Adjustments and Assists in COVID

As an Ashtanga Teacher who has undergone hundreds of hours of training in hands on assists and adjustments and has experienced some mind blowing experiences from receiving hands on guidance, the 1.5m challenge posed by COVID has been a little unnerving. It has taken a bit of getting used to, a lot of vocabulary exploration and a lot of patience from both me and my students. Adjustments and assists are difficult to deliver with confidence and safety and alternative cuing in this regard does bring new challenges.

While I have been focused on these alterations to my teaching methodology, it did raise for me an issue in relation to these terms.  Often used interchangeably in the modern yoga world, is there a difference between adjusting and assisting? Is our mindset different when we perform them? Which is of greater importance? Is there a must have and a nice to have in relation to these ideas? Is one easier than the other to deliver if we can’t use our own bodies as student guides? It is only really in understanding them that we can serve our students in a way that, in these times, minimizes the collective health risk.

Defining Adjustment

So looking initially at the Oxford Dictionary:

A small alteration or movement made to achieve a desired fit, appearance, or result”

So, not a particularly helpful definition if applied to yoga, however, it would indicate that what we are doing here is moving the person to fit the pose. Of course, there are arguments against this and rightly so. In truth, however, this just means that we need to be wise in understanding what we are trying to achieve. We need to recognise that every body (and here I mean physically, mentally and emotionally) is different and so the cookie cutter approach to a posture doesn’t work. What may be a great foot adjustment for one person, may very well torque the knee of another. What may be a highly beneficial pelvic alignment adjustment for one person may trigger trauma in another.

So, ultimately, what does this mean when we look at the definition of “adjustment’ in yoga? Primarily, when we look at adjustments in yoga, we want to ensure that the student is safe. We want to guide them to prevent injury and start them on the pathway to finding the alignment that works best for them, in their current physical, mental or emotional state. We want to start them down the pathway of change. If they continue to practice, we want to guide them further to finding the expression of the pose that works for them as the process of yoga brings about its inevitable change. We HAVE to take into account the student as an individual and we HAVE to deliver our adjustments with compassion and kindness, guided by strong anatomical understanding of their situations.

Ultimately this means that ‘adjustments’ can be easily communicated either verbally or by actually showing the student what to do in order to alter the posture. Even over Zoom, a teacher can clarify for a student properly as long as they are clear in their language tools. Some students, however, will need physical assistance to find the alignment we are asking of them and this is particularly evident when a student is new to a particular pose. Placement of the body in space, with new sensations is a challenge. This, of course, poses a challenge for the teacher under our current pandemic crisis.

Defining Assisting

Again, we return to our trusty Oxford

“helping someone to do something/ helping something to happen more easily”

So, again, random as this may be when applied to yoga teaching, there is, at least,  a clear implication that we are there to serve. Now, as far as I am concerned, as a yoga teacher, that is my primary role anyway – I am here to serve the student and serve the practice. And what does that mean? By my thinking and my experience, we serve the student in such a way that we use the practices of yoga to assist them in facilitating change in their lives. We serve the practice by communicating it with strength of conviction, peace of heart and intention of compassion. This means, if you are more of a physically based human, as I was when I first started this practice, the first point of service will be in ‘assisting’ a student to find the fullness of the expression of the pose as it applies to them and then allowing the magic of the practice do its work. This would, in my opinion mean that we are assisting a student in finding the ‘juice’ of the pose – Assisting them to find the correct teeny tiny movement or activation that assists in turning the posture into a living asana.

The intention here is unconditional love delivered through service of another. Whether we actually find unconditional love every day in the practice or in teaching – towards every student or not, the intention remains the same. And, in delivering this through asana, we still must take into account the student. We have to listen to them and ensure that we are assisting them to squish out the juice of a pose and not beat it to death with a sledgehammer. We want to assist and not be a dogmatist. We have to listen to the student and establish whether what we are doing still serves them. This means that every assist is different. Whether the accent is in verbal phrasing or the force is in the hands, there are no two assists alike and this is the challenge in learning to do this. It means understanding the human form and listening to your client in what appears, at times, to be an incorporeal way. It is for this reason, that I believe that yoga teachers should never rush in to offer physical assists. You need time on your side. You need experience. You need to have experienced both good and bad assists yourself to understand the neuromuscular responses such assists trigger and how that is expressed.

From my experience it is very difficult to have a student “assist” themselves. Over Zoom, I have been teaching students self assists. The truth is, without actually being in the room, I really can’t tell if I am serving, embedding incorrect movement practices or creating suffering. I have used verbal cueing to very subtle movements that should lead to profound energy shifts and, again, I really can’t tell if I am serving because I am not present in the room with the student. This is the challenge of online teaching and why live online teaching is a whole new skill set for us as teachers.

Removing hands on assists in the studio has been one of the toughest moves I have had to do and I must admit that I have an awful tendency to just step in, forget myself and then quickly have to extricate. I have had to finely hone my language and descriptions to a degree I never thought possible and demonstrating a feeling is getting easier with practice.

In Conclusion…

What really helps is having students who are honest communicators. As teachers, we need to let go of the need for students to see us as always correct, encourage healthy questioning and give our students permission to tell the truth. Expression of truth either verbally or physically is one of the best ways for us to find a new way forward during this epidemic. Our focus here, for our students requires a different skill set. It requires succinct communication and keen observation, despite the fact that we are unable to work with a student in 3D or in close contact. We need to ensure that while they practice at the end of a screen, we are watching, we are feeling and we are listening intuitively. We need keep our eyes truly open when we return to the studio to hone in deeply on changes that have occurred in their bodies during their time away from our physical teaching.  We need to recognise that, just as we have had to change our means of delivering our teaching, our students have often, had to change their lives and we have to accommodate that with strength, peace and, overall, with an acute sense of compassion.