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Yoga Adjustments

Nb. This is me, I admit. All of us change over time with experience – as these photos show. My attitude towards adjustments has changed dramatically over the years, I don’t agree with this use of this degree of force and bodyweight anymore; there are far more successful (as well as safer) approaches.

The first question to be asked when considering giving yoga adjustments is to clarify, however briefly, our aim and intention with it. After this, we can consider the various ways we might work towards this aim, as there are usually a number of different possibilities available. For assistance has many forms, and not every touch is to do with making a physical correction. In similar way, the teachers’ job is not only to do with ‘telling’. This is really only a minor part of it.

Furthermore, assistance can be offered through different means. Sometimes, the best assistance is actually to do nothing. At other times it’s a recognition and connection conveyed by a smile and a nod. Only at points does it need to be a verbal or physical instruction. There is no need to hurry the process of building a relationship; it is layered, nuanced, and ought to build up organically over time.

Indeed, as much as a student doesn’t want to feel neglected or overlooked, neither do they usually want to be over-attended to. They have their own energy that they are making the effort to work with, so, too much co-mingling of yours, will confuse this whole process. Over-adjusting will usually convey the message to the student that they are doing everything wrong, which, as we might imagine, is usually very discouraging. Therefore, as much as one might want to help, a plan of adjustments with each student is really useful; focussing on those that are felt to be the most useful. The primary thing a teacher can provide for the student is a supported and safe space in which they can practice and explore.

In this way, economy and simplicity is something to be learnt too. Less can often be more, Indeed, the strength and significance of an physical judgement gets watered-down the more they are given. Most of all, a body loses the ability to process the information that is conveyed the more that is given. In this case, patience and time are our best recourse; our hope being that the student will continue with us over a reasonable period whereby we can methodically work together gradually over a prolonged period. The most fundamental thing to remember is that change doesn’t usually happen overnight; it takes patience and effort over time.

The next thing to consider is that a body creates its particular structural shape, and, having created it, albeit subconsciously; whether simply through the years, or with specific accident or injury, it does not naturally yield from this easily. Any attempt to actively force their shape to change, will be resisted, and is usually the exact recipe for an injury to occur. Although it is tempting, I feel we should actively resist trying to mould a body into a different shape. We are not God, and I emphatically feel this is not our role. If there is anything over a minimal degree of physical-resistance, restrain from the temptation to push a little harder.

A students’ own journey must be respected. As to how much adaption may be made in their body, ‘the jury it out’, so to speak. We can only watch and wait. It is really and truly their own process and we cannot actually make the change for them. Our job is as a facilitator. Creating an injury, is much worse than the possibility of not helping with an ‘opening’ as quickly as it might be achieved. In The Bhagavad Gita, Krishna states “Yoga is a Ahimsa” (non-violence). This is as well to bear in mind these days in the current climate of Yoga Practise where pushing and forcing is the norm. Instead, change should be gentle and sustainable. Patanjali says similarly; dirga kala nairantarya sat kara asevitah drdha bhumih (that practise is firmly grounded that is done with the relevant attitude, consistently, over a long period).

In fact, these two qualities often go together. Pushing a student too far too quickly where they haven’t built the stability (physically, but also energetically and emotionally) to support this, will lead to the inability to maintain what they have achieved over time. This will then inevitably cause ensuing disappointment and disillusionment with the practice, which is the very last thing we want to happen.

Of course, one may do too little, but, this is still to be preferred than doing too much. As to the degree of force, there is no easy rule that can be applied. Each student and occasion is unique, and must be approached as such. Some bodies may adapt and change quickly, for others it takes longer. Indeed, often a student may be holding themselves tightly through resistance and fear in the mind alone, but this is not easily ascertained, and it is as well not to think in these terms. Too often, I have heard the ‘encouragement’ that it’s only in the mind. My experience has shown it to be otherwise; we do indeed a have material-limitations, even if these may be temporary, but, these do need to be acknowledged and respected. Furthermore, this kind of talk is tantamount to calling someone ‘uptight’, in which case, they may often injure themselves to prove this is not, in fact, the case.

To this ends, I do not put bodies into a shape that doesn’t come naturally. I would rather that, through regular practise, the body re-aligns itself from the inside out, under its own terms. There are many circumstances that go into producing change, and we must respect and honour our relatively small part in the whole equation. Instead, consistency over time, and a helping to cultivate within the student a relevant attitude of humility and diligence will produce the affects. Patanjalis says; abyhasa vairagya tan nirodhah (by practise, but also by letting go, Yoga is achieved).

This is a different matter than adjusting a posture more superficially, as to its external shape alone. For example, when a leg or arm is simply in the wrong place, or, the drishti is not correct. At this point, often a verbal instruction is best, allowing the student to understand the correction for themselves. Pointing someone in the right direction, but allowing them to make the effort, is far better than doing it for them in terms of integrating the learning process.

