Adjustments can be an extremely effective part of the way a yoga teacher communicates with their students. Adjustments can be soft, energetic, enabling and supportive. They should feel GOOD. If an adjustment feels painful or horrible – then something is going very wrong. Here are my suggestions for ensuring your adjustments are safe and effective and compassionate.
It is important to explicitly tell students that adjustments shouldn’t hurt and that if at any time an adjustment feels like it is too much, they can say ‘that’s enough’. Also if on a particular day they don’t feel like receiving adjustments it’s fine to say ‘not today’. It’s a good idea to give this information to your students in writing (if you give out an information sheet to new students) and to say it verbally.
There are certain adjustments that are often intense to receive – for example binding in Marichyasana D, Supta Kurmasana and Kapotasana, so ask permission every time. ‘Is it ok today?’ or just ‘Ok?’ is enough.
Not on a Joint
Joints are the most vulnerable places in the body so always avoid putting pressure on a joint. This especially applies to the spine and the knees, especially when the knee is in lotus.
If someone very flexible comes to a class some yoga teachers get very excited and want to push and pull them into all kinds of cool, crazy poses. This is often really not helpful. When people are very flexible it is more important for them to work on grounding, stabilising and strengthening. So, when adjusting someone who is hyper-mobile or very flexible, focus on grounding and stability or connecting the student to their core strength.
Some students come to their yoga practice with an attitude of pushing and pulling themselves into the pose come what may. They will pull their feet to get further into a forward bend, creating tension in their shoulders and putting their muscles and joints at risk of serious injury. If an adjustment is given it can make the pose even more stressful for the body. It is up to their yoga teacher to encourage them to back off and go more gently. The nervous system has a mechanism called the ‘stretch reflex’ that monitors if a muscle is being stretched too hard or too fast, if this is the case it sends a message to the muscle to tense up for protection. This means that a soft gentle stretch will actually be safer and more effective for the body. Any adjustment given in this case need to encourage softening (for example massage their shoulders) or backing off (for example grounding the sit bones in a forward bend)
If a student has short, shallow breath, this will send a signal to the nervous system to tense the body up ready for action – part of the flight or fight mechanism. So if a student’s breath isn’t slow and deep, it’s best not to give an adjustment.
It is best with beginners to focus on giving gentle corrections rather than adjustments. Making sure the shoulders are lightly drawing back and down, making sure the feet are in the right place and the neck is correctly aligned. Most people when they are beginning will just be ‘making the shape’ rather than really connecting to their breath, bandhas and core strength. This means that a strong adjustment is likely to be at best unhelpful and at worse risking injury.
If a student is working with an injury then be very cautious about giving adjustments. For sure it wouldn’t be helpful to adjust directly on the injured part, but also be gentle and cautious with other adjustments. This is because often the body will tense up around an injury to keep it immobilised while healing is taking place. Focus on giving grounding and supporting them rather than taking them deeper.
Wide Legged Forward Bends
One of the muscles on the inside of the thigh (Adductor Magnus for all you anatomy nerds out there) is very vulnerable in wide legged forward bends. This is because it attaches to the sit bone (ischial tuberosity), which means it acts as an adductor and as a hamstring. So, in a wide legged forward bend it is under a double stretch – as an adductor (when the legs are taken wide apart) and as a hamstring (in the forward fold). This means that it is pretty vulnerable. The only adjustment that’s safe to give is to re-iterate the foundation and give grounding, not to take a student deeper.
Gentle in Prasarita Padodanasana C!
In Prasarita C when the arms are taken over the head, the AC joint (Acromioclavicular) at the front of the shoulder is very vulnerable. As you may or may not remember from your physics, along lever (the arms) means that a small amount of pressure on one end translates to a large force on the other end. So if you are adjusting this pose, fingertip pressure at the hands is enough to give a strong adjustment at the shoulders.
Knots of Tension
If a knot of tension has formed in a muscle (for example around an old injury) it is unlikely to respond to stretching. This means that the muscle fibre around it is likely to tear. Muscle knots are best dealt with through massage.
A Good Adjustment
Always start by making sure you are balanced, relaxed, focussed and strong in your foundation. The first contact is to re-iterate the student’s foundation or to give stability. Next start to guide the student into the pose, make sure you are moving with their breath. If you feel resistance, if their body starts to shake, if they stop breathing or if the breath becomes shallow or quick, if they grimace or tense the face, and of course, if they say ‘that’s enough’, then stop and back off a bit. Sometimes if you wait a few breaths they will relax and you can carry on with the adjustment. Sometimes not. If you are unsure ask ‘is it too much?’ or ‘should I back off a bit’.
By following these rules and by keeping clear lines of communication between you and your students, you can make adjustments safe and enjoyable for everyone concerned.
In the past many teachers (myself included) have been quite strong and hard in giving adjustments – often coming from a place of wanting to help the student achieve all they are capable of – but often creating an attitude of striving and making injuries more likely.
As time has gone by and I have got older and softer, I have got more and more gentle in my adjustments. I have come to focus far more on breathing with the student and on relaxing myself as much as I can. It seems to be that a gentle adjustment given whist you are focussed, breathing deeply and relaxed, can be very effective… and is so much nicer to give and receive.