On Assisting

This post originally appeared as part of a series of blogs for Yoga Tree and Pete Guinosso


At some point in life, we stop touching people like we did as children. We are less likely to gently put a hand on a friend, or greet a stranger with touch. I distinctly remember when it stopped being cool to hold hands on the playground with my girlfriends. In so many ways, we are a culture afraid of touch, terrified of liabilities and missed intentions and fear before need.

I am amazed that an individual practice like yoga has helped retrain my brain about the power of touch in community.

When I approached teacher training, assisting was at the top of my fear list. I was worried that I would hurt someone, or that I would never be able to master an assist that didn’t feel rough, creepy, or too soft (all assists that I have received at various stops on my yoga journey).  

Yet, strangely, it is assisting that brought me to training.

Before I started practicing with Pete, I tended to view assisting as a correction: a movement by a teacher that “fixed” me in a pose.  

Assists that left me wondering: Would I ever get it?

When Pete assisted me, it never felt like a “fix.” The intention of opening – to release, to feeling, to being more comfortable in my own skin - was always present.

Photo credit: Wendy Yalom Photography
As my practice has expanded, I now realize that a student “getting it” is not the point of assisting. The true purpose of adjusting someone in a pose is to help them experience a deeper, fuller version of the asana – in whatever way that means for them.

Pete does many things well as a teacher. He has strong sequencing, a kind but confident teaching voice, and he is well-informed on the anatomy of movement. But one of the main reasons I took Pete’s training was to learn how to assist like he does.  He knows how to move a student’s body in just the right way so that they breathe better, or feel a deeper release, or to move them from pain.  And while some of this comes from his innate abilities, it is also something that he has studied and practiced in order to become skilled.

Not all teacher trainings have the same focus, and it is important to align yourself with one that works for your goals as a teacher. Lighting the Path absolutely leans more towards assisting and adjusting students.

I wanted the deeper dive in how to move people deeper.

Teaching with purposeful, well-intentioned assists, can move students towards their own healing as a part of their practice.

Photo credit: Scott Finsthwait, Great Scott Photography

One of the greatest lessons I learned from my assisting training was that being a good teacher involves taking a hard look at yourself, and your own healing – and moving from that space of authenticity. 

Everyone has a different definition of healing. For me, it is finding peace in the places in my spirit that feel broken.  This is an act of bravery that much of our world sees as a weakness. Understanding what we feel is not an indulgent practice. Caring for ourselves and learning to help our future students is a step on a healing road.  This is the vulnerable place that we assist from and it is how we meet our students where they are.

The work is hard, but it's worth it. 

And in the midst of deep personal work, assisting also reminds you to keep a sense of humor and playfulness. When you are touching other people, and learning how to do it correctly, your hands will slip. You will grab someone accidentally, you will forget to watch where your body is in space, or you will simply mess up the adjustment. This is all part of the practice.

A few months after training, I was assisting a friend at a yoga class celebrating National Nurses Week at the hospital where she works.  I am not sure whether it was the warm environment, or the support of several friends who were there, or finally feeling comfortable with using my hands, but the class felt different.

I wasn’t worried or anxious, and I was able to focus 100% on helping students. I felt like a real teacher.

I sat down to give a savasana adjustment to a woman in the back of the class.  As I lifted her head from the floor, I noticed a small, silver pendant around her neck, with just a single word:

Healing.

As yoga teachers, if we are lucky, we get to hold space for a group of souls for 60 to 90 minutes in our classes. Whether it is with touch, our words, or simply breathing, our highest goal should be to assist our students as they move through their practice and their life.

Assisting, not to fix the experience, but to expand it. 

Photo by Scott Finsthwait, Great Scott Photography