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The Art Of Adjustment

On Thursday, November 19, five teachers met at The Breathing Project for YogaCity NYC’s tenth Deeper Learning Series panel discussion. The panel—which consisted of

Leslie Kaminoff, Eddie Stern, Barbara Verrochi, Nikki Vilella, and Alison West—was moderated by YogaCity NYC’s own Brette Popper.

“Why adjust?” Popper asked Verrochi, launching the evening.

While Verrochi, a longtime Mysore practitioner and teacher, is familiar with using her hands to teach, she also elaborated upon her use of subtler adjustments.

“Sometimes it might be just to support them in the pose, holding their leg up if they're unsteady in a balance,” she said. But it could also be “standing by them if they're doing a headstand if they're afraid. It could be just getting them in their body, grounding them. Maybe telling them to slow their breath down.”

West, whose teaching is heavily infused with Iyengar ideals, thought that the myriad of adjustment possibilities could be used to bring consciousness to any student’s individual needs.

“Adjusting follows the same principles as practicing,” she said. “One doesn't always have to be forceful, but a forceful adjustment can also be the first time somebody realizes their capacity to do something, as long as it's safe and welcomed. To adjust is also to partner with the student in the practice, so it is a beautiful form of joining together with students and developing a relationship at that level.”

Vilella rules the roost at Kula Yoga Project in Williamsburg, a studio that gives a lot of hands-on assists. “I love getting them, I love giving them so I never even questioned learning adjustments and wanting to adjust and have that be part of my teaching,” she said.

And “I’m Italian and this is how we talk,” she added, expressively moving her hands. With adjustments, “you’re speaking with your hands. It’s just another way of conveying the information that you’re already teaching.”

Similarly, Kaminoff found adjustments to be a form of communication, using touch “in the process of teaching for the same reason we use words,” he said. “It's a useful to think of using much discernment about when to touch and when not to touch as it is to think of what to say and what not to say.”

Stern, a recognized Mysore teacher and longtime student of K. Pattabhi Jois, noted that Jois never used the term “adjustment.” “When he would put us in poses, basically what he was doing was he was helping us to change our ideas or perspectives or limited believe systems about what we could do and what we couldn't do,” he said. “To adjust to something means to change or to shift your perspective or your viewpoint or your position. So when a teacher is helping in whatever kind of word we use, whether it's an adjustment or an assistance or whatever, it's to help facilitate change that we can't quite find on our own.”

“Have your adjustment theories changed over the years?” Popper asked the teachers.

Vilella found that, like most anything, her confidence increased in past years. “It's just getting to know bodies and see bodies and really understanding,” she said. “The more bodies you look at, the more bodies you touch, you can start to understand and feel them and see them better with your hands.”

“How can I get the maximum effect with the minimum intervention I think would be the way to sum it up,” said Kaminoff, whose teaching has gotten less forceful, less intrusive, more breath-oriented. He now likes to give students an image or an idea “that's more about them doing the thing to themselves rather than me doing it for them.”

West now does fewer physical adjustments now and many more verbal ones. “I've matured and I'm still learning,” she said. “I look for lightness or release in face of the person I'm adjusting and if I see tension then I back off and make sure that the pose has that quality of releasing.”

Popper asked Verrochi about the methods she uses to teach adjustments to her teacher trainees. Verrochi, who co-directs The Shala’s program with Kristin Leigh, has them start by just looking.

“We have them observe for a while, just watching and taking in what's going on in the room,” she said. “Then, little by little, we let them touch. Usually we just work with what's in the room. Just work with who's in the room and really look at them.”

“It's surprisingly simple what you teach them,” Vilella added. “I like fancy adjustments sometimes, but what I would teach them is very basic ‘13 ways to adjust downward facing dog.’”

Vilella values the idea of teachers as mentors. “I think that our job as teachers is to not just train someone and then let them go off, but to have an actual studentship with your students and spend time helping them grow.”

Agreeing, West usually starts with clear demonstrations of simple adjustments, building her students’ confidence. She selected moi from the audience to demonstrate a couple of her notable assists.

I lay supine on a mat and came into bhujangasana. With bent knees and a neutral spine, West lifted my legs and placed the tops of my feet onto the tops of her thighs. Her hands cupped my heels and she gently leaned back, tractioning my spine. She then had me take salabhasana—arms extended alongside my ears—and placed a dowel in my hands. She held onto the dowel and again leaned her weight backwards, tractioning my spine in the other direction. Both adjustments were so simple and subtle, yet so effective.

An audience member wondered who should be held accountable when a student is injured from an adjustment.

“My belief is that if you hurt someone, you should be able to fix them,” Stern said. “Adjusting is not a point of teaching. We're using it as a tool to try to help people, so we don't want to impose some type of a new pattern on an unwitting person. We want to help them find how they can begin to reorient their own patterns that brought them to yoga in the first place.”

—Michael Laskaris

Stay tuned for details about YogaCity NYC’s next Deeper Learning Series discussion on yoga and faith, on May 11th, at Integral Yoga Institute.


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