Maladjusted: Tales of the No-Touch Yoga Teacher.

Via Sara Lovelace
on Apr 11, 2013
get elephant's newsletter
photo by Jill Shropshire
photo by Jill Shropshire

A few weeks ago, I hugged my mother.

This might not sound like a way to start a blog, especially to those of you who do, outside of holidays, funerals, and Chardonnay binges, embrace members of their own families.

I’m not one of those people—I come from a long line of back-patters and high fivers, people who’ve refined, though hundreds of years of evolution, the fine art of avoiding intimate human contact.

In a Darwinian sense, this allowed us to avoid the black plague and all those other diseases people get from being spontaneously intimate. Our friends and mates might hate it, bitterness might develop between us, but we, with our healthy five feet rule of human contact, will outlive them anyway.

My therapist might not agree, but I can find a thousand good reasons to avoid human touch.

This, dear readers, is one of the many reasons I have a therapist.

Because hugging, cuddling, holding hands, snuggling, hands creeping up my back where I can’t see them, women’s retreats, team-building exercises where you have to fall into your rather sketchy co-worker’s arms, baby showers, Phish concerts—all of it is frightening to me.

This might be acceptable if I was an IT gal or a park ranger in a remote wood, but I’m a yoga teacher, damnit—his fear of touch, which worked so well for my people in the past, is now the Catch 22 of my existence. How can I be a great yoga teacher—or, for that matter, student—with my five feet rule?

I’ve worried about this for years. I’ve never questioned my ability to read a class and know what they want and need, or guide students safely through the postures. I certainly assisted and adjusted when I felt it was needed, and made sure nobody was ever injured.

The feedback from students was positive down through the years, and at one point I had a fairly strong following. But even then, when I felt most confident about my teaching, I wondered if my students deserved more—deserved, literally, a pat on the back.

This is a crucial part of the entire experience for teachers and students, that exchange of energy and guidance. The ability to touch and adjust someone in the right way—in the way they need most—divides the good instructors from the great ones.

I would like to be more than good…this is why I’ve sent in the troops.

First, I went to get a massage. I’ve long had a contentious relationship with massages. Instead of being a relaxing, treat yo’self experience, I end up leaving feeling more tense than I did going in. The spa experience results in an immediate need for a cocktail. I can’t easily surrender control of my body, so I find myself mentally criticizing the Native American flute music being piped into the room. I worry I’ll fart. I worry I didn’t shave my legs thoroughly enough. I check my watch every minute or so.

But Operation: Great Yoga Teacher requires that I do this. Actually, it was injuring my neck by forcing an ill-timed headstand that forced me to do this. After being unable to turn my head for days, I realized the first lesson of Operation: Great Yoga Teacher was accepting that I don’t always have to be the strongest yoga student.

The first thing the massage therapist told me to do was: Relax. Let everything go.

I am relaxed.

No, I mean loosen up your shoulders. Let them just melt. She pushed gently on my shoulders and released a long, slow breath. Now, surrender.

I could feel my teeth grinding against one another, my breath quick like a Level 20 elliptical session.

I think, I said, this is as relaxed as I get.

This concerned her greatly. She asked me, again, how often I did yoga, trying to put the pieces together. How could a yogini be so hard, so immalleable, she wondered.

I can open my hips like a motherfucker, but I have a hard time being touched, I told her. I just want to be able to turn my head from side to side…to drive, you know.

I think we can do better than that.

photo by Jill Shropshire
photo by Jill Shropshire

An hour later, I’m driving down the road turning my head this way and that, taking the long way home in celebration of neck rotation, Angel Haze turned all the way up. The massage therapist had warned me that I might get emotional, perhaps even a bit depressed, after such an intense release on the table, but I felt amazingly high.

By the time I got home, Nick Cave was moaning through my speakers and I was weeping uncontrollably behind my sunglasses, a state that lasted for two solid days. I wanted to blame it on the dreary weather or the threat of a North Korean nuke, but it was obvious that the massage therapist was right.

It wasn’t just a reaction to the physical release in my shoulders and spine, either.

My head had been locked, unable to turn, to see what was around me. Now, very suddenly, I could see and remember things that I thought were long buried. I was digging up a box of frightening and long-forgotten fears.

Unlocking Fears would have been the perfect name for the long workshop weekend on yoga assists and adjustments that I attended a few days later.

My co-yogis boldly put their palms on each others’ achilles heels and sacrums. They ran their fingers down spines and softened shoulders with deep, even breaths. I, on the other hand, was hesitant, prudish even. It was like the SAT’s all over again, but the dots weren’t on a Scantron® sheet—they were on a real, live human being.

