Yoga Adjustments: Feel and Sense What’s Going On!

April 28, 2015
Yoga Adjustments: Feel and Sense What’s Going On!

What are you feeling and sensing?

At the heart of putting your hands on someone to adjust or assist them in a yoga posture is the idea of being aware of what you feel and sense when you touch them. One primary reason that students get injured by a teacher is that the teacher is not aware of what they are feeling. There are many factors that tie into this. However, when a teacher imposes an adjustment on a student without feeling and sensing the information that is coming back into their own body, the potential for injury rises dramatically. Of course, as the teacher you are directing students, but the direction comes from observing, feeling, and sensing, as much as it comes from the intellectual understanding of the pose.

At the risk of stating the obvious, whether you’re a teacher or a student, don’t push through pain.  If something hurts in the process of either giving or receiving an adjustment, stop and assess what needs to change. Don’t get so caught up in how to DO the adjustment, that you forget to FEEL what’s happening while you’re doing the adjustment!

Keep these key concepts and this process in mind:

  • First, clear away your own bias and preconceived ideas about the posture and/or the person
  • Use your eyes, ears, as well as your body to observe what’s happening.
  • Make your body like an antenna, absorbing information, not just sending it out!
  • Feel, sense, and adjust breathing
  • Feel and sense for the right depth in the pose
  • Observe as you adjust: complete the feedback loop

Clear away your bias

The first step is to be more aware of what it is you are sensing. In order to do that, you need to get your thoughts out of the way. By that, I don’t just mean that you shouldn’t be thinking about what your plans are after you finish your class. I mean you should also be clearing away any attachments you might have to the posture looking a particular way or your need for a student to achieve something specific. It’s true, a posture should have a look to it and I’m certainly not saying that your students shouldn’t have some type of goal to strive towards. However, your attachment, even theirs in some cases, will lead to trouble and injury.

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How do we sense?

Our mechanism for feeling and sensing is our nervous system. Our five senses all lead to stimulation of the nervous system through specialized receptors that gather information. I don’t think that we will have much need for taste or smell here, but all of the others are important.

We need to take advantage of our most important tool, our whole body.  Many people would assume that the most used part of our body for doing adjustments would be our hands. It’s true. We will use our hands to adjust in just about every posture. However, our entire body and all of its parts are extremely useful and powerful. In fact we want to make our entire body an antenna to constantly receive information from the students we’re working with. As much as possible you want to become part of the pose that you’re adjusting.

Make your body an antenna

Once you have cleared the clutter out of the way, you are more likely to feel and sense what is happening in the moment. The less amount of bias and noise you have, the better!

At this point, your body becomes a clear antenna. It’s ready to receive what is happening. The student is using their nervous system to create the posture, steady their balance, or go deeper. If your nervous system is ready to receive, you will start to have a conversation between your nervous system and theirs. You will sense their tension and respond to it from your own nervous system. You will feel when they are off balance because you will feel it in your own nervous system. It is at this level that you want to be interacting with your students while doing any type of hands-on adjustment or assist. Use your awareness to be more present with what you’re doing.

The moment we put our hands on them we need to go into a feeling and sensing mode. One very important way of increasing this sensitivity is by making contact with the student’s body at as many points as possible. With multiple points of contact, there are more opportunities for your own proprioceptors to receive information into your body and nervous system. This also helps the student feel like you are there for them and are supporting them, which increases their confidence in what you’re doing. You can communicate a lot with the type of touch that you choose to use.  A light touch indicates more of a suggestion.  But, if the touch is too light it can communicate uncertainty about your intent.  It’s often better to use a more confident touch without, of course, being overly forceful.

Observe and adjust breathing

The quality of a student’s breath can give you a lot of information about their level of tension or comfort with a pose and/or an adjustment.  When you hear changes in a student’s level of ease with the breath, it’s often a good time for a verbal check-in to hear what the student is experiencing.

Adjust with the flow of the student’s breath.  Muscles generally relax and open more fully on the exhale.  Listen to the inhale and exhale of the student and apply adjustments with this flow.  Generally, students feel the most ease if you deepen the adjustment, if that’s appropriate, on the exhale.

Poses are not just physical.  They also have an energetic component.  Using the sound of your own breath and breathing with a student is one way to “adjust” the energetic qualities of a pose at a more subtle level.

