Recently, someone new came to a Yoga for Life class. She told me that she was missing a ligament in one knee, as well as some other things about her past and her injuries. This was a body I did not know, and one that had some stuff going on. At the end of class, she asked me if I ever give hands-on adjustments. I said no. We had a brief discussion about why I do not, she paid me for the single class, and my guess is I will never see her again.
The first ten years of my yoga practice I did not receive one adjustment. Not one time did my teacher put her hands on my body to ask it to do something different than what was doing, what I interpreted her directions and her demonstration of those instructions to mean in my own body. And beyond a small hamstring tear (which really was my own fault — on one occasion I decided that I needed to push my body beyond what felt right), I was never injured in my yoga practice. Could I have progressed further and faster than I did had I received adjustments? Maybe. Does it matter? To me, it does not.
When I started practicing in other styles and in other studios I started to receive hands-on adjustments for the first time. Most of the time they were suggestions of external rotation in the arms, or to bring my awareness to a part of my body that I was less aware of in a posture. But one time, with a male teacher, while in downward dog, from behind me he reached between my legs, grabbing onto the opposite inner thigh and gently internally rotated my femur. It was one of the first times I'd been in his class, and he and I eventually became good friends. He's a good man, and a gentle one, but he had been taught that this was an appropriate adjustment. I'm sure many of you reading this know this movement, have received or even given this adjustment yourselves. It made me incredibly uncomfortable, but I didn't say anything.
Much has been said in other places and by other people about some yoga practices and the extreme adjustments that have happened in them, the abuse of power, the physical injuries incurred, the sexual abuse that occurred. I'm fortunate to have never been subjected to these things, to have never witnessed these abuses. But I know that these things have happened, and how I touch people in class is informed by this understanding. Although it has not been my experience, I think it's important to mention it within this context.
A teacher in a movement class has power. People come to the class to be told what to do, to learn. What is it exactly that we are going to teach?
"Atha yogānuśāsanam. Yogaś citta vṛitti nirodhaḥ." --Yoga Sutras 1.1,2 –Patañjali
When I am teaching yoga, I am teaching an eight-limbed practice that includes physical postures. The goal of yoga is to be present. These are the first two sutras, which roughly translate to "Now is yoga. Yoga is the stilling of the fluctuations of the mind." Nowhere in the sutras does it say to externally rotate the shoulders, or internally rotate the femurs. I'm not saying that either of those are right or wrong (in fact, I might verbally cue one of these things), but I am saying that doing or not doing them does not make your practice more yogic.
There is a lot of talk about making a practice "safe", that if you practice certain postures (or don't practice other postures) in particular ways, you will create a safe practice. And I spend quite a lot of time learning about healthy bodies, better movement practices, alignment, stability, mobility, strength which are all of varying usefulness to me in my daily life and in my yoga practice and teaching.
What does make a movement practice a yoga practice, and coincidentally what makes it a safer practice, is awareness. Being aware of what you are doing with your body, and consequently how it feels, keeps you in the moment (which is where yoga happens), and creates a better chance that you will not be injured in your practice. Will your body look like the downward dog you see other people in? Maybe. Does it matter? To me, it does not.
Why do we move the ways that we move? Why does my downward dog look different than yours? Our movement patterns are not just based on decisions to move our bodies in certain ways. Sometimes they are compensatory for things outside of ourselves acting on our bodies, and sometimes they are compensatory for things happening inside our bodies. Examples might be — years of sitting at a desk (which I will point out we train into our children from the age of 5) shorten hamstrings and lengthen/weaken glutes. This patterning in the body will change the way a downward dog will look. Or, that one leg is slightly shorter than the other will change how we walk, and the impact might show up in a knee or a back, and that might change the way that we are able to "achieve" a posture. And, yes, I say achieve a posture, because making it look like it does in the pictures is an achievement, not necessarily an embodiment. We can also be responding to stress or trauma in our lives, which might manifest as a physical position. Perhaps you have an injury, or maybe your body is also missing a ligament.
So, when you come to class, what I see in your body is only a part of the story. When I offer a posture or movement to you, it is for you to explore, to experience. When I have given instructions (and they will be thorough, anatomical, bio-mechanical) for a posture and you have embodied that position, I might gently touch you somewhere to bring awareness to a part of the body, but I will almost certainly not move your body. Some people may disagree with me, and some may be disappointed after a class with me, but I wanted to explain why I choose not to give hands-on adjustments. It's not a failing or shirking of the responsibility of my teaching. It's an invitation to every body to be present. It's a choice to be in yoga, the way I understand it.
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