I was taking a yoga class the other day with a teacher that was new to me. As she guided us into a particular pose, I started moving around within the range of the pose and exploring the pose with my body, something I invite students to try during their practice.
To my surprise, the instructor came over, held my arm in place, and pressed my foot down, ultimately pausing my intuitive movement and determining how the pose was going to look. I felt startled, confused, misunderstood, and cautious in proceeding for the rest of class in anticipation that she may come back again and adjust another pose.
I want to highlight why I don’t agree with this type of teaching or adjustment.
It communicates that there is only one way of doing the pose. People are different, their bodies are different, their experiences are different, the class sequence the instructor offers will likely land differently for everybody, and that’s okay.
But as soon as the practice becomes only about fulfilling the sequence and squeezing people into poses, it’s less about the student’s practice and more about the instructor.
In a group class, a teacher may come over and give you an adjustment for different reasons; they see something that isn’t safe for your body and modify your position, they perceive you’re able to move deeper into a pose, they want you to engage your body more fully and effectively in a pose, or they want to offer specific cues to enhance your alignment in the pose.
From my perspective, both as a student and teacher, the change this instructor made didn’t add anything to the pose and I was definitely not at any risk in my exploratory movement. Her adjustment felt restrictive and unhelpful. I do wonder what her thought process was in making the adjustment.
(For teachers) It’s important to consider why you’re offering an adjustment and to be clear about the intention of the change. I’ve heard peers talk about examples of a specific modification they received that actually made the pose worse for them.
Teachers learn the poses in depth as well as the specific adjustments, and while it’s part of our role to be knowledgeable and give alignment cues, it is not our job to change someone’s posture because it doesn’t fit with exactly what we learned the pose “should” look like.
Well-spoken by one of my teachers, Amy Matthews:
“You cannot assume what someone else is experiencing”
Poses will show up differently for everybody, because we are all showing up from different places in our practice and in different bodies. A student might be choosing to alter something because it is better for them. Teachers can guess how a student feels, but we can’t ever know. Teachers can guide but it always comes down to the students’ choice.
I’m sharing these ideas regarding adjustments for two main reasons
1. To empower students to speak up and communicate if they are uncomfortable and not just trusting that the instructor knows what’s best, but to trust themselves. Teachers can do their best to present different options, but among the options offered, it is ultimately up to the student to choose what is best for them because it’s their body and their practice.
And 2. To encourage instructors to self-reflect and notice what they’re assuming in class about their students, if they are best serving their students, and what that really means. Instructors are not there to dictate or fit students into the shape of the sequence, they are there to guide people, to keep them safe, to offer ideas, and support them in exploring their experience practicing yoga.
Nowadays when teaching group classes, I mostly use verbal adjustments to assist students or if possible I demonstrate the adjustment on my own body.
Verbal cues not only give the student more space but offers the experience of listening to the specific cue, translating it into sensory experience, and then finding and sensing it within their own bodies.
(To be clear, I’m not arguing that my present approach to adjustments the only way, but it’s what I personally and professionally feel comfortable offering and what I feel is still effective, safe, and maintains a strong sense of openness and choice for the student.)
When I’m working with clients doing private yoga, however, I do offer more hands on adjustments, and here’s why.
The dynamic in a private yoga session is very distinct from that of a group class; when working privately, there is much more communication one-on-one between the teacher and the student. There is consistent feedback and checking in so that the teacher can be as tuned in as possible to where the student is at and therefore what would be most supportive to offer them.
When working individually, over time the teacher gains much better sense of the student’s practice than they would in a group class setting, where the teacher’s attention is divided among many students at once.
During private sessions, teachers have a chance to learn about their students; their past or current injuries, where they tend to be tight, what poses they love, what they specifically are looking to gain out of their private sessions, etc. As a result, the adjustments offered, to support, deepen, or modify, are based on overall greater knowledge of the student, and are delivered more clearly and effectively.
Teachers have a huge responsibility in cultivating a safe space to practice yoga. In my classes, I would not want a student to feel pressured to complete a pose or to move deeper into a pose if it wasn’t for them at that moment. If a student feels open to explore the possibility of moving deeper into a pose, that is for them to sense. But it’s not a teachers job to push and pull students to get into the maximum edges of these shapes. It’s an offering. An invitation. It is a way to serve.
Natalie Mazur is a bilingual (English/Spanish) yoga instructor based in San Diego, California. She teaches private clients in their homes and offers weekly group classes. Natalie has nine years of study and teaching experience combined, and has taught in the U.S. and internationally.
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