Hands Off!

The Case for Intelligence in Adjustments

I recently attended a three-day workshop that left me wondering about hands-on adjustments. The questions I had – and still have – are: 1) whether they can really be taught at all or are they more of a learned art combined with intuitive sense and 2) are being overused by instructors who are not able to articulate the dynamics of the exercises?

I had some concerns as I witnessed what I perceived as an almost violent approach to the body by some of the so-called adjustments. One person was attempting to do a Cobra-like exercise on a Pilates apparatus. When it became clear that she was struggling, three instructors jumped up to assist her; one pushed her feet onto the floor, another straddled her thighs and used his leg strength to squeeze her thighs together and the third was forcing her spine into a degree of spinal extension that her body was not used to. That is what I am calling violent as no other word fits.

Perhaps it is my education in somatic arts (Feldenkrais, Body-Mind Centering, etc.) and classical yoga – or just a very strong personal belief – but I think that working in this way does not help the student learn the exercise and/or possibly sets her up for future harm if she continues having people force her into postures.

Without the physical effort on her part to engage the necessary muscles to execute the action required, she will never get strong enough to achieve the posture on her own.

With the violent pushing, pulling and squeezing, her nervous system never learns a new pattern and most likely senses that she is being tortured and may initiate protective responses that inhibit performing the posture.

I am not sure where the idea that someone needs such aggressive adjustment comes from. How pervasive is it and why does it occur?

Using the hands on a client ideally is used to guide and/or sense. Hands (or legs) should never be used in such a way that causes bruising or pain. Don’t laugh; not too long ago I overheard one teacher telling another how she left a big bruise on the leg of a client to whom she was teaching the Saw. This teacher pressed her foot on the thigh of the client so hard it left a big bruise! I know what her intention was – she was supporting the side of the body that tends to lift up when someone performs the Saw.

Yet she could have made a better choice – one without the force. Personally, I find someone putting their foot on me for any reason ugly and disrespectful. I believe that touch and using the body in guiding/supporting the client is extremely helpful but it must be done with awareness and sensitivity. The instructor must be aware of how much tension to apply to the guiding movements.

Imagine how hard this particular instructor must have pressed her body weight onto the thigh of the client to leave a big bruise. This suggests to me that the instructor had very little sense of proper touch to guide the client and instead resorted to forcing someone into a position.

I don’t know if this sense of forcing people into positions is being taught consciously or if it is a by-product of unenlightened over-enthusiasm. One thing is for sure, though, the client doesn’t really learn anything from such forceful approaches.

I was studying a movement technique years ago and they had specific “hand-holds” that were taught to guide their clients. I was crushed when I discovered that many of them I could not use due to my smaller stature; thankfully, an understanding teacher helped me craft my own takes on these hand-holds which continue to serve me well. These hand-holds were gentle, yet powerful.

Touch is used in many somatic arts but it is never violent or forceful, as that would impede learning. No wonder would argue with the power of touch in a Feldenkrais lesson yet it is very light if it is even perceptible at all.

Positions of the hands can be demonstrated but one must be able to sense with those hands. I am not sure that sense can be taught but I feel pretty sure it can be learned with experience. Until an instructor learns how to adjust in a firm yet gentle way, I would suggest that they take a hands-off approach to making adjustments on clients. Perhaps the training programs could spend some time on this idea, keeping in mind the following:

1. Using feet on another’s body might arouse some anger especially if it’s someone like me who finds that practice distasteful.

2. Ask the client for permission to use hands-on before doing so. Some people just do not like to be touched.

3. Remember that your hand and their body are “talking” to each other. Learn to listen and hear for the information being exchanged.

4. Practice, practice, practice with other trainees, family members or friends who are willing to provide you honest feedback on your hands-on technique.

5. Keep working on and refining your use of verbal instruction. For example, some people do not understand “articulation” or how to engage the powerhouse without over-squeezing the gluteals. These students don’t need touch at all – they need clear verbal instruction. (Someone told me once that they were taught the yoga Camel pose this way: “kneel, fall backward and catch your ankles.” What kind of instruction is that?!) Besides, you will need to find a way to teach those students who do not want to be touched.

Much of the time I find that instructors resort to hands-on adjustments is because they have difficulty with providing clear, specific instructions. My suspicion is that they themselves don’t even understand the movement, its purpose or its initiation.

So that would be the first objective – understand it for yourself, if you are an instructor. When you comprehend the exercise/movement both physically and mentally, then the right words will come.

If instructors are unsure, it’s always better to just use a Hands-Off approach until you are proficient in both verbal and hands-on skills.