YOGA ADJUSTMENTS by Mark Stephens

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by Gail Hamlin
Yoga Adjustments, Yoga Teacher Magazine

Whether you're a teacher or student, physical adjustments in yoga class can be impactful across a spectrum. If done well, they can add to the transformative nature of a yoga practice. If not, they can be injurious. Mark Stephens has almost twenty years under his belt teaching yoga and understands how yoga adjustments work. In his third book, Yoga Adjustments: Philosophy, Principles, and Techniques, we read in great detail how Mark marries this notion into practical use.

Like Stephens' first two books, this newest book will serve as a reliable reference tool for any yoga teacher. I found it packed with a wealth of ideas designed to guide teachers into giving safe and practical adjustments for their students. He begins with explaining the place and importance of yoga adjustments in a practice and their desired results, stating, “This book is all about the nuances of teaching asanas and making them as accessible and sustainable as can be for the real human beings doing them in our classes.” The reader is also reminded early on that teachers should seek to guide and inspire the students in their personal practice to a place where students continue practicing guided by the best teacher they will ever have – the one inside.

Stephens begins his philosophy of yoga adjustments with one of my favorite yoga sutras, the brief Sutra 2.46: sthira sukham asanam. Meaning, asana practice should have steadiness, ease and presence of mind. Teachers use tactile cues to “help students refine their yoga practice as a personal process for cultivating wellness, self-discovery, and self-transformation.”

Several themes are primary in Yoga Adjustments. The role of the teacher is to help the student tune in to their own inner teacher. Another major theme: touch and how it should be used, and the ethics that go along with it. Stephens also returns to the yamas and niyamas as a reference for teachers as well: practicing ahimsa (non-harming) and satya (truth) when teaching, not to mention aparigraha (non-grasping). Encourage the student without forcing them into any asanas. The student must know on their own which way is right for them to settle into an asana and be able to breathe, allowing transformation to occur.

Stephens is clear about the importance of foundation for both student and teacher when offering physical adjustments. Cues both tactile and verbal must be given from the ground floor up, because, as he writes, “compromising the foundation compromises everything else.” And of course the teacher must be aware and sensitive to what the student is feeling, thus avoiding injury. Not only must the asana look right from the foundation up, but it must feel right for the student. Finally, it's the teacher's responsibility to keep the student coming back to “the principle of yoga as a practice of awareness and awakening, not of attainment.”

An important point for Stephens is communication between the teacher and student. He advises continual asking for permission when approaching each student to give a physical adjustment – time and again. While it seems he has success with this approach, I have to wonder if there really is a “right” way to ask a student for permission to touch. I agree that students might change their mind from moment to moment in regards to how they feel about being touched, but overall I feel it's either understood the teacher will give physical adjustments (in which case always ask the student the first time, especially if they are new either to yoga or to the particular teacher) ‒ or they won't at all. In certain circumstances no physical adjustments should be given (e.g. if it's a therapeutics practice with students suffering from PTSD). So, going with the notion that a teacher is working with a student or students where physical assists are common, it is indeed important to have ongoing communication.

In Part II, Applications, we see a considerable amount of photographs depicting assists, from the most basic of asanas (e.g. Virabhadrasana I) to the more complex (e.g. Astavakrasana). There's no question about the thorough nature of the descriptions. You couldn't get it better unless you were in Mark's class. In addition, along with the pictures are helpful verbal cues to assist conveying these ideas.

I was very excited to purchase Mark's new book and it already has a prominent place in my bookshelf amongst my most referenced teaching materials. This one's a keeper like the rest. Trust in his information, but if you're a teacher, be true to what you teach and teach from the heart. Don't pick up new adjustments unless they feel right for you to teach and be in tune with the responses from your students. After all, they're the ones that will continue to teach YOU! There's no need to reinvent the wheel. Stick with what works and allow this to expand your teaching expertise.

Gail Hamlin began her yoga practice in 2001.  E-RYT 200, RYT-500, Gail studies and teaches Ashtanga yoga and therapeutics.  You can catch her classes at Yo Yoga!Zen & Yoga (in Forest Hills, Queens), and Pure Yoga... Check out her website here.

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