“To assist or not to assist?”. That is the question, and the subject of much debate in the American yoga world right now. This is an issue that is slowly working its way across the pond to challenge UK yogis, too.
In many forms of yoga, it is common for the teacher to physically assist their students to optimise their posture in poses. This is particularly helpful for newer students, as it helps to build an understanding of where they should be placing their limbs, pelvis and spine. Physical touch can also help to bring awareness to a particular element of the posture that they should be experiencing, for example the stretching, lengthening or engaging of certain muscles. It is also useful to take more experienced students to the next level, by gently bringing them deeper into the posture they are already in or by encouraging them to find new aspects of each pose.
Traditions such as Ashtanga and many dynamic Vinyasas tend to use more physical assists, whereas others, including Yin and slow flow, tend to follow a slightly less “hands on” approach. For many students, physical assistance is welcomed, as it reassures them that they are in safe hands and helps them to ensure that they are positioning themselves correctly and efficiently.
However, while physical assists can be a really useful teaching tool, there is a whole myriad of reasons why a student may not want to be touched by their instructor. If they are recovering from an injury, for instance, they may understandably feel wary of someone moving their limbs about. Or, if they have come to practice to find some peace and get away from the world, then the poking and prodding of another human being may leave them wishing that they’d stayed at home with Netflix instead.
There is also a growing awareness in the yoga community of the trauma that students may be carrying with them. Trauma comes in all forms, from all sorts of experiences and has all sorts of triggers – including physical touch. Yoga practice has long offered a safe place for people to come, move, breathe and be at peace with themselves, so it is crucial that we do everything we can to create an environment in which everyone feels comfortable. While few yoga teachers have deep training in trauma therapy, there are some simple things we can do to empower vulnerable students.
We can, for example, be mindful of the sorts of imagery used in class (the idea of your body melting into the ground in savasana, the final relaxation of class, may be peaceful and releasing for some, but deeply triggering and anxious for others). We can be aware that closing the eyes isn’t always a comfortable option for people (keeping them open with a soft focus is always an option for you). Most importantly, we can empower students to decide for themselves, each practice, whether or not they would like to be physically adjusted during the practice.
At Grow, you always have the choice. We keep a jar of sculpted wooden pebbles at Reception that you can pick up on your way to class. Popping one on your mat will discreetly let your teacher know that you would rather not be physically assisted that day. This means you don’t have to worry about explaining why (unless you want to – we are always ready to listen) and you don’t need to be embarrassed at announcing, in front of the class, that you would like to be left to flow alone.
We hope that this helps you feel respected and safe in your practice, and should you have any questions or worries in this area, please always let us know.
Anything by Matthew Stanford