Almost everyone I know in the yoga world has had at least one unfortunate experience of being mishandled by a teacher.
While many bad asana adjustments are simply the result of unskilled hands and do not necessary lead to a physical injury, the impact can still be emotionally unsettling. Most instructors teach yoga to heal people, not hurt to them, but sometimes the best intentions fall short.
One of my own war stories as a student occurred when I was about five years into my asana practice, still very trusting and obedient when it came to doing anything a teacher told me to do.
I was happily folded over in a supine half-pigeon pose—eka pada kapotasana—when my instructor suggested adding a torso twist toward the bended knee. A little parivritta (twist) never hurt anyone, right?
Except when she decided to rotate my chest up toward the ceiling.
I should point out that I usually don’t mind it when an instructor adjusts me in a pose; in fact, I appreciate the extra attention.
My teacher took a firm hold of my shoulders, encouraged me to breathe deeply with her, and things were going fine. It was just after she offered the compliment, “my, you’re very flexible,” that I heard my knee pop. The pop was a lot like the period at the end of this sentence, barely noticeable, but clearly marking the end of something.
In this case, it was the integrity of my lateral meniscus.
There was no pain, initially, but obviously something had broken, and I thought it was best to let the instructor know right then and there. I should mention that this particular teacher was the owner of a well-known studio and had an excellent reputation. She was also well-versed in human anatomy, so I figured that at the very least she could tell me what had made that curious little popping sound.
But when I described to her in detail what had happened, she merely shrugged uncomfortably and told me to take some aspirin.
I went home, took the aspirin, and awoke to a novel sensation of pain in my right knee. Prior to this, I had never had any knee problems. I was still functional and ambulatory, although walking up and down stairs was challenging. As a former athlete I’d certainly been accustomed to injuries before, however, so I set up my ice bag and made do. Out of pride, or pure laziness, I decided that I wasn’t going to patronize the doctor’s office yet.
A few weeks later I mentioned the injury to the same instructor again, since my knee was still in pain, and she said, “Well, I’m not doctor, so I really can’t advise you.”
Part of me felt like saying, “Well, maybe a lawyer could.” But as much as I hate trips to the doctor, I hate trips to the lawyer even more. So I let it go, and did repeated Reiki healing sessions on my knee over the next few years.
Eventually, the injury did get better and now I experience no pain whatsoever. But the experience did leave me wary of both giving and receiving adjustments in yoga.
Over the years I’ve told this story to many other teachers and students, both as a cautionary tale and to get their responses. What I’ve discovered is that there is quite a variety of attitudes regarding adjustments. Many veteran teachers I’ve met have sworn off them entirely, while others believe wholeheartedly in the healing power of touch and shrug off the occasional adjustment mishaps as part of the yoga experience.
David Williams, one of the first Westerners to work with Astanga guru Patabhi Jois in India, informed me that he doesn’t adjust many students anymore, and there are even certain asanas he won’t teach because they are simply too dangerous. Having seen the potentially disastrous results of the “old school” Mysore method, where teachers handle students in an overzealous manner, he now prefers to demonstrate with his own body and do the practice along with his students.
Other veteran teachers that I know, including Richard Freeman and his wife Mary, still offer adjustments, but they do so with less forceful hands that often show the student how to come into alignment via their own strength and intelligence—e.g. gently brushing the scapula to direct them into protraction, versus grabbing the student’s shoulders and cranking them into external rotation.
Touching another person is an act of intimacy, whether it is simply a hug or a yoga adjustment. Anna Forrest, a teacher who has always been a strong advocate for using physical adjustments, once suggested to me that our students should be treated as if they were “The Beloved,” or the most sacred being that we could imagine. This sort of reverential viewpoint starts to make sense, particularly when you consider the statistic that one out of every three women has experienced some form of sexual abuse in their adult life.
There are also a growing number of men who are now dealing with post-traumatic stress syndrome, most notably soldiers coming back from combat situations. They, too, require special handling. Dave Emerson, the Director of Yoga Services at Trauma Center Yoga Program in Brookline, MA has developed specific guidelines for working with those who face physical-emotional challenges. Most of these emanate from the intention of empowering students to make choices in relation to their physical experience so that they may develop a friendly relationship with their body.
Being attentive to how students are reacting in class is also important. Are they tired? Are they sick? Are they injured? Are they hyperactive?
An intuitive teacher develops the skill to modify their agenda along the way. And as David Williams implied, even if we decide not to touch our students, we are not really off the hook—for if every yoga posture is an adjustment in itself, then the art of stringing together a series of different postures will either yield a beneficial effect or not.
In the end, as we develop into more skillful yoga teachers, we ultimately cultivate our own notions about if, how and when a student should be adjusted, based on our own experiences and the feedback from our students.
In the meantime, I hope the discussion above will provide some general food for thought.
Author: Dan Boyne
Editor: Toby Israel
Image: Sami Taipale/Flickr