Guiding With Your Hands

By Mark Stephens on Wed, 03/05/2014 - 21:02

This is excerpted from Yoga Adjustments: Philosophy, Principles, and Techniques (Available June 3, 2014 from Random House)

Using your hands to accentuate and refine what you are trying to convey with words or visual modeling can make all the difference in a student’s ability to comprehend and internalize whatever you are trying to share. (When discussing hands-on adjustments, guidance, assisting, touch, and so on, we’re using hands-on in both the general and specific meaning of the term—the general referring to tactile guidance that might involve using one’s hands, arms, shoulders, torso, hips, legs, or feet, and the specific referring to the hands. Unless specifically indicated, the general use of the term refers to its general meaning.) With clearer, more manifold communication comes deeper learning, and with it the promise of yoga—to be healthy, integrated, fully awake—is gradually more fully realized. Touch, which immediately reaches our students in a direct and personal way, can thus be an effective method of directly, simply, and specifically communicating with them.

Spoken words and the physical demonstration of asanas are essential ways of communicating with students and should be the starting place—and often the ending place—in teaching asanas. Yet when combined with precise and informed touch, these tools can convey even more:

•     clarifying a verbalized or demonstrated alignment cue

•     highlighting an energetic action

•     giving students a feeling of support

•     bringing awareness to an unconscious part of the body

•     assisting in stabilizing, easing, or deepening an asana

•     assisting in safely increasing range of motion

•     helping you as the teacher to be more aware of a student’s overall condition

•     creating a more trusting and open sense of connection between you and your students

•     offering comforting support amid the intensity of some experiences

Yet while touch is among the most profoundly effective tools in teaching and learning yoga, it can also be among the most potentially problematic. Giving tactile guidance should help students in developing a safe, sustainable, and transformational practice, but done wrong, it can cause physical or emotional harm. Given with clear and informed intention, hands-on cues can clarify other ways of guiding students, while ill-informed hands-on cues can confuse students in feeling their way into and refining an asana. Offered appropriately, students will learn to trust their inner teacher, while if given excessively, physical cues can make a student dependent on an external source of guidance and distract him or her from the tapas element—self-discipline—in doing yoga. Hands-on guidance can also be a source of greater openness, inspiration, and joy, yet can cause discomfort, trauma, or disillusion with yoga if a teacher’s cues convey judgment or violate personal boundaries.

The primary purpose of tactile cues is to help students refine their yoga practice as a personal process for cultivating wellness, self-discovery, and self-transformation. Yet yoga practice is ultimately an internal process that is best guided from inside through the intertwined prisms of the breath and awareness in the bodymind. As teachers, we can best assist our students by helping them learn to listen inside and honor their inner teacher, offering hands-on guidance only when it’s both welcome and beneficial to the student. Doing this well starts by embracing the idea of teaching people who are doing asanas, not poses.

Poses are static representations of idealized forms, something models do for cameras in an effort to send an external message. Typically airbrushed and enhanced in other ways, they are anything but real. Asanas, by contrast, are alive and personal; they are an expression of organic human beings exploring, living, and intentionally evolving in the temple of the bodymind. When we appreciate a student through the wisdom of our heart, then we more naturally see the intrinsic beauty already manifest in their practice. From this starting point we come to more naturally sit in the seat of the teacher, giving our students the space to blossom in the fullness of their yoga—even when we apply what insight we might have into the basic architecture, gesture, and mood of each asana as it is uniquely and beautifully expressed in each individual student.

In giving tactile cues, we are offering students guidance in finding their way to a more stable foundation, to aligning their body safely and comfortably, and to encouraging deeper exploration while staying connected to the breath and bodymind as their principal sources of guidance. We are guiding our students on a journey set primarily by each student’s own intention, whether sensed as physical, emotional, mental, or spiritual. When we approach and guide students with this attitude, it empowers them to go as deeply as they are meant to go in that moment of their practice, further clarifies the teacher-student relationship, and reinforces an open-minded and open-hearted experience in doing yoga. In this relationship, yoga teachers are engaging in a quality of social interaction that forms an important part of the environment of the student’s yoga practice and sense of being, and in this relationship, both teacher and student are transformed.