03 July 2011

Diary of a Yoga Assistant: Lessons in Human Touch

The Bishop's Garden at the National Cathedral, Washington, DC


A few months ago, I received a great opportunity from one of my neighborhood yoga studios to assist in their weekly ashtanga classes.  My duties would include providing the students with hands-on adjustments and verbal instructions on alignment during class. An added bonus of the job description also required that I serve as the studio’s official Prop Police by confiscating blocks that unsuspecting students would sneak past the teachers. Having taken nearly a year-long hiatus from teaching, I was looking to grow as a teacher and the new gig was extremely welcomed and appreciated.

I’ve compiled a list of the top four lessons I’ve learned (and dusted the cobwebs off of) as a Yoga Assistant so far. 

1.    Everyone has a different body constitution. 
Simple enough. Yogis come in all sorts of beautiful shapes and sizes, with varying degrees of flexibility and motion, and adjustments should reflect so.  A beginner ashtangi will likely not receive the full weight of my hands in their downward dog while a more regular practitioner can withstand a much higher degree of physical pressure. The student’s body lets me know just how deep I can go by communicating it through the breath.  This is my time to listen and tune in with the language of their ujjayi. There is a precise moment when the breath will not let me go any further in an adjustment, and it happens just as naturally as exhaling. Regardless of a student’s physical make-up, each and every body has its own unique beauty and grace, which becomes more pronounced and apparent through dedication to the practice. 

2.    Voice is just as powerful as touch. 
“Flat palms damnit!” Just kidding.  I would never say that. Out loud. No really though, as humorous as it may be, barking orders does nothing to help a student’s confidence or personal growth. In most academic classrooms you have students that are either visual or auditory learners.  This doesn’t change in the yoga classroom. For some, the weight of one’s voice is more powerful than touch. By quietly whispering a simple instruction such as “open the chest” I see the integrity of the entire asana change, and it is quite a beautiful transformation to witness. Its as if the student’s inner compass has finally figured out the right direction. I admire the strong listeners out there, I could learn a thing or two from you.

3.    Laughter also counts as an official adjustment. 
Ashtanga is serious business.  There’s memorization, tradition and jump-backs for goodness sake! But, if we can’t laugh at ourselves in this practice, we may as well just go home and admit that we have huge sticks stuck up our mula bandhas. In some of the most rigorous and sweaty parts of the class (ahem...like after the first navasana) I like to grab a student’s toes and pretend to tickle them in order to help them lift their legs higher. Why? Because I think toes are funny. Do they laugh? Sometimes.  Or maybe roll their eyes, whatever.  I’ll take the occasional stink-eye for the sake of a few laughs.  In this practice we are guaranteed to fall, mess up, make weird sounds and even cry at times.  In between those moments the important thing to remember is to turn the corners of our mouths up, show our teeth and let laughter come out.  Hell, if you can fall and laugh at yourself immediately afterwards, you deserve some major yoga snaps. Once we start taking ourselves too seriously all the fun will officially be sucked out of the journey.  One of my personal mantras is to never compromise my sense of humor. I find that laughter creates lightness and a sense of comfort, which we could all use to help us get through those jump-backs. 

4.    Approach with love.
We all know that if you give love, you will get it in return. I’m sure there’s a famous quote out of a page from something in Oprah’s book club that could drive that point home for us here.  At the end of the day my role as an assistant is to provide love.  By no means are my adjustments attempts at “fixing” or making robots out of yogis. Via an open heart, my intention is to help students tap into their potential, go deeper into the poses and at the very least hope they learn just a little something about the practice of yoga.  I cannot speak for the students, but I can express that by simply allowing me to show up and share their yoga with me every week, they have opened their hearts and given all the love a little ol’ yogini like me could ever wish for. I’m giving a huge “AMEN!” here to the words of Guruji, that if you practice, practice, practice all will most assuredly come.


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