Feel and sense for the right depth in the pose

One of the most common questions I get asked is: How much pressure is appropriate when adjusting a student? This question relates to feeling. If you’re doing a hands-on adjustment or assist, then one of the things you’re looking for is how far the person can safely go with your assistance. Essentially, you are trying to feel the resistance of the tissue and where the safe place to take it is.

Consider all the variables

The truth is, it depends. We have to take into consideration all of those variables and factors from the student’s side of things including:

  • how well we know them
  • their age
  • flexibility
  • stiffness
  • level of practice

Additionally, we have to consider the posture itself and what it is trying to teach us or what tissues it is trying to work on. We have to come to rely on our ability to sense what is right in that moment.

The concept of R1 and R2

In terms of depth of adjustment and movement into a particular joint, let’s take a look at the concept of R1 and R2. (I discuss this concept in more depth in my Hands-On Adjustment Video). R stands for resistance. This resistance is related to our Range of Motion (ROM). Everyone has two ROMs. The first ROM is unassisted, the second is assisted. R1 represents how far you can move a limb under the strength of the muscles that move it in that direction, against the resistance of the tissues that would restrict it.

R2 represents that same movement with some type of assistance. In yoga, the assistance might come from us. For example, we can use one hand to lift a leg higher in a standing leg raise. In that case, we’d be providing our own “adjustment” to the yoga posture. The student is always able to go further with assistance. The question then becomes… How much further?

The best way to answer this question at first is to check in with the student. That is, ask a question such as, can I take this further? To be fair, not all students will know the answer to that question and some will give you whatever answer they think will encourage you to push them farther into the pose. This doesn’t mean that it’s the right thing to do and it puts us right back at a place where we need to have developed our own feeling and sensing skills.

Observing students as you adjust

While you are adjusting, stay present and continue to observe the student. Within the feedback loop you should also include your other senses and the feedback that they might be receiving.

In particular, if you notice any of the following, you reevaluate what you’re doing in that moment.

  • Is the student holding their breath?
  • Is their face getting red?
  • Is their face tightening?
  • Are they grunting?
  • Do they seem to be resisting your adjustment?

The answers to these questions should inform the way in which you’re adjusting and assisting your students.

If the student is holding their breath, it has added an overall tension to their body. It is much better to work on deepening a posture when the student’s breath is flowing. This will most likely mix together with their face tightening and/or getting red.

Complete the feedback loop

If a student seems to be resisting your adjustment you should definitely re-evaluate what or how you are doing it. This may include a verbal check-in to see if something you are doing does not feel right to them. It could also mean that they are nervous about being injured. Sometimes a student is nervous for a good reason and sometimes their fear is not based on anything that you are doing. At that point, it is your responsibility to get the student to trust you. That takes time. Often by simply checking in with the student during an adjustment, you will gain their trust because they have the feeling that you are paying attention and acknowledging their experience.

When you do an adjustment you are entering someone else’s personal space. If you feel at all uncomfortable about adjusting a particular student for any number of reasons, that discomfort could be felt by the student. This same idea can be sensed in reverse. If you are picking up on a student’s resistance to being adjusted by you, then you may need to acknowledge that the student doesn’t have confidence or trust in what you’re doing or how you’re doing it. Students who have been injured by poor adjustments are naturally wary of being adjusted again. The most important part of giving an effective adjustment is feeling and sensing what is happening in the moment and then altering your adjustment to fit that situation.  A good adjustment adapts to the feedback that you receive from the student while you are doing it.

Pay attention to the feedback you get from doing the adjustments. You’ll probably notice that the more your confidence is perceived by the student receiving your adjustment, the more they will relax into your adjustment. Your confidence will naturally grow as you practice the adjustments over time.

There is no way to gain this experience and develop these tools without doing it. Make your teaching into its own practice. Look at your own patterns of teaching and how you approach students. Check in with how you are adjusting them, and notice whether you observe many students resisting or holding their breath. Reflect back and adjust how you teach. Touch as many different bodies and body types as possible to gain experience.

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I know it seems like students expect you to know everything all the time. I find that I build more trust and deeper connections with my students by engaging them in the process, especially while adjusting. They are much more likely to return, surrender, and generally try to do what you suggest when you acknowledge that their own experience is just as important as what you’re asking them to do.