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The Art of Assisting Asana: 10 Guidelines for Yogis

Jennifer Vafakos
Written by Jennifer Vafakos

The role of assisting a yoga class is a subtle art based on touch, intuition and service. Often teachers, sometimes with years of experience, offer their time to a senior teacher looking to learn as well as connect with the community of the studio. However, whether practicing, teaching or assisting, I do not believe in forcing a pose. I believe in alignment, absolutely, but not by forcing my idea of it on a practitioner. As long as the correct groundwork is being laid the body will open up to the posture. Our jobs as teachers is to serve by guiding, offering support, props, verbal cues, care and occasionally telling a student to back off when it is clear that their desire is greater than the strength of their practice. Sometimes yoga is accepting where we are at now and knowing that it all changes.

Assisting can be quite a discussion with regard to intensity and intent. I have been injured a few times by teachers giving me an assist. Truthfully, I have quite a few injuries prior to coming to yoga and I don’t always, as a student, give full disclosure to a teacher before class. My rolodex of aches and pains just takes too long to detail. So whose fault was it when I was injured by a teacher? I remember so clearly his full weight on top of me in paschimottanasana (seated forward bend). The pain made me bite my tongue and tears spill out my eyes. Or when recovering from a not too recent hip injury a teacher stood on me in Marichyasana (seated spinal twist) - making me wince in pain. Fortunately, as a yoga teacher these experiences, as well as, finding teachers who understand my concerns have enhanced my training and teaching.

My short list of intents in assisting:

1) Get to everyone. Whether teaching or assisting try to achieve this. As a student when I take classes and the assistant keeps returning to their favorite peeps…my head screams “what about me”! If assisting, you are probably there because the teacher cannot get to everyone. If assisting touch base with the teacher and find out their needs before class then, during the class, assist to their verbal cues.

2) Develop the satsang/community and environment begins before class. Some classes in NY are 30 deep the teacher may be too busy to start talking to students beforehand. Start by introducing yourself, create the vibe. Talk to students if they seem receptive find out what they love about the practice, what leads them to this studio and what teachers they take from (so much information they will share- just listen).

3) Empathy comes in many forms. My crazy love experience from this has happened on several occasions. I have gone to touch someone who is not use to being touched. Offer compassion, empathy, sweetness- stay with them until they relax. As any animal we need touch. The student will melt under your hands. No words can describe - this is pure love.

4) No touch should be random and without intent! Study the student (in milliseconds-gawking and watching struggle- not so cool), analyze what is needed go into the posture with the student, be in the moment.

5) If it feels inappropriate…IT IS - it’s not that you are being inappropriate - but you know the vibe - when it’s there- stick with feet or calves. Hey it has kept me away from certain men or only touching their feet. Feet are awesome receptors and good enough.

6) Both sides now… it’s so annoying, one side lengthened and juicy but where’s the love on the other side? Remember when you start with an assist for a student on one side, be with them on their flip side.

7) People sweat. In class students are slippery and juicy. Whether I am teaching or assisting I have a small towel to wipe my hands off or place between me and the practitioner. Additionally if you have had your hands all over people during class refrain from their heads in corpse pose! Ugh. Nothing worse then being a cross contaminator of bodily fluids.

8) Wash hands before and after. It’s a little spiritual of me as well as a parasitic phobia thing. A lot of waste comes out of out skin. Bacteria? Nicotine? Alcohol? Likewise about 60% of what touches our skin we absorb. As an assist, you absorb a lot of toxins and energy. Wash off with soap and water- hand sanitizer is just about killing some bacteria not cleaning.

9) Smell clean not bohemian. Funk gets worked up - start with a clean slate. I don’t live in au naturelle, granola, tree hugging hippy frame of mind and quite honestly don’t want you in my space if you do. SANTOSHA/ cleanliness - live it!!!

10) Laugh, smile, have fun, lighten up! This is the most amazing practice in the world. It’s not so serious, it’s yoga you’re in class, the journey is set, have fun!


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