Years ago, one of my former students took a yoga class at a local health club. My student had been practicing for several years and was quite flexible in some areas of her body; in others, not as much. The places of inflexibility were likely due to the placement, depth and orientation of her hip sockets, which made her predisposed to internal, but not external, rotation.
The class was practicing Baddha Konasana (Bound Angle Pose), a seated asana where you place the feet together and extend the knees out to the sides. The pose requires a great deal of external rotation. The teacher came up behind my student and forcefully pushed her knees down toward the floor. In a shot heard ’round the classroom, a tendon snapped. My student was unable to walk without crutches for more than a month.
In the past year, articles in national media—including The New York Times and KQED, a Bay Area NPR station—have provoked lively conversation in the national yoga community. The articles detail accusations of sexually inappropriate touch by well-known yoga teachers in the name of making manual adjustments. (I contributed my own story of a groping incident by a famous teacher to the KQED article.)
These incidents are a traumatizing abuse of power, and exposing them has come none too soon. However, even when there is no sexual intent, manual adjustments in yoga classes must be undertaken with care and respect. There’s no indication that the teacher who snapped my student’s tendon had any sort of malicious intent—sexual or otherwise—but the adjustment still caused substantial harm.
Why Give Manual Adjustments?
Manual adjustments are ubiquitous in many popular yoga classes. There’s a reasonable argument for giving yoga adjustments. When a student’s body is misaligned in a pose, a manual adjustment can help them feel the difference between healthy and unhealthy alignment.
These adjustments require a teacher to have developed an eye for reading cues that are often subtle. This eye can take years to develop. For some students, verbal instructions are not as relatable, and less experienced teachers may not yet have developed the language to communicate verbal alignment instructions effectively.
But many teachers give manual adjustments in order to push students further into poses. As in the example of my student and her snapped tendon, these adjustments have great potential to cause injury. They arise out of the mistaken notion that a strong asana practice means ignoring your body’s signals and pushing past your edge.
As yoga practice has been transferred into Western culture, its goal has shifted from awakening through self-discovery to performing amazing feats of flexibility. This has given rise to both acute and chronic injuries, as well as to overly zealous teachers pushing people past their healthy limits in order to make students feel as if they’re “advancing.”
What Is an Appropriate Adjustment?
Let’s break down the adjustment in the example I gave at the beginning of this article. What made this adjustment inappropriate?
First and foremost, the teacher walked up behind the student and pressed down on her thighs without asking permission, or even making his presence known. Much of the time, we don’t know our students’ histories. Many people have experienced past trauma that could be triggered by a manual adjustment, especially when a teacher comes from behind and doesn’t communicate his intentions.
Judith Hanson Lasater counsels teachers to ask permission every single time they intend to make an adjustment. Even if you’ve adjusted a person many times before, it’s important to ask permission every time. Here are some suggestions for how to ask permission:
- “Would you be okay with me adjusting your alignment?”
- “Do you mind if I make an adjustment?”
- “May I touch you?” (I’m not crazy about this one, but some teachers find it effective.)
Some studios employ consent cards that indicate “yes” or “no” for manual adjustments. Students place these cards on their yoga mats.
The second issue with the example above is that the teacher attempted to push the student’s body further into the pose. Adjustments that intend to force a person into a more intense version of a pose are a recipe for injury. Even trying to force a student’s body into what we consider to be a better aligned position can cause injury, because there is no alignment “rule” that fits every student.
Manual adjustments are an art, and must be approached as a mutual exploration. We must develop the sensitivity to feel when someone else’s body is receptive and when it is not. So the touch itself needs to be receptive, rather than directive.
For example, the teacher and student can embark on a slow and gentle exploration, where there’s equality between teacher and student, rather than a top-down assumption of teacher authority. Teachers must be open to student feedback—physical and verbal. This is how we develop the eye that sees each student as an individual, rather than a cookie cutter whose poses “should” look like some preconceived ideal.
Yoga students have power as well. Especially if you are working with a teacher you don’t know well, you can express your agency in the following ways:
- By declining manual adjustments, period.
- By asking about the intention for an adjustment. If it’s to push you further into a pose, you can decide whether you want to take the potential risk.
- By asking the teacher to move slowly, and to listen to your feedback.
Asana is a physical practice. But it is so much more. Our physical, mental, emotional and spiritual experiences are stored in our bodies. There are reasons practitioners choose to hold back in their poses. Sometimes it’s not a choice; their structures are simply not designed for certain movements. If we want our teaching practice to grow, we need to be open to letting our students teach us.