During my yoga teacher training, we spent a fair amount of time learning how to assist students in the various asanas (poses), and adjust them further into a pose. Some of my favorite yoga teachers rarely offered adjustments or assists, and I have my personal doubts about whether such assists are always indicated or even a good idea nin the first place.
Here are some thoughts about this.
The Value of Physical Assists
I don’t dismiss the value of physical assists. For a kinesthetic learner, a good assist can be a helpful supplement to clear alignment cues, giving the student a visceral experience of how the body feels in a pose.
An assist into a more challenging pose — a supportive hand to hold your legs in headstand or handstand, or holding onto a teacher’s ankles to push up into full wheel — can help you feel a sense of what’s possible for your body. It can feel empowering to get up into those inversions, even if you’re being helped by the teacher.
In my personal physical practice — whether of yoga or circus sports or other activities — I’ve felt how a big accomplishment “on the mat” translates into confidence off the mat.
I don’t discount for a moment that getting into handstand can give you a hit of self-confidence that will fuel the rest of your day.
Yoga Beyond the Physical
The problem comes when teachers become over-reliant on assists and adjustments to replace effective, clear cueing.
There’s a difference between helping a student guide herself into the pose and putting a student into a pose.
That momentary feeling of self-confidence that a student experiences when the teacher helps her into a pose can turn into self-doubt when the student tries — and fails — to get into the pose on her own.
Maybe you’ve proven to me that my body can get into handstand, but what does it matter if I can’t get there by myself?
I’ve found it more empowering when a teacher has instructed me to back off the complex pose and given me drills to practice to increase the strength or mobility I need to get into a certain pose. In the short run, I may feel frustrated by where I am, but in the longer run I know I’ll build the strength to get into the pose without risking injury.
Being ok with where I am, and persisting through the journey, is what yoga is about.
A Yoga Teacher is a Coach
Ultimately, a yoga teacher is a coach of both physical movement and innerwork.
The role of a coach is not just to show the client what’s possible for her, but to help the client create the conditions in which the she can see her own limitless potential, and a path for how to realize that potential.
We cannot create transformation in others; our job is simply to hold space for the client’s transformation.
The conditions required for that transformation start with self-acceptance, self-compassion, and self-worth, which includes allowing yourself to be ok with where you are in this moment on your mat.
I come back to the words of Bhagavad Gita:
Yoga is the study of the self, by the self, through the self.
Asana, the part of yoga that is about the physical poses, is one way in which we explore the self. Assisting a student too much in this process deprives the student of this essential means of exploring the self.
The job of a yoga teacher is to hold space for the students’ experience and to help them find alignment. Alignment includes both physical alignement within the pose itself and spiritual alignment in their choice to find their own expression within a pose.