A study conducted a few years ago revealed two not too shocking facts about why people practice yoga where they do. People practice yoga at home for the convenience, and people practice yoga in a yoga studio because of the quality of the instruction. After all, the teacher in the video, no matter how wonderful he is, can't see what you're doing and give you encouragement or correct your alignment. And if you practice by yourself, even in front of a mirror, you are probably missing out on some helpful tips and techniques that could deepen your practice.
The ability to have a teacher make hands-on adjustments or assist you in a yoga posture is one of the true gifts of a yoga class. When I started practicing, I spent a lot of time wondering (even fretting) about these adjusts and assists...it was something I did not expect from the experience, and I didn't quite know what to make of it, even though I found myself enjoying it. After all, no one touches you in Zumba class or presses on you in boot camp, right? So why is it so important in yoga class?
Believe it or not, there are two types of touches that are offered in class, and it may be helpful to you to understand the aim of both.
Adjustment. When a yoga teacher offers an adjustment, she gives you verbal or hands-on guidance to correct your alignment. Encouraging you to widen your stance in down dog, moving your arm position in side angle pose, or using her hands to help you straighten your spine during a seated twist would all be examples of adjustments in yoga class.
Assist. An assist is offered by a yoga teacher to help you experience a deeper expression of the posture you are in, and is typically done applying some form of light pressure from the teacher's hands or other body part. Pulling your hips up and back in down dog, pressing your hips down in child's pose, standing behind you and helping you to open more fully in triangle or half moon, lifting you up in a backbend, or leaning her body weight gently against you in a seated forward fold, are all examples of assists you may experience in yoga class.
Teachers use hands-on adjustments and assists to varying degrees. Some use them quite frequently, others not at all. It is a matter of personal preference, comfort level, and training on the teacher's part. The teacher's energy on a given day also contributes; it is believed that energy can be transferred through the hands during an assist, so if a teacher is having a "bad day" or experiencing any sort of negative emotion, she may choose not to offer assists during class, so as not to transfer that energy to her students. Finally, teachers pick up on the energy and physical form of the individual student, and if she senses that you are not open (physically or emotionally) to a hands-on assist, she may move on to the next student.
If a teacher does not use his hands much in class, but you want some help in that area, ask for it...most will accommodate either during or after class if specifically requested. Conversely, if you do not like to be touched, be sure to mention that to the instructor, who will be happy to limit his adjustments to verbal ones. You can mention it before class, or quietly as the teacher approaches you for an assist.
Personally, adjustments and assists are my favorite part of any class, whether used to remind me of proper alignment in a pose in which I've gotten "comfortable" or as a deepening gift from teacher to student.