Getting the Upper Hands

A yoga teacher shows how to assist in ways that help, not hurt

February 19, 2013

Yoga instructor Jill Abelson trains other teachers in proper hands-on assists.

There’s no better yoga prop than a set of hands, says instructor Jill Abelson, who’s literally written the book for teachers on how to properly readjust,

guide and hold students. (Volumes one and two of “Extra Love: The Art of Hands-On Assists” are available for purchase on Amazon.)

Abelson taught in Washington for a decade before moving to San Francisco in 2009, but she’s returning to lead training sessions this Friday, Saturday and Sunday at Tranquil Space ($50-$140, 1632 17th St. NW, Tranquilspace.com).

From her years of experience — “I’ve probably had my hands on 40,000 to 50,000 students,” she says — Abelson has learned to read bodies, so she can intuit exactly when and what to tug.

With the right sorts of adjustments, students feel comfortable, get to experience new postures and deepen their practice more quickly. When she’s taking yoga, Abelson “quivers with anticipation” when she thinks her teacher is headed over to help her out.

But many teacher training programs don’t cover these kinds of assists. Abelson says that leads to teachers who lack the confidence to offer hands-on attention or, even worse, teachers who ad-lib.

“I’ve had three neck injuries in the past 18 months from bad assists,” says Abelson, who ended up in the emergency room after the first incident, when a teacher readjusted her head in headstand.

She thought she was safe a few months later in savasana, just lying on her back. But her teacher bent over and pulled her head straight up, resulting in a pinched nerve. And last December, she was in child’s pose, “minding my own business,” when an assistant pushed her skull into the ground, leaving her dizzy and disoriented.

Abelson shares these stories not to scare anyone, but to emphasize that it’s important to find teachers who have proper training — and who know their students. And if a student feels like he or she is in a situation where that’s not the case, Abelson says, it’s time to use the most important vocal assist: “No.”

Vicky Hallett is a MisFits columnist and the Fit editor for Express.
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Adam Griffiths | February 15, 2013