A lot of money can be spent on (and made from) learning (and teaching) how to adjust students in yoga asana. This topic comprises a large amount of time in teacher trainings and is covered extensively in workshops and books. Often these adjustments are taught as ways to guide the student to go “further into the pose,” to do the pose more “correctly,” or even to <blurg> “MASTER” / become “MORE ADVANCED” in the pose.
I want my students to do asana safely and to challenge themselves, however, I do not like to give many adjustments in my classes. I am not afraid to adjust; I do not doubt my ability to safely adjust. Not adjusting is a conscious decision I have made which is in line with my teaching philosophy:
The student learns best when they figure it out for themselves.
In the traditional guru-student relationship, the guru will instruct and admonish, but they do not magically bestow enlightenment on the student. They provide tools, support, and opportunities for success, yet the student maintains sole responsibility for putting those items into practice.
My thoughts on this topic are largely influenced by two things. The first is that I have a rigorous, disciplined home practice. I have not been to a yoga class in nearly 4 years. This opportunity to practice under no immediate supervision has required me to learn pay more attention to where my body is in space and to self-recognize the differences between lazy/just right/too far and stay where you are/it’s time to go to the next step. Such awareness is lessened when you put your practice in the hands of another—you feel, consciously or sub-consciously, that the teacher is looking out for you.
The second influence is comprised of the horrible adjustments I have been given by experienced, Yoga Journal featured teachers, who wrenched my body in to their interpretation of the pose. The last classes I went to were at a conference at The Omega Institute. I was adjusted in the same pose (Gomukasana, with the right arm up) by two different teachers. The first guided me to where my arm could go, and talked me through what was happening (Sri Dharma Mittra). The other came up behind me and torqued my arm violently to where he thought it should be(shall remain nameless). Very easy to see who taught for the student, and who taught for themselves. [On a side note, when I took a class at the later teacher’s center, I was violently adjusted several times in class by a different teacher. Unfortunate, in my opinion, that senior teachers who fanatically preach non-violence toward animals teach such violent techniques of adjustment to be used on humans.]
Every asana has a multitude of expressions and substitutions. The preparation for any pose equals the pose itself. Each student needs to figure out for themselves where their expression of the pose is today.
Again, guidance so that the pose is done safely, good.
Forcing students into your idea of what the pose is, bad.
Letting someone put your body in a place where you cannot get to yourself is not a progression is your practice. Progression in practice is taking control of your own practice.
Passivity and complacency, bad.
Persistence and analysis, good.
I seek to guide with fairly light adjustments, hinting at the direction of movement so the student can begin to learn where they are in space. An example: In paschomottanasa, a rounded back is fairly common—my back rounds as well. One adjustment is to lay on the student’s back, even putting your feet on the wall to apply your full body weight onto the student. Yes, the student will fold. They will also hurt tomorrow. In the lower back. In the hamstrings. And when you go away, the student will spring back into the shape they were previously.
Compare with having the students enter the pose with bent legs, keeping torso to thighs, and gradually straightening the legs. When torso comes away from thigh, stop. Now I can, with only two fingers, guide the student’s shoulders away from their ears; then, with light touch on either side of the spine (again with only 2 fingers),from hips to shoulders, encourage the student to straighten their spine. Now the student knows how to enter the pose safely, identify where they can work, and understands that the movement is primarily forward not downward. They can progress deeper into the pose at their own pace, yet still maintain the sensation of "working" in the pose without having to match exactly what the more flexible teacher can do.
As a teacher, lessening the amount of adjustments you do helps the students to learn more. Again, offer correction so they are not injuring themselves, yet let them work in the pose. Instead of adjusting every pose, guide them through example. Tell them what you want them to do, offering different places to work along the way so all levels can find some expression. Show them (yes, this means you yourself have to have practiced what you are teaching). Let them do. Let them work. Let them be challenged. Let them know they are in charge of their education.
Let the student know this is their practice.
This is teaching to the top of the class, setting the benchmark that the students’ are in charge of their own education. You, the teacher, are there as a guide; the students are there to practice.