Assisting students through their practice and guiding them into proper alignment is one of the more important functions a Yoga instructor has. Whether to provide verbal assists or physical assists is something that many new Yoga instructors, and even seasoned instructors, find difficult at times. We should never be afraid to assist; however, we need to be mindful of our students’ mental and emotional needs as well as their physical needs in regard to proper alignment and form. Our students’ safety is always a top priority, so it is our responsibility as instructors to be able to provide guidance throughout class in a way that helps our students to feel comfortable and safe.
Whenever it is found that a physical assist would help a student with their practice, we should always ask permission before touching that student. Most students will welcome assistance, however, if there is a student who requests not to be touched, we must honor that fully. Instead, verbal assists can be made and/or demonstrating that asana for the student to follow along. Either you can provide a demonstration, or you can ask another student to demonstrate.
Touch can be a very powerful tool in helping students, so we must use it wisely and thoughtfully. Touch can bring forth different emotions and reactions from students based on their current mental and emotional states. This is why asking before a physical assist is important. Not only will this alert the student to your presence, they can also prepare themselves mentally. We must also know why we are making this assist and have a purpose behind it. Before doing the assist, think about your student’s condition. Does he or she have any injuries or areas of concern? Are they male or female? Is my intuition as a teacher guiding me to help this student? What is my goal with this physical assist? These are all things we should consider before a physical assist takes place. If you are not sure if you should adjust a student, then the best course of action is to take a breath, observe your student, and decide from there if the assist is needed, and if so, clearly understand the purpose of the assist. Be sure to have that purpose and clear intention in your mind as your students will feel that intent through your touch.
Something else to consider when assisting students is your own safety. If you are not safe in your practice, then your students have a higher risk of not being safe in their practice. You are the example for your students, so be sure to demonstrate safety throughout your classes. This will not only help your students by having an example to follow, but it will make sure that you don’t accidentally hurt a student(s) by becoming unbalanced while assisting a student through a pose. You must make sure that you are grounded. To do this, keep your back straight, try to keep a lower center of gravity, and never lean over your students.
To assist you in safely assisting your students, below are some basic guidelines for physically assisting your students.
- Never roughly pull on any part of a student’s body. Pulling on the head, hands/arms, feet/legs, etc. can cause injury to your students. If a student needs to stretch, you can use verbal cues like “Extend your neck as if someone were pulling your head upward” or “Stretch your neck up through the crown of your head”. To add a physical assist, place your hand close to part that you would like the student to stretch and say, “Stretch your ___ so that it touches my hand.” You can also lightly touch an area where the student is tense to show them where to relax. This will help student naturally stretch and relax.
- If a student is tight in a particular area, like the shoulders, back, or hips, putting slight pressure on those areas can help open then up and guide the student into a deeper stretch. Keep in mind that this should not be forced, so only gentle pressure should be use.
- Head holding is another great tool to use for helping students relax. Some students can have a hard time relaxing their head and shoulders. By holding the head, it can support and comfort a student, which helps him or her gradually relax into the pose.
- If you are supporting a student while they are practicing an asana that is low to the ground, do not lean over the student. Either sit by the head (if supporting the head, neck, or shoulders) or by the feet (to support the legs, knees, and feet). Open your legs into a wide angle so that you are grounded through the hips and thighs so that you are stable and can safely support your student. If additional support is needed from a higher angle, you can either stand with your legs in a “V” formation which helps to center your gravity in the hips and ground you. You can also kneel on both knees with the legs hip distance apart for balance or kneel on one knee, while the other foot is grounded to the floor, with the knee lined up over the foot. This is a great position for ensuring balance. Especially when slight pressure needs to be applied to a student to help relax muscles or open the shoulders or hips.