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Why I stopped pushing students into shapes

Have a read, and then let me know how you feel about manual adjustments in the poll below or in the comments!

During the first years of my yoga practice, I used to love getting hands-on assists from teachers. I would even leave feeling disappointed if I didn’t receive a single assist in a class. Not only did I enjoy the individual attention from the teachers, but I was addicted to the rush of getting deeper into shapes – deeper than I could go on my own.

Because I am very flexible, teachers would often like to push and press me deeper into shapes like Paschimottanasana (seated forward fold). They would lie on top of my back to add weight, and I’ve had teachers that have been standing on my thighs in Virasana (hero’s pose). Although it was uncomfortable and even painful at times, I didn't say Stop because I didn't want to make the teacher feel uncomfortable.

Today I don’t really want any hands-on assits from teachers, unless it is a teacher who knows my body very well. Even then, there are only a few occasions in class where I want or need physical adjustments. The main reason for this is two-fold, and it's for the same two-fold reason that I've limited my own hands-on adjustments on students.

On a physical level, strong and heavy manual adjustments can be more damaging than helpful. Especially if the one giving the adjustment is not familiar enough with the body that it is adjusting. Every body has its own unique composition and structure, and therefor also its own unique edge in each pose. Moving beyond that edge often doesn't serve anyone other than the ego.

Heavy manual adjustments also implies that we always need to go deeper, that we need to go further, and that the ultimate goal is to become as flexible as we possibly can.

I don’t think that flexibility should be anyone’s end goal in yoga. For those who are very strong and tight then yes, it’s a good idea to work on flexibility to create balance. For most of us, we need to work on building strength within our flexibility - i.e our mobility. Through mobility, we can cultivate more stability and control within our range of motion (but more on flexibility vs mobility in another post!). I wish that someone would have told me that earlier on in my own practice, so that I wouldn’t have moved beyond my edge in most poses, and in most classes.

As yoga teachers (and I used to be one of them) we often seem to think we carry a responsibility to help students stretch to the absolute max, by adding too much leverage. I think that we should instead focus on giving active adjustments, that through resistance support and create steadiness rather than increase intensity. A good manual (not to mention verbal) adjustment should help a student find more ease in a shape whilst adding another layer of understanding of that particular posture. A very light touch can remind the student of how to align joints, where to look (drishti) and which parts of the body need to engage.

On a mental and emotion level, a heavy focus on hands-on adjustments reshapes the practice into being a practice of perfection rather than a practice of continuous self-enquiry and exploration. The goal is not to move beyond our edge to attain a certain shape, but instead to bear witness to what is present when we linger just around that edge:

the breath that is present,
the sensations that are present,
and the thoughts that are present.

As yoga teachers, we are responsible for guiding students through classes in a safe way. Manual adjustments are sometimes necessary to do so, but I think they should always complement verbal instructions. Through the verbal cues, we give our students the power to evolve in their own time and we allow yoga to be that inward journey and practice into and through ourselves that we (now or in time) love.



Manual adjustments?

  • I still love them

  • At the right time and place, yes

  • I don't want them

  • Write an answer

1 comment

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1 Comment

Ed Wiltshire
Ed Wiltshire
Aug 29, 2023

Really interesting and thought provoking insight into manual adjustments Marta. As someone who is not the most flexible, I sometimes feel the desire to be pushed deeper into a pose. With larger muscle mass the likelihood of being over flexed or extended seems small, however those who have less strength around the joints and are hyper flexible, I can imagine being over stretched. Your depth of thought and knowledge of your craft and of anatomy, and your wholistic approach are truly refreshing and impressive. You are an inspiration.

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