Why In Yoga I Keep My Hands To Myself
Recently I’ve seen the increased discussion again around how to adjust students in a trauma-informed way; being conscious of trauma by making sure that we clearly communicate around adjustments to honour student’s boundaries. In the lineage of my study, physical adjustments are not part of our teaching and with more discussion around terms such as ‘mental health aware yoga’, ‘trauma informed yoga’ and adjustments, plus the odd query from our own students, I felt it time to tackle the reasons why adjustments are not on the already rich buffet of the yoga experience at our yoga school.
The rise for the need of things like trauma-informed yoga and mental health aware yoga, ring as somewhat of an alarm, as it should to all students, for it suggests that not all teacher trainings are thoroughly teaching a good understanding of the mind (manomayam) giving rise to ever-increasing problems of boundary-crossing between teacher and student, be it intentional or not. I must be clear in saying that many teachers I know do adjust and for the most part, this hands-on connection is coming from a very loving place but is it a place that should exist in the forum of yoga? At times I’ve been in classes where a teacher has adjusted and that right intention has been far from clear, particularly when I myself was much younger and more vulnerable to both wrong intention as well as the misinterpretation coming from my own insecurities. In other circumstances based on how I myself was feeling and perhaps, the nature of the teacher at that time, an adjustment has been okay. On one particular occasion, a very strong adjustment triggered trauma in my body, around an old injury that I did not even know was still there and the list of student allegations around teacher touch, is by no means a short one.
In yoga there are five states of mind (the panca bumi): ksipta – that which is compared to the drunken monkey, that has been stung by a scorpion and seen a ghost, at the opposing end there is the mudha mind – comparable to the heavy dull disposition of the water buffalo and inbetween, viksipta – in a constant state of distraction, that which is described as human. Only from the place of viksipta can we move upward toward the other two states, ekagrata and nirodha. At the viksipta state, we oscillate slightly but frequently toward mudha and ksipta (even both simultaneously) depending on a myriad of factors – from food to cerebral impressions such as articles we read or interactions with people, to extreme trauma, addiction etc. This is the nature of mind. The path of yoga offers the way beyond that oscillation and moves us instead, with intense, incessant determination, toward nirodha. If a student was firmly in ksipta, we could not work with them in that state, for yoga requires the mind and the mind in the state of ksipta (extreme psychosis for example) would need to be settled before that work could begin. So too in the full state of mudha, a person would be almost in a state of catatonia, unable to act. But at the distracted state of viksipta we can begin. Therefore as teachers, when we have a room full of students, we know that if they have managed to make it to a class they are in a state of viksipta but how much they are distracted, disturbed or oscillating toward the outer states of mind, is not always so easy to see. Even their speech might not be an accurate guide as the mind is very good at fooling both ourselves as well as others. Therefore, the best assumption for us to make is that every student is bringing some disturbance of the manomayam – for that is the nature of the viksipta mind – and therefore every student should be taught in this way. Couple that with the knowledge that, for myself at least, I am not at the state of nirodha (although all the tools give me impermanent glimpses of this), so I too am bringing my own oscillations of mind which can colour the reality of any student in front of me.
So how then do I do physical adjustments in a way that are certain not to cause any problems to ourselves or any students ever? In my case, through the teachings of my teachers, I simply do not do them.
There is a wonderfully satisfying feeling when a teacher takes us into a position or even simply a little more deeply into a position with an adjustment; that extra squeeze into the waste within that gets a bit more apana moving but my role as a teacher is to guide you, not do it for you. Yoga is the ultimate self-responsibility. Yoga is being gloriously liberated from our suffering, by our own efforts. Yoga is a bit like learning how to survive in the bush with nothing but good knowledge, understanding that everything we need is already there. The teacher-student relationship is an important one that guides our understanding of the texts but the work must be done by the student as I must do my own work on myself, guided by the teachings of the sutras, as taught to me by my teachers, to be the best for my student I can be. If touch is made, I bring my students from the mind and they go back to the body – the opposite direction of yoga. In the physical practice of yoga (asana) we move the body to increase the quality of the breath, the breath is the vehicle for every movement and the mind facilitates both the movement as well as the high quality mechanism of breathing and it is in this focus we find the meditation. As I move into a posture and stay, the mind must reflect on the presence of sthiram (steadiness) and sukham (comfort) overlapping, and in this place I can explore my fullest potential. So how does a physical adjustment aid this very intimate process?
With this knowledge I must teach my students with the full awareness that simply by being a human being, trauma will be present, from this birth or any other – the process of removing this unwanted debris, including psychological, through asana, is a step by step progression, made perfectly, in its right timing, by the student with every round of conscious breathing. If I adjust, I risk, even in my most steady of students, pushing them into some disturbances of the mind that have manifested in their bodies, that they are not yet ready or able to process. This potential is in every cell, so how can I adjust in such a way that will not disturb even a single cell further beyond where they are ready? This process is for the student in their experience of the tools of yoga. They may take themselves too far or too little in their practice at times but with experience a student will understand that too much or not enough, is not yoga, they will find for themselves the sweet spot inbetween where yoga dwells within them and in the process discover their own antarayah (obstacles).
In cases where teachers are asking students who they already know have strong problems in the manomayam or vijnamayam to give consent on touch adjustments when we know as teachers that when the mind and/or deeper mind are in problems that the vak (speech) will only represent the disturbance and therefore cannot be taken as sattva (truth), we are putting not just our students but ourselves – and therefore the reputation of yoga - at high risk. For some students who love adjustments, that will become one of the reasons why they go to a particular teacher, feeding their asmita (ego) because of how deeply their teacher takes them into their postures, as well as relishing the touch. The creation of this kind of raga (desire) for both touch and that physical ‘achievement’ in their practice, will offer my student nothing except more work left for them to do.
It is not my want to create controversy, although I accept that this article may, so let me say that the teachers that I know who do adjustments are some of the most beautiful people, with big hearts and poetic intentions – much softer and more amicable people than myself, who may have very strong opinions in the opposite direction to my teachings – but in adjustments so much damage has been done, so much physical and emotional damage, much of which some teachers may never, ever have intended. There is only one argument for myself as a teacher for doing adjustments that outweighs the reasons not to – that the yoga student is unable to receive guidance through their other appropriate senses; sight or sound. Connection from the heart, an extension of my energy through my eyes, the tone of my voice and most importantly, the tools that I am teaching you, are my ways of supporting you to find where you are able to go yourself. I am sure some people have come and gone through our yoga school thinking I have some distance between me and them, my work as a teacher and student of yoga has been in the more subtle but very deep love I have for every one of my students that I am so privileged to have in my life, to ensure that it is felt. I’m not sure yet whether this is perfected but it is my progression. Touch is a glorious and essential part of life, this I can not exclaim enough, and hopefully through the teachings, my student’s relationships off the mat; the connections in their daily life, with every person they meet, can become more meaningful, safer and sacred through their own ongoing commitment to the journey of yoga without me ever having laid a hand upon them.