A conversation about manual adjustments (also called “hands-on assists) in yoga is long overdue. For the past five years in my workshops, trainings, and weekly classes, I’ve been advocating for a paradigm shift: I believe that yoga teachers need to stop acting like stretching machines and exerting leverage on students’ bodies to intensify or “enhance” a stretch.
Why?The answer is simple: This is a mechanically flawed approach to working with bodies and it results in countless avoidable injuries.
I’ve seen plenty of anecdotal evidence of this – and, if you’re a yoga teacher, I’m sure you have, too. During my trainings and workshops I ask students to raise their hand if they’ve been injured during a manual adjustment. There has never been a group where less than forty percent of students have raised their hand. I think you’ll agree that this is too much. As a community, we can drastically lower this number.
I’m not saying that experienced teachers shouldn’t provide appropriate manual feedback. I’m still an advocate for manual adjustments—or, what I usually call them, “manual cues.”(Listen to this week’s Yogaland podcast to hear me talk about this more.) There is nothing better in class than receiving an excellent manual cue. The body falls into place and the nervous system relaxes. Unfortunately, the opposite is also true. There’s nothing worse than receiving a poor or inappropriate adjustment—the body strains, the breath tightens, and the nervous system becomes agitated.
A good adjustment skillfully communicates the actions of the pose to your body so that your body understands the posture more clearly. A bad adjustment is invasive and misguided. During lousy adjustments, the teacher is either working with a lack of experience and information or an abundance of ego.
So what is the paradigm shift I’m talking about here? First, I ask that teachers stop exerting leverage on the part of the student’s body that is moving. Instead, provide increased grounding and stability to the part of the student’s body that is fixed. Let’s take Wide-Legged Seated Forward Bend (UpavisthaKonasana) as an example. In this pose, the pelvis and spine rotate forward over the thighbones—they are the “moving” parts of the pose.The thighbones root down into the ground—they are the “fixed” part of the pose. Do not add leverage to the pelvis and spine. Instead, press down on the thighbones. Grounding the student’s thighs will allow the pelvis and spine to release further into the pose without the vulnerability that comes from adding direct pressure onto the pelvis and spine. This is just one of countless examples.
=Another component of this paradigm shift is to view manual cues the same way we view verbal cues. Manual cues—like verbal cues—simply communicate the actions of the pose to the student. The idea is to use your hands to communicate directly to the student’s body so he or she has a better understanding of the pose. The idea is not to use your hands to press a student further into the pose. You are not a stretching machine that is doing the pose to the student.
Here are 10 more ideas for honing our approach to manual adjustments during yoga class:
First, a note about ethical considerations
While this is a huge topic for discussion in a teacher-training program, it’s outside the scope of this article. So, let me just say that teachers should never touch students inappropriately. Period. (To hear my wife, Andrea, talk about ending sexual misconduct in the yoga world, listen to episode 94 of Yogaland.)
1. Observe Before You Adjust
You’ll get pretty busy during class: you’ll be sequencing, verbalizing, adjusting, observing group dynamics, managing the clock, adjusting the tempo, and so on. It can be challenging to simply pause and patiently see a student’s body clearly. Instead, you might notice the most obvious element of a student’s pose and set your sights on giving an adjustment that involves leverage. However, it is important to observe your students before you dive in. This pause will not only help you more accurately assess the room, it will help you become grounded before you attempt to steady someone else.
2. Put Fires Out First
As you assess the room, look for dangerous or uncomfortable postures. Adjust these folks before you walk around and offer a “deepening” adjustment to someone who doesn’t actually need any help. It’s more important that all of your students are working safely than deepening someone’s backbend.
3. Create Steadiness, Not Intensity
Aim to help your students find greater steadiness, ease, and integrity in their postures. Instead of trying to increase range of motion, figure out how you can help them feel more grounded and balanced. Adjustments that increase intensity can be dangerous—especially if the student is not grounded. Unfortunately, many teachers want their students to have “breakthroughs” in their class since these experiences can build an attachment to the teacher. These types of egocentric adjustments often contribute to injuries.
