10 Rules for Hands-On Yoga Adjustments

Yoga teacher adjusting a student in yoga class

Imagine you’re halfway through a vigorous yoga class: your body and breath are moving in unison, an internal fire has been ignited, and you take rest in Child’s Pose, giving yourself a well-deserved break and an opportunity to reconnect with your breath. Your teacher walks up behind you, and you inhale deeply, awaiting that sensational, grounding feeling of an adjustment, but she barely touches you and then quickly rushes away.

Now, imagine you’re in Downward-Facing Dog and your teacher (who you don’t yet know very well) drapes the entire front side of her body over your torso to “deepen the stretch,” unaware that she’s really only deepening your emotional discomfort with the situation, and your whole body tenses up.

If you’re a yogi, you’ve likely endured adjustments that were far too light, way too strong, and, possibly, even very awkward.

Hands-on adjustments can be a contentious topic in the yoga world, and every teacher seems to have an opinion about them—offer adjustments judiciously, offer adjustments with wild abandon, or don’t touch anyone, ever. The truth is there’s no universal right or wrong answer. As an instructor, knowing when, if, and how to adjust a student is something you need to determine on a case-by-case basis.

Perhaps you’re a seasoned instructor without a lot of experience adjusting students. Or maybe you’re new to teaching altogether, in which case hands-on adjustments might seem particularly intimidating.

No matter where you are in your teaching journey, a good place to start is to understand the why behind laying your hands on a student. Hands-on adjustments can be a wonderful component of your classes and can benefit your students in a number of ways, including:

  • Helping to correct unsafe alignment
  • Deepening feelings of relaxation
  • Fostering a connection with students who may receive very little touch outside of class
  • Encouraging a student to slow down and focus on the breath
  • Assisting with deepening into a posture
  • Providing direction about the energy of a pose

Once you understand the why behind adjustments, the next step is to educate yourself and practice. Take advantage of every hands-on adjustment workshop you can find in your community. And then practice, practice, practice on as many bodies as you can get your hands on, because every single body is built differently.

Your friends and family members are perfect people to practice on because you can solicit honest and immediate feedback, something that’s hard to come by once you start teaching. Once you’re ready to incorporate adjustments into your classes, it’s absolutely critical to follow these 10 rules:

1. Ask Permission

Start your class in Child’s Pose or in a seated position with eyes closed, and then offer an option to opt-out of hands-on adjustments by a show of hands. Say something like, “l’ll be offering some hands-on adjustments during class. If, for any reason at all, you prefer not to receive adjustments today, can you please raise your hand? I’ll be mindful to respect your space.”

2. Adjust on Both Sides

If you’re offering an adjustment in a pose that has two sides, make sure to adjust both of those sides to balance the body. This not only offers balance, but can help the student feel confident in the pose.

3. Offer Verbal Cues

When you’re making an adjustment, continue to instruct with words. For example, if you’re gently pressing down on someone’s shoulders in Mountain Pose, simply say, “Soften the shoulders down the back.” This reminds the entire class—not just the student you’re adjusting—to relax their shoulders.

4. Set Clear Intentions

If you’ve just learned a cool, new adjustment in a workshop and want to show it off to your class, consider whether you’re being mindful of the students’ needs or your own. Students come first, so ensure you know why you’re demonstrating that adjustment before you do it.

Also, be aware of where you’re touching your students. Avoid sensitive areas and approach the adjustment with a gentle but firm touch. Ambiguous touch, such as patting or stroking, can indicate unclear intentions to your students.

5. Enter and Exit with Mindfulness and Confidence

A student’s space is their own and should be respected at all times. Approach students at a steady pace and ensure they’re stable in a pose before you adjust them, and before you walk away.

6. Know Your Audience

Keep in mind the limitations of those in your class, especially if you’re working with special populations whose bodies and minds may be a little less forgiving than those of fitter and healthier students. If you’re teaching an elderly population, victims of trauma, those who have been injured, prisoners, or others with unique needs, enroll in some specialized training before offering hands-on adjustments.

7. Keep an Eye on the Rest of the Class

Stay present with the rest of your class and offer verbal cues while the adjusting is happening. Sometimes, you can get so absorbed in offering an adjustment that you can forget that the rest of the class has been in Chair Pose for 20 breaths.

8. Pay Attention to the Student’s Breath and Your Own

Encourage the student to breathe deeply by breathing audibly in unison with her. If a student’s breath becomes labored or choppy as you’re adjusting, that’s probably a good indicator that you’ve taken him too deeply into a pose.

9. Understand and Practice the Pose Many Times

In order to provide an effective adjustment, you need to know how the pose feels in your own body. Practice the pose regularly, and try to imagine what a student might need to complete it successfully.

10. Start Small

No one expects you to perfect every possible adjustment overnight. Start with a pose you feel comfortable with, and then learn how to offer new adjustments over time. As you boost your skillset and have opportunities to practice, you’ll be able to offer more and more adjustments. Remember that like practicing yoga, teaching yoga is also a journey.


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About the Author

Jen Stiff

Writer and Yoga Teacher (RYT-200)
Jen is a writer, editor, and storyteller. She lives in California with her mountain man husband and two pugs. When she’s not writing or frolicking with animals, Jen is practicing or teaching yoga, traveling to faraway lands, and cooking up delicious vegan desserts. Jen has healed her own mind, body, and soul through yoga, meditation, and healthful eating, and she loves to share her passion for health and well-being with the world through writing.Read more