When we teach yoga, we may decide to assist one of the students in class. or make it a staple in all of our classes as part of the experience. Either way, assisting is a huge privilege and we need to be mindful and purposeful in all of the assistance we provide.
Here are a few things to keep in mind when we assist someone in a yoga pose:
1. Assist to reinforce the primary action of the pose.
While there are many different things you can focus on when assisting a student, one of the most essential is simply to reinforce the main reason they’re in the pose in the first place. Sometimes students don’t know what that main focus is, so reinforcing it with what you say as well as how you do the assist is a great way to communicate.
2. Know your intent before you approach the student.
As you approach a student, know before you touch them what you intend to do. Assisting shouldn’t be a fishing expedition where you touch the person in various ways before you settle on what you’d like to offer. Know when you look at them what you’re going to do, then walk up, do it and move on.
3. Start at their foundation first.
When approaching, notice the quality of the foundation. Are they steady? Are the feet positioned properly? If not, work to steady them before doing anything to assist the upper body. This will create a solid foundation and you then give them an assist to reinforce the top of the pose.
4. Assisting can be done with a light touch or more of a heavy hand.
Sometimes, it can be just as effective to push with one finger on a student’s body to communicate an action (think: scoop the sitting bone under the body) as it can be to give them a deep stretch in Pigeon Pose. Think about what might work best in order to communicate the action you wish to see.
5. Be in your foundation before you give the assistance to the student.
Be sure that your body mechanics are healthy before you give someone assistance. This means things like bending your knees, keeping a healthy back, having a solid base and no worry that your hair or clothing (especially wide legged pants) will potentially cause you to trip.
6. Be mindful and try to avoid assisting from the front.
If you’re standing in front of the student, chances are, you’re in their view. This can be distracting and can take them out of their own meditation. Try to assist from the back or the side and if you do need to be in front of them, just be mindful of their gaze point.
7. Know when to back off.
No one wants to feel smothered in yoga class, even by the most well-intentioned teacher. If you feel your hands-on assist is not resulting in the shift you wish to see, you might try one more approach, but then back off. Keep in mind, this is all happening in a matter of seconds. The longer you linger, you may lose the class and just become a distraction to the student.
8. Stay neutral.
Just like how we don't get any verbal feedback from our students while teaching in class, we don't get it when we’re assisting them as well. Plus, they may give us signs that indicate they’re confused, annoyed or just not interested in our help. Stay neutral and try to avoid reacting or taking things personally. You have no idea what’s behind their actions and unless you have a conversation with them, will never really know.
You may or may not make asking permission to assist part of your classes. This particular aspect of assisting is a separate topic all its own. In all cases though, be respectful in your approach to students and lead with compassion. Your goal is to help, provide assistance, and offer something in addition to the verbal assistance you give as part of your teaching.