4. Stabilize the Foundation
One of the best ways to adjust your students is by helping them create balanced, stable contact with the floor. If a student’s postural foundation is off, the rest of their body will have to work even harder to maintain equilibrium. Their effort will be inefficiently distributed, creating unnecessary tension throughout the body.
5. Help Them Find their Stride
It is common for students to have a stride that is too long or too short. Helping students size their stride correctly can be one of the most thorough stabilizing adjustments.
6. Know Your Student Before Deepening A Pose
Most students are near their maximum range of motion (at least in the short term) before their teacher adjusts them. This means that your students are already at their edge before you give them any manual cues. Your student is already at a stress point and any additional motion in the posture should be mild. There’s a fine line between deepening the pose and creating an injury. A very fine line.
It’s much safer and more skillful to work with a student that you know well. And, remember our earlier point: You’re not a stretching machine—don’t exert force on the part of the student’s body that is already moving in the posture. Simply use your hands to create more stability and grounding so they can release deeper into the pose on their own.
7. Take Your Time
No one likes a rushed adjustment. Hasty yoga adjustments are unsettling to the mind, body and nervous system. Take your time adjusting your students and surrender to the fact that people aren’t going to get touched 800 times in class. Fewer good adjustments are always preferable to more mediocre adjustments.
8. Observe How Your Students Respond
Sometimes when you adjust a student, you will feel them melt into the new position with comfort and relief. Other times, you will feel the student’s body resist by flinching or tensing. Sometimes a student may not want additional intensity or they’re protecting themselves because they’re nursing an injury. It’s important to observe your student’s breath and physical signals when you give them an adjustment. Sensing and responding to these signals is essential for developing skillful touch.
9. Complement Your Manual Cues with Verbal Cues
In most manual adjustments, you can only guide one or two actions of the posture at a time. To enhance your student’s pose, offer a verbal cue that complements the manual cue. Let’s say you’re adjusting your student in Revolved Triangle by stabilizing their hips while lengthening and rotating their spine in the twist. You can verbally cue them to reach through their back leg and ground their outer foot.
10. Ask the Correct Questions
Don’t ask your students if an adjustment feels good! You won’t always get candid feedback since very few students will feel comfortable telling you that they don’t feel good in the adjustment. Instead, ask your students, “Do you want more intensity, less intensity, or the same intensity?” You don’t have to ask this question every time you make an adjustment. But, if you’re going to ask them if the adjustment is working for them, this is the best way to go about it.4 comments Add Your Own
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As we discussed in Part I of this series, the ability to give clear, compelling verbal cues is one of the most distinguishing characteristics of a good teacher. If you haven’t read Part I, which examines the most common cueing errors we all make, take a moment and read it here. Like all skills, you can significantly improve your verbal cues with a clear strategy and a little practice.
To up your verbal game, you’ll want to minimize the various pitfalls that all teachers encounter. Then start to include the following cueing techniques when you’re giving instructions. These tips will dramatically enhance your students’ classroom experience.
Tips for Improving Verbal Cueing for Yoga Teachers
Do you remember how confusing it was to be a beginner? How you suddenly couldn’t discern your right from your left? How you didn’t know which way was up and which way was down? Providing landmarks (such as the wall, the windows, the clock) when you give instructions helps spatially orient your students and minimize this confusion. Providing landmarks that describe which direction the student is moving, rather than just telling them to turn a specific direction is hugely beneficial.
For example, think about instructing twists. Your students’ bodies are so tied up, overlapped, and crisscrossed that their left is on their right and their right is on their left. Instead of saying, “Turn your torso to the right,” tell your students to “Rotate your torso toward the windows (or, whatever conspicuous landmark is to the right of your students).” Something as simple as instructing your students to “Reach your fingers toward the ceiling,” will improve the quality of your students’ action compared to telling them to “Reach your fingers up.”
It’s not enough to provide good verbal cues. You also need to give students time to process and respond to them. This means providing time and space between each cue. The best way to do this is to simply take a breath between every instruction you provide.
