touched when you don't want to? Or if, as it has happened to me before, you have been taken so deep into the backbend that you are unable to breathe, and therefore no sounds comes out as you try to speak! And sometimes the student is trying to be kind. I have had many instances where new teachers have been unleashed in busy classes to assist. It is totally valid if they have been practicing on the teacher, other teachers, or are giving very light assists, but if they are giving deep hands on adjustments, it becomes very hard to say 'ouch' or 'no thank you' without shattering a newer teacher's confidence.
My background as a dancer means I LOVE a deep assist when it is given well, because I am used to that pushing and pulling, and I know how to soften into that, but I also know that the world of dance is not known to be kind to bodies... because often that world does not know any better! I often get asked if we covered anatomy in my dance studies: yes, but at such a basic level! If you knew the damage you could potentially do to yourself while refining your craft, there would be no one on stage! So as a yogi, where the aesthetic is only secondary, do I want to be a stretcher? Maybe... sometimes... but mostly to a very small panel of students.
I was recently teaching when I was called over by a student who asked: "can you stretch me in this pose?". My answer was no. Not because I couldn't, but because the very wording of the question told me that the student was completely passive in this interaction. I was going to do the work, put pressure on joints, whilst the student 'flopped about' in an already mobile body... because of course, it is rarely the less mobile folk who ask to be pretzeled into shapes (for one... that just doesn't work). So what could I offer this student? Ways for her to increase sensation, ways for her to work on creating more stability, not more mobility in the pose... yes! This interests me.
One of the reasons I am training to be an osteopath is so that I can help patients become pain free, but also involved and empowered in their vision of health, movement, embodiment, so why would I remove this from the students in my classes? Of course, I remain hands on, of course, I truly believe in the benefit of light assists that generally define the energetics or the direction of a pose, but do I think deep assists are for everyone? I would argue they are for the handful: those at that midway point between super mobile, and stiff as rod, between working so hard that everything is solid, and doing no work at all so that every action is passive... those students are a handful of people. And for the pretzels, assists often become about pulling back, creating stability, finding the more active, usually more challenging route (I used to be a pretzel, and it is so hard to learn how to work in the poses that come easy).
Mostly, asana becomes for me a chance to develop body awareness, proprioception, discipline and enjoyment in movement, meditation and breath in students. It should be empowering, not dictated by my hands. And I need to know that student's body, that student's temperament, and I definitely do not know that the first time they come into class.
My hands are still firmly on my students, but in a way, I hope, that fosters their independence, listening skills, and enough room for them to create their physical parameters in the practice. Above all, and this goes without saying, an assist should always be ethical and respectful of the student, the opportunity to say no, even if it is not offered, is always there.
Have thoughts? I would love to hear your ideas about this!