In Yoga, Touch Is for Teaching and Support

The Times’s Emily S. Rueb wrote about the delicate art of hands-on yoga instruction in her first Stretch column, which appears in the Sunday Metropolitan section.

City Room asked Joe Miller, the dean of anatomy and a faculty member of the teacher training program at OM Yoga Center in Manhattan, to answer questions on the topic.

What is the purpose of touch in yoga?

Touch is a teaching tool. It’s another method of informing and guiding students and of being helpful to them. Through the teacher’s touch, students can sense more clearly what they are doing and learn the actions that are important in a pose in a concrete way.

Sometimes touch is also about protecting those who might be at risk of injury, or supporting them in a difficult balancing pose. Touch can be important for emotional reasons as well, as a way to acknowledge students and to make a connection with them.

How do you approach hands-on adjustments?

A teacher needs to have many options to reach students in his or her “tool box.” Hands-on adjustments are just one, along with verbal directions, demonstration, imagery, etc. When I’m teaching, I’m always evaluating what method would be most appropriate for the class as a whole, as well as for individual students. After 10 years of teaching, I often have a pretty good idea, but there’s still some guesswork, and if one method doesn’t work, then I have to try something else.

With hands-on adjustments, the risks are greater. If they’re forceful or inaccurate, they could cause injury. I rarely use generic adjustments anymore; what I choose to do is always based on what I’m seeing in the individual student in that moment. I try to stay receptive with my hands so I can feel how the student responds. In that way the adjustment becomes more about guiding the student rather than imposing some ideal of alignment.

Plus, there’s the emotional element of touch. That’s what makes it powerful, but it also opens the possibility of misinterpretation. As a male yoga teacher with mostly female students, I’m sensitive to that. I try to remain clear in my intentions. For the most part I think that clarity is communicated; of course, I don’t know my students’ whole history, or even necessarily how they’re feeling that day.

If I’m not sure about whether a hands-on adjustment would be appropriate, I will often ask first, and I also sometimes ask while giving the adjustment, so that I have verbal feedback as well as feedback through touch.

How do you help teachers develop sensitivity with their hands? How do you address the subject of touch in your teacher workshops?

In the teacher training program at OM Yoga Center, where I teach, we emphasize developing what we call the “Three C’s” — confidence, clarity and compassion — in all aspects of teaching, including hands-on adjustments. In the anatomy section, I teach trainees to identify precise anatomical landmarks, so that they can be more confident and clear in their adjustments. In the training we demonstrate specific adjustments, with attention to the healthy alignment of the teacher as well as the student, and we discuss who the adjustment would benefit and who it would not be appropriate for.

There’s plenty of time for trainees to practice on each other under our supervision, and we continually offer feedback. At the end of the training, trainees practice in-class adjustments on each other and on volunteers from the public.

We also discuss the philosophy of hands-on adjustment, including why to give hands-on adjustments, as well as appropriate versus inappropriate touch. We emphasize the importance of watching and listening to students in every aspect of teaching. As teachers, our job is to practice compassion and to be helpful to our students.

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