By Andry Sophocleous
All yoga practitioners can enjoy the benefits of yoga practice through proper alignment of asanas. Systematic assistance in yoga practice is vital for helping students experience improvement in their range of motion and ability to relax during postures (Pappas 2006). The importance of assistance and yoga posture adjustments should not be undermined by teachers as students’ proper alignment will help them to balance better, stretch further and hence, advance and go deeper into the postures. This progress can only be achieved through receiving assistance in a yoga posture.
Right at the beginning of a new class, or when new students attend an existing class, the teacher should ask permission to touch students during their asana practice and explain the importance of giving assistance during their practice. Thereafter, there is no need to ask permission every time the teacher touches someone in class for the purpose of assisting. I will begin this short essay by making reference to the importance of offering constant verbal instruction on assisting and alignments and then briefly mention numerous suggestions on how teachers can effectively apply adjusting and assisting instructions during yoga practice. Some of the poses have been incorporated into my practical exam.
The practice of Yoga has been around for more than 5000 years (Vishnu- devananda 1988). It has become very popular in the West as it has proved to improve our physical, mental, and emotional state (Hewitt 1977; Jerald 2011a; 2011b; Gibbins 2011; Vishnu-devananda 1988; Martins 2011; Singh 2011). Systematic practice can enhance muscular flexibility and tone, massage internal organs and glands, lubricate joints, tendons and ligaments, and eliminate toxins from our body (Knoedler Rueda 2011). Students who want to experience these benefits in their journey of self-discovery and self-realisation attend yoga classes to begin their experience. This learning experience cannot be at all complete unless the instructor guides them through their progress, opening, and learning of their body better by assisting and adjusting their postures during yoga practice. Therefore, it is each teacher’s responsibility to offer constant assisting to all his/her students to achieve maximum benefits from their yoga classes. Physical benefits one can enjoy such as good body posture can extend outside a yoga class by practising simple asanas like Mountain Pose. These benefits can only be enjoyed if the practitioner receives the necessary assisting and adjustment cues by the teacher during yoga practice. These could be in the form of ‘spread your toes and be aware of the four corners of your feet’, ‘keep the spine straight and bring your navel toward the spine’, ‘drop your tail bone’ and’ ‘let your shoulders relax’ (Pappas 2006: 23). These cues should be accompanied by the teacher’s assistance who will be touching the student in the appropriate body parts to help him/her perform the pose successfully. Similarly, assisting and adjustment is necessary when a student is attempting to get into Half Moon Pose that requires balance and concentration. To help students perform the pose well, especially beginners, the teacher should assist them by standing behind them after they get into the pose and helping them to stay balanced by lightly touching their upper back on top of their shoulder blades (deltoid muscles) with one hand and holding their upper leg with the other, in her/his attempt to keep the students’ torso in line with their hips (see Pappas 2006: 58). Moreover, in another pose that is very common in yoga practice such as Downward Dog, the teacher should assist the students to get into the pose by pressing on their sacrum, roll their deltoids outwards and keep their arms straight (see Pappas 2006: 15) to do the pose correctly.
Pappas (2006) makes reference to numerous great tips for effective adjusting and assisting yoga postures in class or in private sessions. Some of these that all yoga teachers should be aware of are the following:
1. Ask Precise Questions
Students should be asked precise questions regarding the teacher’s assistance, for the latter to receive specific answers. If for instance, the teacher is applying gentle pressure on the student’s back during a seated forward bend (see Pappas 2006: 82), the teacher should ask whether or not the student would like more pressure, rather than simply asking him/her if the pressure is fine. A specific question will prompt a specific answer; and this is how a teacher can help a student improve in a specific pose by knowing exactly how s/he feels.
2. Adjust the most unsafe misalignments first
If a student shows several misalignments whilst in a pose, the teacher should firstly correct the one that seems to be the most dangerous for the student’s safety. For instance, in an asana such as Warrior II the teacher notices three misalignments: firstly, the student does not have his/her back straight but slightly leans forward whilst in the pose, secondly; his/her knee is extended beyond the toes of the bent leg; and thirdly, the shoulders are not relaxed but tensed also causing the back to be tensed. In my opinion the most serious misalignment of the three is the second one, the knee position of the front leg. This should be corrected first, to avoid a possible knee injury that might be caused by placing too much weight on the front knee. Then, the other two misalignments should be corrected, first misalignment one and then misalignment three.
3. Apply pressure in the correct direction
It is the teacher’s responsibility to know exactly where to place pressure during asana practise. Placing pressure in the wrong body part can cause injury and pain; which consequently could discourage the student from practising yoga again.
4. Walk away gradually after adjusting or assisting
The teacher should walk away from a student after s/he is stable and balanced whilst in a pose; otherwise walking away quickly might cause the student to lose focus, balance and fall out of the pose abruptly. For instance, whilst assisting a student to maintain his/her balance in a standing side leg extension (Pappas 2006: 32) by holding his/her lifted leg up, the teacher suddenly walks away prior to the student stabilizing his/her pose. This abrupt discontinuance of offering assistance might cause the student to lose balance and fall over.
5. Avoid overcorrecting
Correcting is good, but overcorrecting a student’s misalignments might possibly have counter effects. Overcorrection might make a student feel frustrated, embarrassed and not capable of practising yoga. All teachers should put themselves in each of their students’ positions prior to making any comments regarding their posture.
6. Be specific with your touch
At all times, teachers should be aware of their hand placement whilst assisting a student. Touching sensitive areas such as the groin, armpits, buttocks and breasts should be avoided (Pappas 2006).
7. Keep part of your attention on the whole class while assisting
When the teacher is assisting a student in class, s/he should still be aware of the rest of the students’ posture and continue to give them verbal instruction. Whilst helping one student, s/he should not leave the class in the postures too long as this might tire them out but also make them feel neglected during practice.
Assistance, cuing and adjustments are not needed in these few poses alone, but in all yoga poses during the entire lesson. After all, we know that yoga students, even those familiar with the poses, often cannot successfully perform poses such as Dancer, Standing Split, Seated Wide Spread Fold, Camel pose, Squat, Wheel, Fish, Bow, and Headstands, to name just a few, without some assistance from the teacher. I hope that with the brief justification provided above, it is now clear why a teacher’s assisting and adjustments are central to his/her students’ correct alignment, development of yoga practice, as well as better physical balance, emotional well-being, and confidence outside class.
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