Yoga Culture

Manual adjustments in yoga class

By Charlotte Bell

What to do and what not to do

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 had developed a healthy range of motion, meaning she was plenty flexible, but not extremely so.

On that day, the class was practicing Baddha Konasana (aka Butterfly 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 abduction and external rotation. During the practice, 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. 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 can be fraught. They must be undertaken with care and respect.

Why give manual adjustments?

There’s a reasonable argument for giving 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.

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. So manual adjustments may be a better option for some students and/or teachers.

But some 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 more is better, that a strong asana practice means pushing past your edge—and ignoring your body’s signals.

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 teaching practices.

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 have 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?”

The second issue with the example 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.

Helpful adjustments require a teacher to have developed an eye for reading subtle cues, such as shallow breathing or facial strain. This eye can take years to develop. 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.

Student agency

Yoga students have power, too. 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. Teachers must approach each student with curiosity and respect. If we want our teaching practice to grow, we need to be open to letting our students teach us.

Charlotte Bell has been practicing yoga since 1982. She is the author of several yoga-related books including, most recently, Hip Healthy Asana, and founder of Mindful Yoga Collective in Salt Lake City.

This article was originally published on December 30, 2019.