If your directions are clear and you provide enough space between each one, your students will be able to follow along. If, however, you give 15 instructions in a row with no breath or pause between, your students will be lost. Bottom line: Always provide time for your students to digest your words before blazing ahead.
What you do not instruct in class, allows what you do instruct to have greater impact.
Don’t tell your students everything you know about each pose. Some teachers, your author included, are tempted to fill every second of class with instruction, precaution, lore, personal revelation, and more. After all, there are few moments when we have a captive audience for an hour and a half.
But this is yoga class, not a storytelling seminar, so don’t overcrowd your students or compete with yourself. Stick to an average of three instructions per pose. You can use more instructions to get them into the pose, but once they are in the asana, be judicious. If these instructions are related to each other, richly descriptive, and relevant to the overall theme of the class, they will give your students plenty to work with while allowing them to have their own experience.
Give Instructions in Pairs
I was terrible at math, but when I think about good verbal cues the topic of Algebra comes to mind. Specifically, the process of keeping equations balanced. The teaching of yoga is rooted in the process of establishing and maintaining a sense of equilibrium. In yoga, we call this “sama” which loosely translates to equanimity. One of the most effective ways to facilitate the experience of equilibrium in a pose is to give your students instructions in complementary pairs. The best way to get a feel for this is through some examples.
If someone is in Warrior II and you’re asking them to “deepen” their pose by lowering their front thigh further, complement this instruction by asking them to engage and lift their back thigh. This helps keep both halves of their pose balanced. Another example in Downward Facing Dog would be telling your students to stretch their inner heels down and while also asking them to lift their inner thighs. Again, you’re simply taking two parts of the same continuum and instructing them to move in opposite ways.
Use Your Students’ Names
As a yoga student yourself, you are well aware that everyone spaces out in class once in a while. Truthfully, whose eyes don’t glaze over after 90 minutes of impersonal and generalized instruction? Make your teaching more skillful and intimate by using your students’ names. Instead of repeating the same tired instructions, look at your students, and help them clarify, expand, or deepen their poses by relating to them directly. Try saying, “Jeff, please bend your front knee more deeply” or “Lauren, relax your neck and soften your jaw.”
Personalizing instructions is not only a good way to take care of your students, it is the best way to make your communication direct and relevant. The added bonus is that everyone else in the room who needs to relax his or her neck will probably follow suit. Of course, you should use a soft, encouraging tone when you use names so that people don’t feel like they are being singled out or scolded.
Vary Your Communication Style
Different students learn different ways. Also, different students resonate will different types of instruction. Some will hear you when you give straightforward, direct commands like “Press the top of your femurs back.” Others will hear you more clearly when you provide an image or an analogy to articulate an instruction. Some students will only engage when you share a personal story that highlights a teaching. Don’t force yourself to use a style of language that doesn’t resonate with you, but do your best to vary your language and style of delivery so that more students can learn from you.1 comment Add Your Own
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The ability to give clear, concise, and compelling verbal cues is one of the most distinguishing factors of a good yoga teacher. For all the time that we dedicate to doing bigger, harder postures and projecting our prowess across the social media space, most of us could spend a little more time honing our verbal craft. Students want to hear your words. Students want to understand your words. Students want to digest your instructions and learn from them. And, the reality is that being a good verbal communicator is hard. It takes practice. It takes strategy. And, like the subject of this post, it takes a willingness to look at the most common errors that we make and learn from them.
Look, we all make mistakes. We all speak redundantly, we all flub our words at times, and we all make up weird words that don’t exist on occasion. I think I said “hamstringossity” the other day. Seriously.
With a brave heart, let’s take a look at the most common instructional errors that we all make. Let’s start to clean up these warts and then, in the Part II of this post, we’ll look at The Easiest Ways to Immediately Improve Your Communication.
Here are the most common verbal cueing mistakes that we all make from time-to-time:
Not Speaking Loudly Enough
I know it’s obvious, but few things are more uncomfortable for students than being unable to hear their teacher’s instructions. It’s not only annoying, it’s unsettling.
There are three things to consider that impede your students’ ability to hear you: First, music that’s played too loud. Second, students are often in Down Dog or forward bends which turns their body away from you. And third, that sometimes you will not be facing your all of your students while you walk around the room and assist.