Many adjustments can also be made simply by being with the person. Not exactly an adjustment in the normal way it is envisaged, this, I have come to believe, is a most potent form of assistance. Human touch, without emphasis or expectation, often allows the body to soften naturally where it can, as opposed to pushing for an idea or goal that we have conceived of ourselves and may not be appropriate. This is to say that most of my adjustments should not be thought of as the attempt to move a body into a “better’ position. Instead, they come from the intention to radically affirm, endorse and embrace, the natural limitations of the body in front of me. Only when something is accepted, thoroughly realised, is the possibility of changing it then available.

To unite our spirit with anothers’ in care is a large part of the role of the teacher. This can be done through words, as well as through touch, even through just providing the space. ` At this point, we should also recognise our humanity (and we all are) as to whether we feel any particularly bias towards the student. We are most likely not enlightened yet. Whether positive or negative, aversion or attraction, it may cause our action to be unskilfully taken. If this is the case, the best course of action is to refrain from it. With a little reflection on our position and role, we may be able to enter into a space of greater objectivity. If this does not seem possible, a gentle and subtle recommendation to the student towards another teacher, although not necessarily easy, may be our duty and will avoid greater problems down the line.

Moving on to the practical aspects of adjusting, there are a number of principles to consider. Firstly, of fundamental importance is to take care of oneself as the teacher, teaching in a style that is safe and sustainable for us also. Too much effort expended on a regular basis will only lead to depletion and burnout, even injuring ourselves at some point. Stability is our priority here and the basis of our approach physically.
Therefore, making sure we are squarely balanced on our feet, that our effort is made from the midline, rather than in over-extending a limb away from the body in which the safety of a joint may be easily be compromised, relying on ligaments and tendons alone. This is actually to say that the technique of adjusting is based on the very same principles as that of pracising. When Patanjali says of Yoga then, Sthira Sukham Asanam; Yoga is a steady and comfortable position, the same goes for assisting.

This is not always easy. We are still working at a certain pace, and to a degree, with a split-focus, within a class situation. However, of foremost importance is to remember that when we are with a student, we are really with them, and not somewhere else; thinking of the next thing, or our dinner. An attempt must be made to concentrate as much as we can exclusively on the student who is receiving our action. This is only to give them the respect they deserve. Although, time is always off the essence in teaching a group, there is still no reason strong enough to take the risk involved with rushing, injuring ourselves, or, a student. This can be difficult, as we may feel a certain student is impatient for help, or that a number of others are waiting and in need of assistance. Here, I recommend, keeping our nerve, and reminding oneself, that, over time, everyone will get the assistance they require. Indeed, as the very reward of their continued attendance!

This touches upon the issue of teacher integrity. Many students, perhaps, having received certain intense adjustments may expect you to do the same. It is important to make one’s own decisions as to how best to help, resisting the pressure to please. Even if you feel you run the risk of losing a student by not ‘getting them into’ a posture, in the long term it feels better honouring one’s own perspective than compromising ourselves for the interests of popular appeal. As the late Maty Ezraty, a primary teacher of mine, was fond of saying, ‘we have the choice as to whether to be a good teacher, or a popular one’.

In my opinion the very definition of a teacher is to be steadfast and consistent in conduct and judgement. For, even though an authoritarian teaching style is not overly to my liking, a certain firmness in belief, and clear perspective is essential. A student must feel reassured you have a clear idea of what you are about, and, how this orientates your teaching. Whether they agree with all of it or not, they will, ultimately, respect you for it. You are the teacher, and entering your class, they have by doing so, agreed to you in that role. This is a subtle thing to hold, and its’ all too easy to allow this quality of authority to slip over towards dogmatism. This is another reason why humility is always of paramount importance to be cultivated in our own practise. Hopefully, it will also serve to inform our teaching.

In this spirit, I normally adjust no more than I can do with the strength of two-fingers. Our primary mandate as a teacher is to encourage the student to develop a regular practise and then stick with it. Therefore, any adjustment made, should also be done so with this in the back of ones’ mind. Causing an injury is the best way to contradict our aim. On the other hand, if it can be safely done, at points, it can be relevant to lend a little extra effort and assistance to support a student in a posture usually out of their reach for the sake of their continued inspiration. Nurturing a students’ commitment to daily practise, in a safe and efficient way, is our only task. How far that goes on an external level, we cannot decide, and, as to the internal depth, it is not our business. On the other hand, I like to think that my adjustments convey a suggestion that there is something else going on in Yoga-Asana other than simply the effort to make material, visible, progress.

With regards to material degrees of force, our familiarity with the student is imperative in this. Having accustomed ourselves with their relative elasticity and general strength, as well as, hopefully, having developed a trusting relationship; we may modify our adjustments in their firmness, even to degree of intimacy. Time, once more, is essential for the development of our insight. For no one student is the same as the next, something that we must remind ourselves of constantly. In which case observation and the keeping of an open-mind are always imperative to adjusting appropriately. The adjustment should start from the student; be made to fit the student, and not the other way around.

This is again to touch upon the idea that adjustments are built along with a relationship. At the beginning, we must take into account that we don’t know a persons’ past history; both physical and mental. The information we actually have access to, in looking at the body in front of us, is relatively minimal. Through watching them, as well as, perhaps, conversing with them, we may learn a little more, yet, our vision is still far from 20/20. This should never be forgotten.

