Touch or not – Assisting in Yoga

Recently, I gently eased someones head into neutral in my yoga class and they responded by saying ‘be careful my neck is broken!!’ So, once again I was reminded of why I do so little touching these days. The dilemma of seeing students with poor technique often makes me4294-1TPsim SzTonedI want to immediately rush over and correct them, yet I have often pondered if that is the best path to take.

Lately I have been debating once again whether I should touch students in large Yoga classes. I wonder whether I should stay on the stage and demonstrate or wander the room.

I do not know my students individually and always vacillate between whether touch is ‘implied’ or not. I always ask my class to be responsible for their injuries and seek knowledge of self management. I always say that a general yoga class is not an injury management system and that I am not there to look after injuries. Yet, still many students wait till after class to say that they have injuries etc. and yet still allow assists.  know-thyself-layout-for-slicing_03

As well, the only injuries I have ever had in my own yoga practice have happened when being assisted. Both times an instructor moved my body in such a way that I immediately had pain. Both these were experienced instructors and I am sure their intentions were good. Both times the instructor was attempting to move me just a little more into what they thought was a better pose.

I often contemplate if there is a BEST way to learn yoga, and is it through self experience or guided? In a classroom, do we get our students too reliant upon the instructor manually supporting and teaching them? Do we take them ‘out’ of their body when we approach? How many times does a student fall when you walk by? Could it be better to let them explore the process with minimal interference? How can we best  teach the discipline of self practice?4323-4_Fotor_Collage 5_YOGA DISCIPLINE Why do we assist then? I am not going to discuss all the points below but they all are worthy of much reflection.

  1. Correct alignment
  2. Offer modifications
  3. Regress the pose
  4. Deepen the pose
  5. Support the student
  6. Encourage the breath

If our goal is to correct alignment we  must  be diligent in our learning of anatomy. Yet because Yoga teacher training encompasses such a broad amount of knowledge, and as a teacher we seek to become experts in so many areas, our working knowledge of anatomy appears to become a copy of others.

Many of the cues I hear in classes are the same, as if as instructors we have learnt a script and just repeat it. Furthermore, many of these common cues are not really anatomically safe. And then, we add a touch cue, actually moving the joints and bodies of our students! We then unfortunately end up over emphasising poor technique.

One common cue that I hear in nearly every class I attend that does not make anatomical sense is keep the shoulders back and down, pull them into the spine in dog pose, or in poses when the arms are above head in moves such as chair pose. Let the shoulder blades move up  the sides of the ribcage when in shoulder flexion,SupraspinatusBack- socketRotation do not keep the shoulders back and down or you will risk impingidownloadng the shoulder. I know we have to cue but adding a touch to the words is imprinting the movement even more into their brain. So, when we walk around and draw peoples shoulder blades down their back we are teaching their brain the wrong movement pattern. The scapula has to move up to allow room for the top of the humerus.

I appreciate that learning anatomy is a difficult and long journey. However, in reality the prime tool that we work in asana practice is the skeleton. The journey into understanding how joints move and what is normal range of movement is therefore essential.

When I first started yoga I did not know that it is not normal to put your hands on the floor in a forward bhamstringsend. Now I know that fingertips yes but hands no. I now know that also, it is probably better to not focus on hamstring stretching in standing forward bends. In this position there is the added stress on the discs of the back.

This makes the touch cue of placing your hand on the sacrum and sweeping the spine down to the floor as risky and possibly causing more harm than good.

When we offer modifications to our poses it is usually because of a perceived limited range of movement. However, to do many common Yoga poses you actually need excessively long muscles. And, when muscles are long we need extra strength. It has been a long journey learning what is normal and knowing when I should resist from moving someone further into a position and possibly weakening them.

If our understanding of anatomy is still in its early days (or even if we have plenty of knowledge) it maybe better if as instructors we didn’t walk around correcting our students as much but rather demonstrated good alignment and become a visual role model for our students. When we walk around the room we also teach the beginner students eyes to wander to see what they have to do (as they must).

When the student is forced to look around we are actually encouraging them to observe others in the class which will immediately bring in an element of comparison. The student will notice all the more flexible students and often see them as being the normal ones. If the teacher is the role model we can encourage the student to have only two focus points, their own body and one person’s demonstrations.

When I resist walking around the room I am better able to teach them a meditative, reflective and introspective practice. From there they can teach themselves the art of yoga.


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