The art of adjustments in Ashtanga Yoga
the different intentions behind adjusting asanas and how to best serve the student
The last two weeks in Mysore assisting my teacher in the Shala made me think a lot about one of the cornerstones of Ashtanga Yoga: hands on adjustments.
There are three main ways of teaching physical yoga: by demonstrating, by cueing and by touching. In most styles of yoga, demonstration and cueing are key. The teacher shows and talks and the students follow.
In traditional Ashtanga Yoga, especially in Mysore style practice, there is very little room for demonstration or verbal cues. Students practice in silence and the teacher interferes very little to not disrupt the moving meditation that this practice really is.
This is when hands on adjustments come into play.
We can use physical adjustments with many different intentions. The most obvious one, what most people associate adjustments with, is to help students to passively stretch. Passively means that through the adjustments they achieve a deeper stretch than they would have on their own. In this way of adjusting, the student doesn’t do much apart from letting the teacher take them deeper into the pose. It requires trust and non resistance, an approach of letting go that sends a message to the nervous system to relax. A classic example is the push in Paschimattanasana after backbends, counteracting the previous deep extension of the spine.
Adjustments can also be used to guide the students to push against resistance. In this way we counteract the natural tendency of the body, to show to the student which direction their movement should take. A very good example is helping students with drop backs. While they are going down we pull their pelvis forward, creating resistance that makes them activate their legs, arch their back and land with their hands as close as possible to the feet (the natural tendency would be to just reach backwards, landing really far with the arms bent and the head crushing on the floor).
We can even teach asana technique through smart adjusting, without using too many words. For example, guiding the student’s shoulders to internally rotate while adjusting poses like Marichyasanas and Supta Kurmasana shows students what they need to do in order to one day achieve the bind on their own.
Guiding the student’s energy is another intention. In Ashtanga Yoga, every pose has a particular drishti (gaze point) which is meant to help the mind focus but also direct the energy, setting the asana’s intention. We can then adjust to show to the students this direction. This kind of adjustments are very subtle, a gentle pull or turning of the head is often enough. An example is Trikonasana, where we can turn the student’s head slightly to look towards the upper hand, and pull the upper arm gently upwards to avoid collapsing towards the ground.
Once we have cleared up the intentions of adjusting, the next question is how often we should use them, keeping in mind that every time we touch the student, no matter how subtle and gentle our touch is, we interfere with their meditative state and introduce an external element into their practice.
Whereas in many Shalas around the world the tendency is to over adjust, to justify the teacher’s presence and role, in Mysore it’s exactly the opposite. As assistants we are only allowed to adjust certain challenging asanas and only if the student cannot do them on their own. Adjusting to make the student go deeper is almost non existent.
Ashtanga practice, unlike other styles of physical yoga, is meant to be a self practice. It is conceived as a tool to help the practitioners turn their attention inwards, using their body as a tool to examine their mind and expand their consciousness. Anything external, for example props, mirrors, even an over interfering teacher are considered to disrupt the deep focus and concentration that is the backbone of this practice.
Adjustments here in Mysore are targeted and with a clear intention. They need to be subtle and efficient, empowering and respectful of the student’s body and energy.
It is a sad reality that people are often injured by too ambitious or unskillful adjustments. I find it hard to believe that to this day some teachers still sit on students’ backs to make them go deeper or achieve a certain shape. But unfortunately it happens. Ashtanga Yoga has a reputation of being injurious and risky but the only real risk is the uncontrolled ambition of both teachers and students.
It takes not only experience and skill but also a teaching approach and ethics free from ego and ambition, to be able to teach with respect and compassion.
We need to remind ourselves that the shapes, the asanas, are just vehicles, forms that we use as a blueprint to achieve the formless, the simplicity of breathing and moving consciously.
And we need to redefine what an advanced practitioner really is: not the one who performs complicated asanas but the one who knows up to where to push, challenging their limits but knowing where to stop, being in control of the mind and treating the body with respect, for the amazing vehicle of self expression that it is.
Finally we should not forget that touch is powerful. When approaching a student with the intention to touch them, we need to make sure our energy is channelled in a way that both empowers and reassures the student. Then, touch can be healing and a vehicle of love.