Manual Guidance in Yoga Classes
“When I am teaching you as I do now, I am able to convey to you what I want to convey, because when I touch you and guide you with my hands in carrying out my instructions, I myself, am going up! up! up!” (1)
In the above quote from The Expanding Self Alexander, explains to Goddard Binkley the secret behind his amazing hands. The story has been passed down, that when Alexander first began teaching he attempted to use verbal instructions with his “pupils.” However because the changes he was asking them to make were ones for which no motor pathways existed this procedure proved unsuccessful. We can only imagine the initial frustration and then the process he went through from this initial attempt to teach purely verbally to a highly developed and sophisticated skill in manual guidance.
Manual Guidance in the Alexander Technique
What we do know in the Alexander technique is that the quality of guidance which a teacher gives with the hands is grounded in their own coordination. Whilst there are specific technical skills which can be developed in relation to the way the teacher uses his or her hands, these can only be effective when the teacher is fully coordinated and expanded in their own self. The potential for the teacher to compromise their own central coordination and get “pulled into” what they are attempting to do manually with a student is something that needs to be rigorously checked and guarded against.
The skills of manual guidance which a three year full time training gives an Alexander technique teacher are firmly based on the gradual development of the coordination (use) of the trainee teacher. This continuing development in fact becomes the work of a lifetime. The other essential aspects in the teacher training are the development of diagnostic and teaching skills such that the teacher can: observe the interaction between structure, posture, movement, thinking and emotion in a student; refine the sensory acuity in the hands to such an extent one is able to sense what is happening not only underneath the hands, but much more importantly throughout the student’s whole organism; and to clearly and precisely communicate with the student in such a way that the student develops their ability to “think in activity.”
Manual Guidance in Yoga Practice
In most Alexander technique lessons teachers are not taking their students to the edge of their flexibility because the activities that they are enacting don’t encompass this range. Within yoga trainings and traditions there are a range of ideas about the acceptability of teachers manually guiding their students within yoga poses. In some it is strictly forbidden. And in some it is commonly practiced with different levels of subtlety.
The dangers of using manual guidance are both obvious and complex. Some years ago I was phoned by a lady who was seeking a yoga teacher to give evidence in her damages claim against a teacher who had pushed her into a Paschimottanasana and who had suffered continuing severe back pain since that time. (I never discovered what the outcome of that case was.) In litigious countries such as Australia and the USA some yoga studios ask their students to sign a liability waiver but I suspect that such a waiver wouldn’t be worth the paper it is printed on if the case did come to court.
On the other hand the downside of not providing this manual guidance in classes in which coordination is valued as part of the asana practice, is that yoga teachers discover, just as Alexander did the shortcoming of verbal instruction alone when it comes to asking someone to move out of their habitual posture and movement patterns.
So if you are a teacher who is thinking of or does provide manual guidance in your classes here are some things to be kept in mind.
Take care of your own coordination. If the adjustment you are offering discoordinates you, then you are unlikely to be giving your student and good or useful experience and you are also putting yourself into a position of strain and possible injury. How do you know if you are discoordinating yourself? Kinaesthetic pointers are that you yourself have pain or discomfort, and feel tightness in your neck and shoulders. There should be no interference with the balance of the head on top of the spine and your whole torso should be lengthening and expanding. Any forward bending should come from your hip joints and the back should be neither rounded nor concaved.
ALWAYS get feedback from the person you are adjusting. This has several good results. Firstly it gives your student permission to let you know if where you are taking them is uncomfortable, and potentially injurious. Secondly it gives you an indication of whether the adjustment is accomplishing what you are intending. And thirdly you are helping the student to gradually refine their judgement of their kinaesthetic sensations by asking them to evaluate those sensations.
Less is more. Just the minimum required is ideal. What that minimum is varies considerably. In Figure 1, where Fiona is coordinating herself beautifully as she takes a stiff student into a the bow she is obviously working a lot harder than Alysha in Figure 2 who is suggesting a very gentle adjustment of the balance of the head on the spine.
Make sure that your training and knowledge of proper coordination in both yourself and others is sufficient to engage in the manual guidance which you are giving the student. A six week or six month training cannot possibly provide you with the skills to move a student strongly into a posture, unless you have some other prior training which will support you in this. At the most, very minimal manual guidance may be given, but be aware of your limitations. The coordination of posture and movement is a complex matter and discoordination in one part will be mirrored throughout the whole body.
Keep learning, developing and refining your own practice and your skill in teaching and assessing others. One way of doing this is to find an Alexander teacher who can assist you in further refining your understanding of coordination.
Many thanks to Fiona Bryant http://www.fionabryant.com.au for her suggestion to write this article, her editing of the article, for being a model in Fig 1, for organising the photo shoot in the park and providing me with the first two photos for the article.