It is also important to be aware of our natural tendency to look at a students’ practise as our own. Yet, our body, experience, and path, is not theirs. Therefore, whilst we may have some ideas, we are also in error, coming from a very narrow point of direct-experience. It is well to remember, that just because things worked a certain way for us, this is not necessary gong to be the same for everyone. Our job is not to turn students into mini-clones of ourselves, instead, encourage them with their own inquiry. It is also too easy to cover-over their experience with our own. An overly dominating presence and style of adjusting can easily do this, wholly spoiling an individuals’ own process. Having done this (hopefully) for longer than the student, we have a lot more ideas about Practise then they do, indeed, we may have a bit more of an overview, but it is still not our practise, but, theirs.

Respect within this whole process must be our constant manifesto. This is in regards to making the effort to considering each student particularly, as an individual, as well as honouring their needs for personal autonomy. Their comfortableness with intimacy, may be grasped intuitively, or even confirmed verbally. It is also worth bearing in mind that it should be built up slowly. Just as you would be cautious in touching a stranger you’ve just met, It is my opinion that to a degree, a similar attitude should be taken as to our first meetings with a student of Yoga. As an aside on the matter of respect, personally, I never adjust with anything other than my hands, never my feet, not even an elbow.

Finally, the principle tool we have available to us during the process of adjusting a student is their breathing. Firstly, in encouraging them to do so, and then, in noticing if our effort is producing a restriction of this breath. This would be an obvious indication to us that we might modify our action. I would categorically state that nothing is worth sacrificing the breath for; a posture is not ‘achieved’ if there is no breath in it. Indeed, Patanjali, very sparse on definitive statements on Hatha Yoga says; prayatna saithilya ananta samapatibhyam; ‘yoga is the attempt to overcome the natural tendency towards restless breathing promoting the sense of abiding in the infinite breath’.

Secondly, we can use the breath of the individual as our guide and source of action within the course of a particular posture. This is the unique aspect as to how I physically adjust. For, my primary recourse is to attempt to convey how a students’ breath works to deepen their own posture. In contrast to pushing them into a ‘deepening’ of it’s degree, in a rigid and linear kind of sense. The inhalation and exhalation, if done properly, present different movements in the diaphragm, which in turn, lead to an emphasis on different actions within the phase of one whole breath. This is specific and subtle, and needs clarification as to how they move, with our effort, in the very adjustment. I find that a little oral communication usually helpful here.

Working in harmony with the natural movement in the body, from the inside-out, we achieve far better results. This is to look at adjustment as a form of helping to teach a method of working, rather than facilitate a noticeable and quantifiable degree of shape. However far an individual goes on the superficial level of shape alone, is specific to their own destiny. For the most part, out of ours, and even their, control. On the other hand, method can be refined infinitely. So, if there is any teaching to be done, this is what I would say we should aim for. That is Yoga is balance, which is inline with Patanjali’s initial objective as to do with this method; yoga citta vritti nirodhah; ‘yoga is the stopping of the constantly turning mind’. Once again, setting up a class-attitude that adjustments are simply about getting somewhere else is contrary to this objective if yoga is about coming back to a rest within.

At this point it must be noted that the Yoga action is very particular, involved in balancing forces, as opposed to encouraging effort in one direction only. Instead of this, the intention of practice is to harmonise opposing forces within the body, rather than push out from it. It makes sense, then, that any adjustment takes this fundamental aspect as to the quality of the action, as its starting point. Practically, this means I am often at pains to indicate, with my assistance, that the aim of the student is to pull back towards themselves, not reach away from. This is do by asking them to pull back against me; quite a shift from the conventional notion of an adjustment which is rudimentarily conceived of pushing a student ‘further’.

It is also difficult for a student to recognise this principle as to the balance of opposites, as the very hub of their ‘work’ within the position. At first, it’s all too easy to become infatuated with physical progress alone. Similarly, it is much less effort for a teacher to “give an adjustment”, than make the enormous effort to convey the very seed of Yoga, which is method. This means that our role is always a verbal and emotional one too, in conveying our attitude and spirit towards practise, so as a student starts to straddle the paradoxical world between effort and contentment. On a material level, it may mean we don’t consistently focus on giving the same adjustment over and over. At a point, the student must learn to find the work in the position. If they remain confused as to this, two options are available. We can either pull back for a while and allow them the space of inquiry, or, give a different adjustment, to see if our intention can be better understood conceived in another form.

To conclude, adjustments are usually developed through what you’ve learnt from a teacher(s), in combination with an understanding that has come through your own, experiential, practise, over a decent period of time. This is one reason why attending to ones’ own daily practise must be the principal focus of any teacher. Most experienced teachers finally arrive at adjusting through their own personal understanding, but first of all some context and background also needs to be recognised. Our style must be our own, but, again, the same as with practise, we need to know the rules well to know when it might be appropriate to break them. Finally, our ideas are also evolving too. We must be able, over time, to bear to contradict ourselves for the sake of further exploration and the deepening our experience.


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