Are you new to yoga? Are you excited (and a little nervous) about how it will go and what to expect? You’ve taken the steps to purchase your introductory yoga pass, yoga mat and yoga towel, and now a myriad of questions arise: “What will class be like? Am I ready for this? Will I be good at it? Will I be able to keep up? How will I look while practicing? How in the world will I get my hands to my feet?” Rest assured that you are not alone!
Whether you are new to yoga or a seasoned practitioner, my number one suggestion is to have fun. Find a teacher or community you connect with, and a studio or yoga environment where you feel you can learn, grow and thrive. Listen to your body, rest when you need it, doubt your doubts and enjoy the journey and richness of self-discovery.
A beginner’s mindset is truly where it’s at, no matter how long you’ve been practicing yoga. Gratitude and curiosity go a long way, as do laughter and a smile. While you may have a lot of questions about yoga when you first begin, remember to remain open, patient and loving with yourself. The best way to learn is through commitment, consistency and practice. Trust the process.
Okay, so you’ve finally made it to your first yoga class. Congratulations! The toughest part — getting there — is over. Once you’re settled in, you begin the practice of moving and breathing. It seems you’re figuring things out and getting the hang of it, but then you’re surprised to feel someone’s hands pull your hips back in downward facing dog. You are relieved to find it’s your yoga teacher, but you quickly scramble to move your hands back to your feet, thinking you must be doing something wrong. Don’t worry my friend, you are not alone! Nor are you doing anything wrong.
Providing hands-on assists, or adjustments, is one of several ways that teachers communicate instructions while teaching yoga. It is very common in yoga studios across the globe. In addition to physical hands-on assists, yoga teachers can relay information through verbal instructions and visual demonstrations, but hands-on assists can encourage action, ease, depth and connection in a way that dialogue and demos cannot.
Assists can provide opportunity for greater alignment, integrity, depth, focus, and space. When assists are performed mindfully and with intention, they allow you to discover something new within your body. Experienced yoga teachers assist in a way that encourages possibility, creates balance between effort and ease, and does not feel invasive, “touchy-feely,” or inappropriate.
There are three main types of assists in a yoga class: directional, stabilizing, and deepening. Directional assists are used to guide a body along a path in which to move. The teacher will use her or his hands to gently direct the movement of a body part. For example, you may feel your yoga teacher take two fists to your outer hips in chair pose to squeeze in toward your center line and down toward the ground, directing your chair into deeper expression. Directional assists are suggestive to the action principles of the pose.
Stabilizing assists help build your postures from the ground up — as with your hands, feet and core — while encouraging you to stack your joints. These assists encourage proper alignment and therefore stability in your body, while supporting your foundation. When the body is stable, the breath can move more freely. You may feel the teacher press the edges of your feet to the floor, spread your fingers and toes, encourage your lower belly to pull in and the tailbone to drop down, or suggest specific muscles to activate. An example of a stabilizing assist in warrior two pose is for the teacher to anchor the student’s right knee over the right ankle with one hand, and to take the other hand to the right hip crease. This action stabilizes the femur (thigh bone) into the pelvis.
Deepening assists bring the possibility of greater depth and encourage you to explore your edge, which is often much further from your comfort zone than you’d think. Deepening assists support greater length of the upper body in poses such as forward folds, and encourage the spine to rotate more fully in twists. These adjustments often help the breath to flow more smoothly and result in a feeling of a new level of depth in your yoga asana experience. For example, you may feel your teacher’s hand press down and stabilize your lower back in a standing forward fold, shift your hips over your heels and trace the other hand down the length of your spine to your head. These actions can help you to deepen your forward fold.
Assists are not necessarily about fixing a pose. Assisting from a place of fixing implies something is wrong. There is nothing wrong with your practice of self-discovery. While assisting physical alignment through words and touch is important to establishing a safe yoga practice, beware of getting too caught up in your head and having to get it perfect. Stay in your body and breathe, don’t rush the process, and remain open to the joy of freedom in your body, mind and spirit through the moving meditation of yoga.
Yoga assists provide a gift to both the student and the teacher. Hands-on assists allow for connection, and when we are open to connection, we can be of service to one another. This will create a symbiotic relationship of trust and vitality, on and off the mat.
Next time you are in a yoga practice and feel your teacher about to apply a hands-on assist, resist the urge to fix something within your body. Instead, see if you can connect to the teacher’s suggestion, breathe into a new space of possibility, and practice “being in the moment.” Within that sacred space of connection between student and teacher, magic happens.
Jessica Stein is Founder and Director of Kauai Power Yoga Studio, located in Kapaa, Hi. Please visit kauaipoweryoga.com for upcoming 200 Hour Teacher Trainings.