How to Use Physical Adjustments (safely) in Yoga Class
How to Become a Better Yoga Teacher (Part III)
There is nothing worse than a nervous yoga teacher putting their limp noodle-hands on you in class and accidentally knocking you off your balance while in tree pose. Novice teachers are often so nervous about giving bad adjustments like these that they avoid them altogether, and some teachers even go as far as creating a “no touch” studio policy to justify what is really just subpar teaching.
As we covered in part I of this series, yoga teachers have three primarily tools: show, tell, and touch. The “touch” element should comprise about 25% of your average class, and it’s the place where teachers struggle most. Simply put, if you don’t use your physical body as a teaching tool, you’re not teaching as well as you could.
Let’s look at some real-world examples.
Two of my early yoga teachers were from India. One sat in a chair in front of the room and talked into a microphone. The other read the newspaper and counted. That’s it. Both are extremely famous, but I’ll omit their names because this is not about slandering teachers, it’s about improving your teaching.
These so-called master teachers felt they were accomplished enough to coach from the sidelines. It’s not true. Their classes were objectively mediocre, and their student-teachers were secretly known to be much better.
Why? The student-teachers understood their role was not to bark orders from a podium. The job of teachers is to do whatever is needed to hold space, create a safe environment for practice, and help our students learn and grow. To do that at the highest level, you have to be hands-on.
Please know that I’m not advocating sitting on students in forward bends or cranking legs behind students’ heads. These hardcore adjustments have no place in the yoga studios or fitness center where you and I teach. If you’re that aggressive, eventually, you’ll end up contributing to the injury of a student.
To date, I’ve taught over 10,000 students. That’s a big crowd and I always use my hands, but I use them very conservatively. If you’re in this for the long term, I’d suggest you consider doing the same, so here are the best methods to do so with care.
Minimum Viable Touch (MVT)
The basic concept is to use as little touch as possible to get the job done. Perhaps a student needs to drop their heel to the ground in a Warrior I pose. You’ve told them verbally, and it didn’t work, so you drop down on one knee and gently tap their heel with your finger. Voila! Like magic, the heel drops to the ground, the student gets it, and you’ve had a great teaching moment that just wouldn't happen with words alone.
Another common example is in Downward Facing Dog when a student has their fingers all smashed together. You say, “spread your fingers on the mat!” and nothing happens. You say it again, and still nothing. So you drop down onto one knee and using your fingers, your spread their fingers. You don’t need consent for this. This is not dangerous (it’s actually safer than doing nothing), and it’s the obvious choice when words are not working.
Minimum viable touch means that most of the time, we use one or two fingers. If we use the palms of our hands or our hip in a bigger adjustment, we often act like a wall or a solid structure for students to lean into - we’re not pushing them deeper, that’s up to them.
The other big worry with teachers is that their touch could be inappropriate, sexual or sensual or somehow just taken the wrong way. Could this happen? Yes. In fact, it does. But that just means you need to practice more, make sure your intentions are good and your boundaries are clear.
You have to navigate this challenge the same way you have to navigate dozens of other potentially problematic situations in life. Some teachers opt for all-women or all-men yoga classes. This is not for me, but it’s a choice I respect if that’s the way you feel you can be your best.
Quick Tips for Professional Touch
- Practice adjusting with other teachers, again and again
- Give adjustments, but also get adjustments from other teachers so you can experience it from the other side
- Talk to the body part, not the person when you’re adjusting
- Don’t make eye contact with students when you’re closer than 3 feet / 1 meter away
- There’s usually no space for conversation, so “touch and go” don’t open a dialogue
- If a student shakes their head “no” or breathes through their teeth, leave them be and don’t adjust them
- Engage your fingers and use steady, strong hands (don’t let your hands and arms become like wet noodles)
- Cold hands will make your students jump, rub your hands together to warm them up before touch
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