A human being who breathes with you, who exclaims with delight, Yes! It was frightening at first, but my brain eventually gave in to my heart and hands. I could feel my ancestral heritage—hundreds of years of hard-won Protestant skittishness—giving way with each adjustment.

The massage therapist had thrown the gates open; it was up to me to walk through them.

I became a yoga instructor with the belief that it would allow me a deeper connection with the universe. I imagined myself traveling to India, searching out gurus and temples. What I’ve found in my short career is that there are no planes required.

The universe, for a yoga instructor, is in each classroom. Every class presents a new opportunity for connection—it’s our job to understand that connection.

We must study and train, learn assists and adjustments the same way we learn the sanskrit name for Downward Facing Dog. The real work, outside of cues and demonstration, is allowing our students to feel cared for and seen. There are no real verbal cues for that energetic connection that happens between a teacher and a student.

That shakti shot of love is why so many of our students continue to brave the studio floors.

I don’t know if I’ll ever complete Operation: Great Yoga Teacher—I do know that, for the first time in my life, my arms are open and ready for that long-awaited hug.



Like elephant yoga on Facebook.


Ed: Bryonie Wise








About Sara Lovelace

Sara Lovelace is a yogini, writer, filmmaker, and fearless fool. She received her MFA in Writing from The School of The Art Institute of Chicago, and her certification at the Satchidananda Ashram, VA. You can contact her at [email protected]


5 Responses to “Maladjusted: Tales of the No-Touch Yoga Teacher.”

  1. Vision_Quest_Redux says:

    Please know that the largest yoga school and style in the world, YogaFit, does not encourage touching of yoga students.
    That had been my introduction to new-style yoga–through a midscale-to-upscale gym (YogaFit is taught overwhelmingly through gyms).
    You should also know that I do not appreciate gratuitous and pushy adjustments–never have and never will.

    As far as adjustments go, I was injured physically (in the sense that it resulted in bursitis that did not heal) more from verbal adjustments, delivered in a cheerleading, encouraging vein.
    But the physical adjustments injured me and traumatized me mentally even worse–even though they had not injured me physically (in the sense that muscle strains/sprains did heal, but not the feelings …)

    Just so you know, if you think you could change that much from what you naturally are, go for it. If not (I guess) there's YogaFit–and similar styles …

    Case in point: from time-to-time an internationally known instructor who has been chastised for his overly aggressive adjustments, has switched to teaching Kripalu (which is tantamount to straightjacketing his style)

  2. missbernklau says:

    I think a good teacher, or, rather, I should say a person who is intuitive (which I think most good teachers are, naturally) can sense if a student would rather not be touched. That said, I think as a yoga teacher, it's really good to know how to physically adjust and to be totally confident doing it (because I know I can feel it when a teacher is tentatively touching me, it NEVER ever feels good. But when a teacher who is confident in their ability to adjust and who you can tell is totally comfortable doing it, it's great both energetically and physically) for when it calls for it and for when you are working with students that actually like physical adjustments (especially in restorative classes they can be wonderful in helping to release).

    I'm actually very touchy-feely in my daily life, but when I teach I get nervous about touching students because I know everyone is different and I don't want to accidentally hurt someone (and also because I teach sporadically at the moment because I have a full-time job, when I was teaching at least 2x/week I was gaining confidence in that area, now I have to get myself back into it).

    Sometimes students don't tell you if they have injuries or pain, even when you ask, so, that's what sort of makes me more apt to use verbal adjustments 90% of the time. I reserve physical adjustments for students whose bodies I know the capabilities and limitations. Better safe than sorry when it comes to that I think, not only for being mindful of getting into people's personal bubble but for ensuring they don't get hurt.

  3. missbernklau says:

    I forgot to say, I would rather a teacher not physically adjust me if they don't really want to or don't feel confident/comfortable about doing it.

  4. sarah e rosenberg says:

    what a lovely (and humorous) surrender of your journey to we readers. thank you for illuminating the way, sara.

  5. dslyoga says:

    Sounds like a good time to take a massage therapy course! … Not to be one professionally, but just to open those doors in a relatively supportive environment. But, I would do a LOT of research and talk to a lot of people, first.

    When I do adjustments with people, I usually do NO pushing or pulling, no adding of force, only using touch to add dimension or indicate possibilities — a Suggestion, not a demand — of direction of movement, or where they could relax, or where they are not feeling as much as they could (DE-sensitized). On rare occasions, if there is definitely room for them to move deeper, and they are okay with it, I'll gently push or pull or whatever. But only in VERY small doses, and REALLY slowly. They are totally in control of how far they go into the pose, and I respect their sensibilities about that.

    I've had to fix too many people — including myself — who suffered yoga-related injuries, and I am extra careful about all that.