Dropping Your Voice Off a Cliff
What I call “dropping your voice off a cliff” comes from the paradox of speaking loudly enough that everyone can hear you while trying to keep a calm, quiet, soothing demeanor. What I mean by “dropping your voice off a cliff” is making the last word or two of an instructional sentence too quiet relative to the rest of the sentence. Our voice drops from full volume to low volume because we’re trying to soften the feel of an instruction. So we do something like this, “INHALE, LENGTHEN YOUR TORSO FORWARD INTO ARDHA UTTANASANA; EXHALE STEP BACK INTO downward-facing dog.” We change volume too much and the end of the sentence disappears. This is one of the many things I try to clean up about my delivery in all of my classes.
Compare these two phrases: “Step back into Downward-Facing Dog,” and, “Step back into Downward-Facing Dog??” Written the first way, it’s a clear command. Written the second way it’s a question. You know exactly what I’m talking about. Right. Right? Phrasing commands as questions is a pretty common vocal inflection that we can all do without.
Adding Filler Words
I do it. You do it. We all add filler words—often unconsciously. I was teaching a 200-hr yoga teacher training in Japan and, despite my inability to speak Japanese, I heard the phrase “et to” so many times during peer teaching sessions that I asked the interpreter what it means. She said, “It doesn’t mean anything, it’s similar to saying ‘like’ or ‘uh’ in English.” Filler words and phrases such as “like,” “good,” “yes” and “uh” are omnipresent in the classroom. Notice what your filler words are and, uh, like, practice not using them!
Lacking a Declarative Instruction by “ing-ing” Your Students to Death
Listen to this set of instructions: “Inhaling, stretching your arms overhead; exhaling, forward bending; inhaling lifting half-way up; exhaling stepping back to Downward-Facing Dog.” I could go on and on and there would be nowhere to put a period because there is no specific call to action. Using “ing” is fine, but constant usage creates a run-on sentence. Be mindful of your phrasing and don’t be afraid to come to a conclusion and add a period. Instead, try “Inhaling, stretch your arms overhead. Exhaling, forward bend.”
Crowding Your Students Ears
When you give an instruction you also need to give your students enough time and space to complete the instruction. When there is a constant stream of instructions your students don’t have time to do what you’re asking them to do. Remember to take a breath or two after each cue and allow your students to integrate the information.
Using Passive Voice
It’s generally preferable to use active voice because it’s more direct and conveys more certainty to the listener. Active voice is the subject of a sentence does an action (denoted by a verb).
Passive voice is when the subject is acted upon by the verb. Passive voice is wordier and harder for the listener to decipher the meaning of the sentence. I notice that people tend to use passive voice when they uncomfortable being direct.
Here’s an example of passive voice: “The action of the iliotibial band is to assist in knee extension and provide some external rotation force.” Notice the phrases, “the action of the …” and “…is to assist.” These are passive, unnecessary phrases that don’t help our students. Instead, the sentiment could be expressed like this: “The iliotibial band helps extend and externally rotate the knee.” This phrase is more simple, clear and direct.
Again, we all make mistakes. But, we owe it to our yoga students to refine the craft of verbal cueing yoga poses. Becoming aware of your errors is the first step. The second step is to focus on the six components of making your verbal cues more accurate, concise, and digestible. We’ll tackle this in Part II of this series.5 comments Add Your Own
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If you’re not a yoga teacher, you probably don’t understand the utter ridiculousness of our daily commute or schedule inefficiencies. Yes, we’re happy that we rarely sit at a desk for 8+ hours a day. And, sure, having weird times like from 2:00pm to 3:45pm off most days is nice (sort of). But, the reality for most teachers is that we’re hustling from here to there to teach our classes, sub other teacher’s classes, and (often) making ends meet by working a second job. Jumping from studio-to-studio and class-to-class can fray our nerves. This makes it difficult to settle in and be present for our students.
