A Guide to Hands-On Adjustments in the Post #MeToo Era

MeToo Discussion

There’s no doubt that hands-on adjustments in yoga have changed dramatically over the years.

Back when yoga was first being popularised in the West, there were anecdotes of teachers giving students a sharp rap with a a stick.

To get any attention from the great masters was considered a privilege and students who had the courage to protest were generally told to stop making such a fuss (in so many words).

This is not to say that all strong physical adjustments are wrong or inappropriate. But times have changed and attitudes since then have changed too, and not just in yoga.

How the #MeToo Movement Changed Things

Since the Harvey Weinstein scandal and the global trending of #MeToo on social media, the feeling that women should just put up with low-level harassment and unwanted attention has ended.

In the yoga world, the Bikram Choudhury scandal was another example of a powerful man taking advantage of his influence, and there have been other scandals within Ashtanga Yoga and with certain Iyengar yoga teachers.

The result of this is that women, and indeed men too, should not have to put up with any unwanted physical or verbal attention. Choice is at the heart of all physical encounters, intimate or not.

But it was not just inappropriate or sexual touching that was commonplace. As recently as before the pandemic, physical adjustments that were unasked for, too extreme, or made the student feel uncomfortable, were common.

How the Pandemic Has Changed Things

Since the pandemic, there has also been a big shift in how we approach physical adjustments. The shift to online teaching during the pandemic meant a complete break from any physical adjustments for long periods of time. Yoga teachers adapted and used verbal instruction, as well as props that students might have at home.

This has had a knock-on effect since in-person teaching started back again in earnest in later summer this year. We are now more used to giving people physical space from the 2-metre rule, as well as not shaking hands or hugging.

Many yoga teachers are naturally cautious about reintroducing hands-on adjustments and want to make sure their students feel completely safe.

Getting Consent

So with these two cataclysmic shifts, how do we proceed? Is it best to avoid hands-on adjustments altogether?

As mentioned earlier, the best way to approach all physical adjustments is to get consent BEFORE you do it. It doesn’t have to be a big deal, but a quick – ‘Are you ok if I adjust you?’ means that everyone is clear from the outset.

However, for some students even this might be triggering (see article on Yoga and Neurodiversity). It might be worth including a sentence on your sign-up form saying something like: If you would rather I don’t adjust you physically at any point, please tick this box.

That way it’s confidential, isn’t in a face-to-face situation, which could be intimidating, and means that you need never put them on the spot.

Why Physical Adjustments Shouldn’t be Stopped

Perhaps it would be simpler to drop physical adjustments completely. I mean we’ve got by without them for this long? And, as mentioned above, for different reasons, it might not be suitable for some students.

But for students who have firstly given consent, and who learn through experience rather than the theory, good physical adjustments can stay with you – for life.

For many students overly wordy instructions can take them out of their body and into their heads, which is the opposite effect yoga is meant to have.

How to Get it Right

Yoga is about bringing the mind into the body. A yoga teacher has various tools to enable their students to do this.

The visual tool is demonstrating the poses with their own body. Teachers act as a mirror, so that students can visually copy the shape they’re making. Some yoga teachers use their students as teaching tools as well, but usually only students that they know will be comfortable being used as a teaching aid.

The audio tool is through verbal instructions or cues. Clear and varied instructions as students are working help to finetune their yoga practice.  This can be through anatomical instructions, as well as emotional, breath and metaphor.

The final tool yoga teachers have is touch, through physical touch. Done correctly, this can be an incredibly illuminating teaching tool for the student, giving them a direct impression of how to work in the body. The sense of touch can also be used through the use of props, such as the floor, wall, belts, bricks and blocks.

Physical Assists Rather than Physical Adjustment

Rather than thinking about the teacher adjusting or forcing the student into the asana, an assist is about the teacher guiding the student to work harder in some areas or work less in others. This assist should be helpful in guiding the student in their understanding and progress with the pose.

Simply pushing the students’s body into the ‘right’ position is unlikely to be helpful in the long term and can potentially cause long-term damage.

Bespoke Physical assists for each Person not by rote

When we do yoga teacher training there are certain yoga teacher adjustments that we all learn. For example, pressing the sacrum down in Child’s pose to further deepen the stretch across the lower back.

This might feel great for some, but for others that are stiff in the groins, that can be an unhelpful assist.

The key to hands on adjustments is to really look at the student first. To see what action will guide the student going forwards and not just in that moment. And not just to trot out an adjustment that you’ve learnt to do.

Done correctly, a physical adjustment or assist can enable the student to progress, can support them in their practice, and learn through the direct medium of touch. Just make sure to ask them first!

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