One of the most appealing aspects of yoga is that just about anyone can do it. Things like age, body type and level of flexibility don’t necessarily have to hinder one’s ability to enjoy this ancient yet enduring practice. However, another important aspect of yoga is assistance and/or correction provided by a skilled and sensitive guide.
People can certainly practice yoga without assistance – and many experienced yoga practitioners do – but for most beginners, it’s difficult to experience the full benefit of yoga without personalized guidance. The online publication, Yoga Journal, ran a story that delved a little deeper into this topic.
Sara Avant Stover, contributing writer for yoga journal, spent time interviewing veteran yoga teachers and researching the impact of verbal and physical guidance in yoga classes.
“Sometimes a soft suggestion can dramatically shift a student’s experience of the class, and of themselves,” writes Stover.
It’s important to recognize that, just as there are many different types of yoga students, there are also different approaches to yoga assistance. Stover and her interview subjects explained that while some students may need more significant amounts of personalized guidance, particularly with physical touch, others need minimal intervention or shouldn’t be touched at all.
Likewise, different approaches to yoga assists have roots in various traditions. For example, in the Anusara tradition, Stover writes that “…assisting pivots around the maxim that each person is the perfection of the universe, and this perfection keeps on becoming more perfect.”
“We look for the beauty in every person and are not ‘fixing’ but rather helping to enhance,” Sianna Sherman, a senior certified Anusara Yoga teacher, told Stover. “Everything about assisting, whether verbally or physically or both, is to help the spirit of the student to shine fully so that their innate radiance adds more light to the world.”
In Jivamukti Yoga, teachers don’t just consider each student individually – they actually consider the teacher-student relationship and base their approach to assists on what is best for that partnership.
“Yoga assists [are] a creative process between two people, not something that a teacher does to a student,” Karl Straub explained to Stover. “[They] are opportunities to deepen and perfect relationships.”
Perfecting Assistance – What Tools Are Needed?
Stover writes that an understanding of anatomy and biomechanics are essential, but more intuitive skills such as creativity, awareness and a spirit of playfulness are necessities as well. For instance, when Sherman applies physical adjustments to her students, she relies on the Anusara Yoga’s unique assistance methodology. This is known as SSA: sensitivity, stability and adjustment.
“The teacher sensitizes by first finding her own breath, and the listening to that of her student,” writes Stover. “Then the teacher stabilizes herself and the student to make a safe and supportive base.”
“We try to remain standing,” Sherman explains, “which also helps us to see the other students and to be ready if anyone needs us in the room. We may position ourselves to the student’s back body, especially in standing asanas.”
Verbal vs Physical Assistance
Knowing when to use verbal assistance instead of physical, or vice versa, is a skill that may come instinctively to some yoga teachers. However, many rely on years of practice and a working to develop a keen awareness of their own yoga tradition’s methods.
In Anusara Yoga, teachers typically attempt verbal assistance first. If the student requires additional help, physical adjustments are used. With verbal assists, teachers will usually move closer to the student, soften their voice and use the student’s name, if possible. This provides a calming, delicate and personalized way of letting the student know they are being helped.
When physical touch is considered more appropriate, a hands-on adjustment may be made with one of several different types of touch, ranging from soft to firm, explains Stover.
When to Avoid Physical Assists
Despite an instructor’s level of skill and gentleness, some students highly prefer not to be touched. Sherman advises yoga teachers to always ask their students if they are comfortable receiving physical assists, especially those who are new to the class. Those who are new to yoga altogether may be even more uncomfortable with physical guidance.
Bobby Clennell, senior Iyengar Yoga teacher at the Iyengar Yoga Association of Greater New York and author and illustrator of The Woman’s Yoga Book: Asana and Pranayama for All Phases of the Menstrual Cycle, says, “For the inexperienced student, insistence that they do things ‘properly’ is a pressure they do not have the experience to deal with yet. Plus, a beginner may misinterpret a teacher’s or an assistant’s touch as an invasion of space.”
Above all else, any yoga teacher should focus on the intention and effectiveness of an assist before carrying it out.
“Every single assist matters and must be filled with our attention and supportive care,” explains Sherman. “Every assist is the opportunity to help someone realize their full potential in that moment, and to support someone in this journey of our shared humanity.”
Note from LHAA:
As teachers, we want every student to feel welcome, comfortable and safe. We use verbal clues, offer modifications, inspiring words of encouragement, quieting words of relaxation. We also sometimes will offer to physically assist a student after asking if it is okay. Every person is different, some are okay with touch, some are not. To be even more clear about your options as a student, we are implementing a “chip assist” option. In the studio near the entry door there will be white and red “chips”. A white one placed next to your mat means you are open to the option of being physically assisted that day. A red one means “hands off”. We understand every day is different, your chips may change and that is as it should be. Please always let us know if you have questions or concerns. We are always trying to make every class as enjoyable and meaningful for each student as we can.
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