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With any hands-on technique, it is best to practice outside of the classroom with peers and mentors until you feel confident in your ability to perform a technique safely.
It is also critical that when a studio/gym authorizes using this technique, or any other hands-on technique, that the student receiving the assist is stable enough to gain a benefit from the assist, and the student offered their consent to receive hands on assistance.
The world of opinions in yoga when it comes to giving and receiving assists thoughts to range from ‘never ever’ all the way to ‘the juicier the better’.
If you’re somewhere in the middle and looking for functional ways to support your student’s in poses then this article is for you.
Hands-on assistance in a yoga class generally stems from one of two motivations: effort or ease, a modern translation of the yogic concepts ‘Sthira’ and ‘Sukha’.
As a new teacher, helping someone find more ease came pretty naturally for me - offer a block, touch a bound muscle to encourage awareness and softness, provide a wall of support when needed. But the effort?
The methods I had initially been taught felt forceful as if I was manufacturing the pose for the student, and rarely yielded lasting results.
It dawned on me that I needed a more well-rounded background in anatomy, an approach outside of the world of yoga.
On top of 300 additional hours of yoga training, I dove into additional studies in personal training, group exercise, cycling, and kinetic mechanics.
It may have been overkill, between costly headlong dive and a crazy number of miles on my car from multiple jobs in studios and clients. But what I gained is my own personalized approach to assessing a client’s anatomy, teaching movement, and offering assistance.
Admittedly I started this process as a rigorous (and naive) search for the ‘best’ method. But the truth when working with the human body, was my quest became a continual proving and reproving of one truth - everything is contextual.
How frustrating it was to sit in the middle of grey shades, when so desperately I just wanted to know what’s best!
And there was my answer.
Whenever I assisted a student, I had to take away the idea of 'showing' them how it's done, and instead present opportunities for them to feel it for themselves.
One concept I will share has particularly transformed how I train students to awaken muscles, and develop awareness around patterns of compensation. And it crosses over exceptionally well in the yoga room...
This technique takes into account a client’s personal movement patterns. Minimizing the risk of injury from assistance, and helps support a lasting muscle memory for the client ensuring that they can duplicate the results without future assistance.
Feed the mistake
This technique works in functional training. Especially as we look at correcting imbalances, by gently nudging the movement pattern in the wrong direction, essentially making compensations more apparent.
This action wakes the client up to once again feeling the compensation pattern they’ve grown accustomed to using and ignoring. In response, the sleepy muscles are compelled to wake up and activate to resist the force.
This method of assistance requires very little pressure, unlike many assistance styles that are big, or very forceful.It has just enough to cause the student to become sensationally aware of the mistake.
How to do it ?
As a personal trainer, feeding the mistake would look something like this...
A client performing basic squats shifts to the right when they lower. In order to make them aware of this compensation pattern and ‘feed the mistake’, I would lasso their hips with a strap and step out to their right side until the strap is taut and as the client lowers I would gently pull the strap more to the right until the student feels the additional pressure. To regain stability the client will immediately meet the additional force to avoid feeling of kilter.
In the yoga world, the scenario may look like like a client whose front knee is caving in during Warrior 2.To feed the mistake I would apply gentle pressure to the leg just above the knee causing the knee to fall further in. The client then will immediately press their knee back out to avoid collapse.
This is the exact opposite of the common yoga adjustment technique of pushing the student’s joint in the correct direction.
Why it fits ?
While the latter method has merit and I use it as the situation calls, why I am a fan of feeding the mistake?
Instead of assuming that the student is engaging the right muscles once I encourage a joint back into place, I can know with more certainty that they have found stability on their own when they become aware of their compensation.
If the client doesn’t wake up the sleepy muscles then they will continue to collapse. Feeding the mistake requires the client to be in charge of correcting the compensation.
They have to use their muscles to overcome the additional force of the assist like any other form of resistance training.
The beauty of this technique is that the added pressure is gentle enough that there is a very minimal risk of injury in comparison to other more invasive hands-on techniques.
In the end, every teacher will find the techniques that they feel work best and will make decisions on a case-by-case basis after assessing the needs of each student.
My hope is that yoga asana instructors will continue to explore opportunities for learning. And the industry as a whole continues to open up to the methods proposed by our counterparts in the fitness world.
Seeking points of convergence with the traditional wisdom of our Yogic path and the abundance of resources, we have access to the physical fitness world. Combining them we can stay well-rounded, intelligent, and compassionate in our approach.