I remember all the training I received as a new teacher on assisting. There was quite a bit of “hands on” and while there was a distinction between the different kinds of assists you could give, there was an emphasis on “getting somewhere.” Most of the time, that “somewhere” was deeper into the pose, to increase the sensation or to increase the flexibility of the involved muscles. Now, keep in mind that wasn’t the intent of all assists; many were “light touch” and focused on direction and helping a student get a sense of the direction of a knee or shoulder or hand position, or some other helpful action.
These days though (and by these days I really mean for the past several years) I’ve significantly toned down the assisting I give and think more about two things:
- Can I use touch to provide a sense of grounding to the student?
- Can I use touch to move muscles in such a way as to mobilize the tissues?
Note that these two goals are fairly different in their focus. The first is more focused on the emotional and spiritual side of practice; helping to give someone a sense of feeling connected, not only to themselves but to others. The second goal is more focused on the anatomy of the practice. This highlights one of the reasons I love yoga; it’s such a wonderful combination of “structure” and “spirit” combined in one modality.
So, let’s look at each of these goals a bit more. First is the idea of using touch to create a sense of ‘grounding’ for someone. What does that mean? To me, when I get an assist, it can be a very steady feeling to have someone press down in a very specific way on the body. I think of the action of gentle pressure on the lower back or hips in Pigeon Pose. I think of the action of pressing into the outer edge of the back foot in Warrior 1. I think of the action of rooting the heels down in Chair Pose. These assisting actions, to me, help me feel more centered, more present, more “in my body” and connected to the earth.
*Now, big disclaimer here: Respecting that touch for some has a very different feeling and for those who might have a different reaction to touch, please know that as a teacher, I completely acknowledge this. As teachers, we always have to leave room for those for whom touch is not grounding but instead is anxiety provoking and as such, we need to always make room for those who wish not to be assisted in class. *
So, let’s look at the other idea of mobilizing tissues. What does that mean? Well, let’s think about it at the level of a muscle itself and the goal that you might have in mind for an assist you give someone. Because honestly, the goal or focus you have in mind will color how you approach the student and what actions you take. If you have the goal of increasing flexibility or length in a muscle, then you might push hard on the person or take long sweeping strokes with the heel of your hand down the length of the muscle. Think about the action of pressing down on someone’s sacrum as they’re in a forward fold and running the heel of your hand down the length of their spine to the nape of the neck. Even though the action is on the back itself, the grounding of the sacrum transfers the lengthening to the hamstrings, even more so if the students’s knees are locked.
Now, instead of taking a somewhat heavier approach, if I instead ground the sacrum but run the heel of my hand in more of a circular motion with a lighter touch down the back to the nape of the neck, then I’m focusing more on moving the muscle tissue around, not only the superficial muscles I come in contact with, but the muscles, fascia and surrounding structures (tendons, ligaments) as well. Think of it more like the action in a massage versus a heavy handed assist.
One of the reasons I like this approach better is that in my experience last year of performing cadaver dissections in anatomy lab, one of the most striking things to me was the observation of the layering of the muscles. When we study anatomy, muscles are presented as individual structures. Even in images where many are presented together, it’s hard to get a true sense of the layering of each muscle with respect to the other muscles. Once you see that, it’s easy to understand how people develop areas of tight spots in the body; areas where joints become more immobile or pain is present. It’s sometimes the mobilization of these tissues, through massage, myofascial release (ball rolling or foam rolling) or assisting in this fashion, that can provide more movement to the muscles and fascia with respect to each other. Note that in this approach, there is little focus on increasing muscle length or increasing flexibility. There’s a bit of an acknowledgement that with greater mobilization, increased healthy flexibility is possible but that’s not really the goal. Keeping in mind that just as in practice, the goal or emphasis we have in mind colors all that we do.
There are many ways to approach assisting and as in all things yoga related, the greater our understanding of key aspects of anatomy, oftentimes, the more helpful we can be to our students and the more confident we can be in our teaching. When I referred earlier to the “structure” and “spirit” aspects of the practice, it’s no surprise that these ideas interest me… the name of my most recent book is “Structure and Spirit.” If you’re interested in checking it out, along with the reviews from readers, click here.
I’ve also started recording live practice videos and making them available on Vimeo. These practice videos have tons of anatomical tips, much more than you’d get in a typical yoga class. For my first class, only $10, click here.
Thanks so much for reading!