Over the years, I’ve acknowledged that, for most full-time teachers, this is an inherent part of the job. For me, I’ve acknowledged that 30+ weekends of the year, I will do something very similar: I’ll wake up before 5am, fly for hours before arriving in another city (usually in a different time-zone), commute to the studio and go straight into teaching a weekend workshop. I’ve learned to manage these realities more skillfully so that I’m as relaxed and focused as I possible.
I know that if I’m relaxed, focused, and prepared I’ll be present and I’ll teach a class that makes me feel good. These days, I have conscious strategy to settle in before class starts—even if only for a moment or two. Here are my four tips to check your head and make sure you’re ready to teach class.
Take a Moment to Observe Your Body, Breath, and Mood
Let’s face it, we bring ourselves into the yoga room when we teach. Yes, it would be nice to say, “I check myself, my ego, and my issues at the door.” But, the truth is that we usually don’t. Not completely, at least. So, pause for a moment before you teach—before you reach the studio if possible—and become aware of what is happening inside of you. If you’re unaware of what’s happening inside of you it’s more likely that your unconscious patterns will influence your class.
For me, the most common scenario where this plays out is when I’m jetlagged and fatigued. Usually, when I’m in this state I feel flat and I overcompensate by talking too much and making things unnecessarily complicated. Since becoming aware of this pattern, I’ve gotten better at realizing that I’m in a state where I’m likely to overcompensate to everyone’s detriment. Now, I can usually stave this off by relaxing and simplifying.
Focus on What You’ve Been Practicing Lately
I’m going to tell you something that most teachers won’t: my personal yoga practice is only vaguely similar to the classes I teach these days. I practice diligently. I have for a very long time. And, for the first 10-15 years of teaching my personal practice and my classes were nearly identical. I needed the time my personal practice provided me to prepare for my classes. Now, however, when my personal practice is too similar to my classes, it feels like I’m at work. I love my work. I love my practice. I just don’t love when my practice feels like my work. I did in the past. Now, I don’t.
These days, I focus on subtle details in my personal practice more than ever. For example, I might spend a couple of weeks in my personal practice figuring out how to decompress the superior/anterior part of my hip socket in every posture. I’m going to translate all this work into my public classes, but I’m going to do it subtly. I’m going to distill the key things I figure out in my personal practice into viable, easy-to-access instructions. I’m going to make whatever I’m doing in my personal practice a thematic and sequencing focus in my public classes. But, I’m also going to make sure that my public classes have a really solid, compelling flow that covers additional territory my personal practice may not.
So, here’s the bottom line: Your practice doesn’t dictate what you’re teaching, but it will inform what you’re teaching. We’re teaching an embodied practice and you need to be doing practices that keep you attentive to your body. As you develop your plan for class, begin with what has been resonating in your practice lately.
Have a Plan—Even if it’s just a Feeling or an Idea
Some teachers operate best with a clear, detailed plan for class. Other teachers are better with improvisation. Both models can work&emdash;and, usually, most teachers combine the two. Whether you’re a planner or a gunslinger, it is essential that you treat the class like a learning experience for your students and have an idea what you’d like your students to take away from their experience. Sure, you can leave yourself open to changing your plan, but have a theme, pace, and intention in mind before class begins.
Even better, make your classes part of a broader syllabus that reflects the body of work that you’re trying to teach as an educator. Creating a syllabus takes effort and time. But, it also helps you clarify your teaching objectives and builds confidence. Ultimately, having a plan&emdash;even if it’s just an idea or feeling that you want to communicate to your students&emdash;will make the experience of teaching easier and more effective.
Be a Good Host
Imagine that teaching a class is like hosting an event at your home where each participant has to pay $15-20 to participate. If you were the host of such an occasion you’d default to basic social protocol and be nice to everyone and introduce yourself. Remember to follow these basic rules for making people feel welcome in your presence when you teach. While you’re at it, do your best to learn your student’s names. Believe it or not, most students don’t feel terribly comfortable coming to a class if they don’t already know you. Students are often intimidated and somewhat intrigued by the teacher. Spend your energy putting them at ease. Not only is this the reasonable and humane thing to do, it will help you settle and focus on the students who are in your classroom.7 comments Add Your Own
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Vinyasa yoga sequences contain much more hamstring stretching than strengthening. How can I modify my sequences to include more hamstring strengthening for my students and promote more safety and balance in this muscle group?
