I am a huge fan of the hands-on adjustment. Someone else’s body touching my own can and used to be a terrifying thing. To be that close to someone else is considered weird in our society of distance. We have been socially conditioned to be afraid of closeness and intimacy. There is a boy on my hall at school who looks deeply into my eyes and stands with his face about an inch from mine when we talk (and it’s not like we’re about to hook up or anything). He is, unsurprisingly, a yogi and spent his gap year traveling to India. In my experience, people with spiritual backgrounds are less afraid of closeness. Nonetheless, when I first spoke to him, I stumbled backwards, intending to create more distance between us so that I could protect the oneness of my physical body.
But yoga teaches us that we are all equal. It teaches us to get rid of all the stuff we come onto the mat with, to see oneness with everyone in the room. It doesn’t matter that my pants are from Old Navy and the girl’s next to me are from Lululemon; we are both in the same downward-facing dog.
I felt that sense of oneness and union (the linguistic definition of yoga) when I was first adjusted with hands of love by my teacher. I was in an uttkatasana (chair) twist and she pressed her body up against mine. I was enveloped by her chest and arms getting me deeper into the pose. I felt her body healing my own with its proximity.
This was an intense adjustment. I assumed that because I liked intense adjustments, everyone else would too. I also assumed that as a teacher, my responsibility would be to bring that deepness about for my students. Naturally, I was confused in teacher training when we were told that less is more. For my body, more has always felt like more. Then, my teacher said, “Approach with a gentle touch.” And that was when it clicked.
I have a three-year-old sister. She is the youngest and is well-aware of how adorable she is. From ages one to two and a half, she had a hitting problem. If she wasn’t getting your attention at all times, she would swat you with her cute little hand. It wasn’t that her hand hurt physically, but the force she used to hurt you with her tiny body was heart-breaking. My stepmother tried to modify her behavior by telling her, rather than “no hitting” (because we all know how well kids respond to “no”), “gentle touch.” For a month, as she was breaking this habit, she would hit me and then I would remind her, “Gentle touch.” Her hand, which was clenched, would flatten as she sweetly stroked my arm instead.
“Gentle touch” is what a hands-on adjustment should be. To push too hard, to not meet a student where they are at, is like my sister’s hitting problem – well-meaning, but harmful. Ahimsa, the first yama, the foundation, means to cause no harm. With “gentle touch,” we heal, which is the essence of what ahimsa, and ultimately yoga, asks of us.