Do you feel as if you are collaborating with your students when you physically “cue”, or adjust, them? Or are you changing their body shapes and qualities in certain ways without their input? Have you ever noticed or thought about the difference? I recently have been thinking about this consideration, actually more out of experiences as a yoga student than from my teaching experiences. I noticed how some teachers were adjusting me in certain ways without my contribution – essentially fine, but which could have been dangerous in certain cases.
In one of those instances, I’ve recently torn a right hamstring. I’ve been doing my best to make mindful and diligent adjustments, so that my practice remains enjoyable – rather than painful, as well as to avoid injuring the area further and adding more scar tissue. I also do my best to let the instructor know about my injury, but it sometimes slips my mind (and the teacher doesn’t ask at the beginning of the class, which is always of course a good idea!). Other times I’m rushing into class right on time, grabbing props as the instructor is giving opening words. I don’t want to interrupt. I suspect that I’m not alone as a student in both cases.
In any case, in one class last week I was becoming warm, and my torn hamstring was feeling all right. My body was telling me it would be all right to go for a Wide-Legged Forward Fold without a block. I folded, and walked by hands back, just to the point where my hamstring reminded me of its vulnerability. I breathed there. Then I felt the instructor behind me, pressing her hands gently into my low back to lead me to fold further. I exhaled more and refrained from asking her to stop, because I don’t want to damage the torn hamstring further. Sometimes yoga students, such as myself in this case, find it difficult to speak up in such ways.
There’s another problematic aspect to her otherwise gentle and skillful cueing; I didn’t see her coming, and I didn’t expect her touch until I felt it. She also placed her hands close to a vulnerable and sensitive area – emotionally and physically, particularly for women – the sacrum. I know this teacher, but she doesn’t fully know my past – what if I was a sexual abuse survivor? Unexpected touch at this area could certainly have triggered me, if that were my personal history. So, let’s back up a bit – what would have been a more mindful and safer (emotionally and physically) way for her to approach this cueing?
Before even placing hands on me, it would have been wise for her to say “Kathryn, I’m just going to put my hand on your low back to help deepen your fold”. Then I would have known she was coming. After slowly beginning to apply this pressure at the area, it would have also been wise for her to ask me something like “Does that feel all right?”. I would most likely have felt more willing to tell her that I was refraining from folding deeper because of my torn hamstring. Such “checking in” statements open a door for students who might otherwise have trouble speaking up to tell a teacher that their physical adjustment actually isn’t welcome.
I’ve experienced a second situation like that recently, this one with Gomukasana (Cowface Pose). I was attempting to get deeper into the posture in my own timing, with my own riding of breath. I suddenly felt my instructor, a man whose classes I take often, push my shoulder-blades in and my mid-spine up. I completely trust him, and I enjoyed the deeper stretch that he did help me to access – so at the time, I smiled and whispered a thank you. Thinking about it later, however, the experience didn’t sit me with well; just as in the past instance, I didn’t see him coming. In fact, I had my eyes closed. If I were a sexual abuse survivor, it could have been very triggering for me. Add to that the fact that he is male.
So, in addition to the better approaches that I mentioned with the last instance, there are a couple of other notes of caution that this instance demonstrates. Firstly, it’s particularly important to alert a student that you will be physically cueing them if he/she has his/her eyes closed. Obviously, he/she can’t see you approach in those cases, and your touch is totally unexpected. Maybe the student could hear you step closer, but that’s nothing to depend on.
It’s additionally important to ask before physically adjusting a student, or at least gently and mindfully explain your intentions, if you are the opposite sex of the student. Unless you know the student like a family member, you don’t know that the person doesn’t have abusive relationships with members of the opposite sex in his/her past. You don’t know that your touch alone could put him/her in agony, simply because it leads the student to remember the pain of a past relationship. We yoga instructors aren’t doctors, but – like doctors – our first intent should be to do no harm. That established, the guidance and caring that we offer can lead our students to flourish.
Yoga is a beautiful lifestyle of coming to greater wellness. On the other hand, there is potential for making physical and emotional pain worse rather than better (particularly with asana practice, as I have focused on in this article – but that fact is also true of yoga’s other disciplines). Students bear responsibility for creating their practices to be healing and empowering, rather than further damaging – but so do we instructors, as the ones who guide them in those practices. So, please, before you physically cue a student without his or her input, act to include them in the process. They might have important information about themselves that could make you think twice before proceeding.
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