It’s true that vinyasa yoga sequences are heavily skewed toward stretching your hamstrings and rarely contain focused strengthening work. You stretch your hamstrings in every Sun Salutation, Down Dog, Standing Forward Bend and most Standing Poses. That’s not to mention the intense opening that you get in postures like Hanumanasana, Reclined Leg Stretch, and most Seated Forward Bends.
There’s a psychological factor that often exacerbates this dynamic: many students push too hard and overstretch this muscle group due to the (often unconscious) internalized belief that more flexibility is always healthy and desirable. Unfortunately, this deeply ingrained mindset can lead to one of the most common and frustrating injuries for a yogi: hamstring tears.
So, what can you do to bring greater integrity to this muscle group while maintaining a dynamic flow practice? Let’s look at the essential anatomy of the hamstrings. Then, you’ll learn to take one simple step in your sequencing to bring greater harmony to these muscles.
THE ESSENTIAL ANATOMY
The hamstrings are a comprised of three muscles: the biceps femoris, semimembranosus, and semitendinosus. They run from the sitting bone down the back of the thigh before crossing the knee and attaching to the lower leg. Their primary job is to extend the hip and flex the knee.
The best ways to modify your sequencing is to incorporate specific hamstring strengthening postures into your flow. Assume that your vinyasa sequences already have enough hamstring openers and include more strengthening poses. If you prioritize hamstring strengthening and provide your students with variations, you can create a balance of hamstring flexibility and strength.
I incorporate all of the following postures in most of my classes to bring more awareness, support, and stability to these often overstretched tissues. It’s a good idea to repeat these postures a few times in class and make sure that you hold them long enough that you feel the muscles working.
Most variations of Natarajasana focus on opening the front body. In this version — which isn’t nearly as pretty, by the way — I want you to focus on engaging the hamstrings. It’s like a hybrid of Warrior III and Natarajasana. While standing in Tadasana with your core engaged, raise your right heel toward your sitting bone and move your thigh back. Keep your core intact and maintain the natural curves of your spine as begin. Once you’ve raised your leg, tilt your pelvis forward over your standing leg and lift your chest into a modest backbend.
Let’s face it: none of the postures in this sequence are sexy. These are not big, flashy poses that are going to build your reputation in social media. They are, however, the postures that create stability and strength in an often-overlooked region of the body. To do this Hamstring Curl, simply come to Table Top position. Engage your abdominal core to keep your lower-back fixed (immobile). Keep your left knee bent 90 degrees, flex your foot and lift your thigh toward the ceiling. As you raise your thigh, bring your heel closer to your sitting bone. Do not allow your lower back to increase it’s curve. It’s okay to have a natural lumbar curve, but don’t allow your lower back to sink toward the floor. Feel your hamstrings working diligently as you breath deeply.
In backbends, we usually internally rotate the thighs. This version of Locust Pose is an exception. In this version, you will externally rotate the thighs and bring you inside of your feet together. This combination of actions strongly engages your hamstrings, adductors and external rotators. It’s an ideal strengthener that balances many of the muscles that tend to be overstretched in yoga. Since Locust Pose is low-range of motion pose, it’s permissible to internally rotate the thighs instead of externally rotating them. If this were a backbend with greater range of motion–like Bridge Pose–I wouldn’t recommend externally rotating and adducting the thighs. I would stick to the more common teaching of internally rotating the thighs and keeping the thighs parallel to each other.
Continuing down the road of highly-functional postures that are not glamorous in the least, we have another version of locust. This asymmetrical version of locust is unique in it’s ability to create diagonal strength in the back-body. Meaning, you strengthen one set of calves, hamstrings, and glutes, while strengthening the opposite paraspinal and shoulder muscles. Remember, this is how the body moves: in diagonal, rotational motions. This makes this Locust Variation one the organic, functional way to strengthen your hamstrings–and, the other muscles of your backbody.