The art of adjustments

My nine surya namaskars for Day 25 of the Kiss My Asana yogathon for Mind Body Solutions are dedicated to the art of adjustments. The fundraiser ends April 30, and although my fundraising goal of $1,000 has been exceeded, more is always welcome. Read more about why here.

“You reveal the inner body, you don’t fix it.” ~ Matthew Sanford

This simple profundity is one of the keys to understanding the role of adjustments in yoga, particularly for adaptive students, those with substantial mobility impairments.

As I move this year through a 300-hour teacher training course in Purna Yoga, I’m realizing just how much I’ve learned from Matthew about the art of touching and assisting students. In the first four years of my teaching, I’ve not been hugely confident about giving strong hands-on adjustments, mostly because I don’t have much experience, and I have been taught that firm adjustments are last resorts if a student isn’t quite “getting” it. When you move in to touch someone who is trying to figure out a pose for himself, you better know what you’re doing and why. Intention is everything. But, like anything else, the practice gets better with practice.

As I start to write this while sitting at my desk, our 1-year-old kitten is clamoring for my attention, my touch. He is clawing at my leg and climbing up into my lap. I can’t type like this, however, so I have to pick him up and let him go. He pulls one of the cat beds closer to my chair, turns it over and settles himself onto it. He sleeps.

Last month, during the first of three two-week TT stints I’ll attend at the Alive and Shine Center near Seattle, we learned a five-part adjustment for shavasana, the corpse pose of final relaxation. I have been practicing it in my classes back home, with nice results. Students have told me that they really appreciate the extra sensations, which allowed them to relax even more. One student asked me after class if she was crooked and needed adjusting (certainly one reason to do the movements) ~ in other words, why did I do it? No, I said. There was nothing to fix, nothing wrong with her. I just wanted to help her get more out of shavasana, from within her own body.

Aadil said this last month during a discussion about integrity and respect for the practice and each other and our duty as teachers to cultivate a vigilant sense of awareness: Remember that “what is in front of you is a whole life, not just a body full of pain.”

Matthew’s teachings helped me greatly when I taught young people (ages 10 to early twenties) in treatment for eating disorders. Almost all of them loved receiving adjustments in shavasana (their favorite pose anyway) and frequently asked me for them. I was surprised that they wanted to be touched at all, so this was a huge lesson for me in how a fractured mind-body connection often wants to heal: by being seen, heard, acknowledged, cared for, held. They loved simple leg traction and neck massages, along with just being allowed to lie still and quiet in the dark for a while. Since this was not a typical yoga teaching situation, I would ask if anyone didn’t want to be touched. The one time ~ the one time! ~ during a class (not in shavasana) that I didn’t ask a patient before offering a light adjustment in child’s pose, she turned out to not want to be touched. She very politely told me so the next time I saw her. I have to say, I was really proud of her. Mortified for myself, but proud of her for voicing her needs and creating a boundary.

Yoga teachers don’t ~ or shouldn’t ~ give instructions or offer props and adjustments to fix anyone or force a movement or a cookie-cutter shape. In alignment-based yoga, yes: For able folks, we work to align bones and joints through the use of muscular actions. This creates vitality in the spine and, by extension (literally and figuratively), throughout the whole body. Bringing the spine into the body brings us into the present moment and more into our true ourselves. It pushes our heart forward and up and out. If we can learn how to reveal our personal Self to ourself, then we can share it with others. This is a deeply healing approach to profound trauma and, as the Buddhists call it, the trauma of everyday life.

Mind Body Solutions photo.

Mind Body Solutions photo.

Several adjustments that I’ve learned from Matthew emphasize that point. One is in tadasana, the basic standing or mountain pose: The “giver” places her right hand between the “receiver’s” shoulder blades, the back of the energetic heart center. This helps to teach awareness of the back body ~ which we can’t really see or access very well ourselves ~ with a sense of deep support. With help, we can let go. This translates into a softening of the upper shoulders (the trapezius muscles) and a lift in the front chest ~ the heart center. The release of unnecessary tension frees up energy for creative and constructive use elsewhere. At a workshop with Matthew in August 2014, he gave these instructions for tadasana:

“Balance rolling the traps back and down. Lift the chest. Lengthen the neck. Charge the legs. Reveal who you are.”

The techniques that Matthew teaches for adaptive yoga are tectonically subtle, more subtle than adjustments common in traditional classes. Sometimes a nail just needs a hammer. But for folks with disabilities, it’s crucial to “move in to move out,” he says, because that layer of subtlety is more accessible for them. I would say that is a key element of yoga, for anyone who practices, regardless of ability. Work in, not out.

Matthew talks about teaching the experience of a pose, not simply the shape. Because how would you teach triangle pose to someone who is paralyzed from the chest down? We assist people ~ and sometimes each other, student to student ~ to uncover sensations, to cultivate attention and awareness, not to fix or force. To feel and to heal. However, although adjustments from other human hands and bodies can leave marvelous imprints and uncover long-buried truths,  the real work is still personal and individual.

Matthew also talks a lot about not making an adjustment about you, the giver ~ don’t whip around and bore into the receiver’s eyes, asking, “How’d I do, huh-huh-huh?” Of course, both parties need to communicate to some degree. But adjusting is “about the universe, not ego,” Matthew says. An adjustment or an assist is an energetic exchange. There may be a doer or a giver and a somewhat passive receiver, but there’s nothing passive about the dynamic. If the student is receptive to the touch ~ which is more often than not offered without words ~ the giver receives the sensation of release as well.

One way to feel this is to sit spine to spine in sukhasana (cross-legged) or dandasana (staff pose). Work the basic actions of the poses, but feel the warmth and support coming from your partner’s back while letting the groins soften. Then move away from each other and feel the effects of gravity. Parting is such sweet sorrow! Keep doing the actions but try to re-create the sense of relief. Then try to translate this into every pose, into any challenging situation in your life in which you feel unsupported or ungrounded. A supported spine, Matthew says, helps the mind open and relax. “Support the spine, ease the mind.” With that sense of relief and focus can come even more expansion into a pose, into yourself, the space around you and your life. Safe structure creates freedom.

“The spine is more connected to the universe than your mind.” ~ MS

Whether an adjustment is energetically asymmetrical (one person’s hand to another’s back) or symmetrical (two people sit spine to spine), the main ingredient for “success” is safety. Props and assists can help create physical boundaries that help us locate ourselves in space. Boundaries create structure and add to our foundation or base in a pose, connecting us more deeply to the essential sense of grounding, to the Earth ~ to the silence that reveals the deep inner hum shared by all humanity, as Matthew describes it. From that sense of security, we can feel safe to be vulnerable.

“Our minds are afraid of how connected we are. It only sees absence.” ~ MS

At the heart of the matter, as yoga teachers it’s our job to cultivate and create conditions of safety so that students can explore themselves, not to impose a system of shapes, especially shapes that some folks will never achieve. As such, all yoga is fundamentally about adaptability, about being open to transformational, sometimes painful but liberating and hearth-opening truths.

“Yoga brings hope at an unspoken level that precedes all trauma, loss and disability. At this level, yoga is not taught, but only shared.” ~ MS

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