As a yoga instructor, I was always a bit afraid to lay my hands on a stranger’s lower back.
This hesitation was reaffirmed in my teacher training program. The instructors were clear that hands-on adjustments in a yoga practice are hardly ever necessary.
To some extent, I agree with this. Yoga is a personal practice, not a cheerleading routine. There is no reason why everyone’s lunges should be equally deep, or their arms equally stretched, or balances equally statue-esque. If an asana practice is about tuning into your body, then my hands as an instructor may just act as static to the radio station of what you need.
As instructors, it is not our place to deepen a student’s practice. For as soon as our hands leave them, more often than not, they will lose that feeling of deepness, which will be quickly replaced with feelings of inadequacy. We’re human beings, we’re hard on ourselves. I for one did not want to feel the potential of my practice through a ‘helpful adjustment.’ Hands-on assists became the equivalent of creative parents writing their children’s fourth grade speeches for them.
My stance on hands changed with the gentle touch of a righteous yoga teacher. The first time she lay her hands on me, it was an assist in child’s pose. The instructor firmly pulled both my hips back, and, with one hand resting on my sacrum, started lengthening my spine with her other hand. I felt like every vertebrae became a window, and the wind was gently blowing them open. My spine became a 32-storey apartment building filled with natural light.
Her hands helped me find opening in my hips and back and neck and eye sockets and armpits. She melted me; where once there was ice, a river flowed. The freezing rain I felt in my hips in pigeon pose became a warm sun shower. My body was becoming springtime.
And then she walked away. And I did not feel inadequate. I didn’t feel sore or disappointed in myself. I didn’t feel abandoned, like a lover just walked out on me, taking the cat and cheese grater with him. I felt the resonance of space that we had created together. And that’s what it came down to.
We found that space together.
This experience led me to a revelation that I am still chewing over. (No, dad, it isn’t clarity on what the hell I want to do with my life.) Rather, it got me thinking of our human condition. We spend so much time celebrating what we can accomplish on our own. The man who climbs Everest is impressive, the one who makes the ascent completely by himself with no help or oxygen or tasty snacks is a hero. How often in our day we self-righteously proclaim ‘I can do it myself!’
When the teacher put her hands on me, I could have stiffened. My body could have told her to back off, that I was just fine where I was thank-you-very-much. Instead I softened. I exhaled and relaxed, as she guided me deeper into the posture. Her adjustment was not imposing, because I welcomed it.
In yoga, we are our own best teachers. We decide which lessons we learn.
I would personally like to use my practice to not set up boundaries, but to soften with one another. I’m done shuddering at a helpful gesture, it’s time for me to soften and let go of my lone wolf attitude.
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Ed: Bryonie Wise