The Ins+Outs of Adjustments (an interview with Benjamin Sears)
Hey everyone. We got a special treat for you: a 1-on-1 with Benjamin Sears, where he unpacks the themes of adjustments and hands-on assists.
Benjamin, thank you so much for taking the time to explore the theme of adjusting with us. What are the core principles of correct adjusting?
Well, this will represent my take on assisting/adjusting, and I’m going to go with effective rather than correct. As the question is quite broad, I’ll start with conceptual and move to physical using the following core principles: intention, vision, mapping and rising over depth, pressure progressions, pull verses push, breathing.
Why are you adjusting? Be clear and honest with yourself about what drives you to be hands-on. A basic rule of thumb: help the person who needs it most over the person who you can push deeper into some amazing posture. All adjusting (all teaching really) is to help students minimize suffering by empowering them with information they can use, to help turn effort to efficiency. While no teacher has a magic wand, everything from a kind touch (which helps someone right away in a tough moment), to helping someone better know their own coordinates (which helps someone over a longer arc of practice) is about helping people. Think of adjusting as giving someone a compass and showing them how to use it.
See the whole picture from the bottom up. Rarely is the fix found on the upper floors of a posture. See the roots instead of just moving a raised hand or turning a head. Newer teachers tend to first be able to see that one part of the posture may be “off” but don’t trace it back. A more refined eye sees postures as maps to the whole person. It can be useful to see what is working really well – often overworking – in a posture to diagnose what other areas can be better investigated for the student to more fully embody. Think of the posture as territory to explore and help people go where they don’t normally go. Often times students get really good at experiencing one type of intensity and it becomes a non-conscious cover for avoiding another, possibly more revealing experience. A good adjustment may make someone feel off balance, because truly centered is an unfamiliar place to be for almost everyone. To some degree, we all compromise by using what we do well in order to execute postures; the point isn’t to hold the posture, but to learn to orient oneself.
Mapping and rising over depth:
Simply pushing someone deeper into a posture is one of the most basic – like, “omg that is so basic” (in millennial speak) and least helpful type of adjustments. Lying on someone’s back and pushing them into a forward bend doesn’t give a student greater awareness, in fact this type of emphasis typically just makes a student overwork what is already working instead of leading someone into a more balanced utilization of the body across the posture. Instead, look to help students become aware of all the edges, sides and volume of themselves in postures. Adjustments should help someone to rise out of pressure spots and distribute the work across the body. A good barometer of this is vision – most good adjustments will change the line of sight. From a metaphorical perspective, the purpose of Yoga is to help people rise, not to get them deeper into their depths. Helping someone know herself in a more complete way is much more useful than “a deeper stretch”.
This one is simple but very important and applies to verbal and physical adjusting; the more skillful you are, the more pressure you can apply. For example, if you are adept at the next point in this series, (pull verses push) you can safely apply more pressure. I teach my Teacher Trainees to progress from light, essentially energetic adjustments (“move your x till you feel my hand”, “breathe into this area”, or a light brush that implies a direction of action) towards adjustments that require more points of contact that include a stabilizing point, a counter-reference point, and lastly a revolution – if you want all the detail on what those pieces mean you’re going to have to show up at the adjustment workshop at One Fire or come to one of my Trainings!
Pull verses push:
Pushing someone deeper without ensuring clean joint folds is like slamming a door that’s off it’s hinges. The pull here signifies the action that creates joint space to ensure that if you are going to go for depth, the articulation makes sense because you’ve ensured that a joint is in it’s track, so to speak. There are some adjustments that I do that look quite dramatic but the wow moment is always the very last piece.
THAT is thorough. And we love it. Why do you believe assisting and adjusting are important?
A good assist is instructive, providing the student a reference for how to orient herself later, on her own. If a skillful teacher shows you the center of a posture (with words or hands) you have a reference that is not based on your habits (Samskara), but instead on your potential and actual physical geometry. The way to practice postures is not with the cement of muscle memory but with the presence of self-mapping; using one’s circumference to find center. We teachers talk a lot about yoga being therapeutic and yet the human body-mind is such an incredible striver that it will find the shortest route to a posture yet often that route actually facilitates imbalances that already exist. Everybody non-consciously uses what they already have or are good at. It’s just human. A good centering adjustment may make you feel out of balance – we are all a little out of balance or we wouldn’t be coming to yoga! An effective adjustment is a personal revolution – like the mind of the student goes “wow, I didn’t know!”
Additionally, an adjustment has the potential to create a neurological grid of feeling reference for a student by providing a supportive structure. In subsequent applications of not only the same pose but any moment of physicality, the practitioner can calibrate internally based on the feeling experience provided by the scaffold of the adjustment. The awareness revealed through a good adjustment is a neurological turn-on; the lights are on in new parts of the body-mind and now it’s up to the student to stay plugged in and develop her own centering skills, become a teacher for herself.
A neurological turn-on! Booya. How has this helped you in your personal practice?
Good adjustments from my teachers have saved me from wasting time, and taught me much about connection in general. Imagine you are walking in the woods and following your compass North, but your compass is not calibrated, so in fact you’ve been walking for hours only to realize your about twenty degrees off. Imagine those hours in the woods as a couple of years of yoga practice – get it? There are some calibrations that just don’t happen from words alone, but from a feeling reference.
Beyond my own physical practice, learning to assist and adjust has taught me multitudes about being a human, and a man. In life, we constantly traverse each other’s space, and learning how to approach, assist, or leave someone alone if necessary has revealed much to me about myself and humanity in general.
Totally love how deep you’ve gone with this concept. If you could narrow the concept of adjusting/assisting to teachers reading this, what would you say to them?
See the whole picture because we don’t have bodies to do yoga postures, but to have a home for spirit. Learn from someone who gets this…was that two things?
Yeah, but who’s counting 😉
Thanks so much Benjamin! See you in November at #onefirefest!
For more on Benjamin Sears and his offerings, check out benjaminsears.yoga
Interview by Mishel Ixchel