Putting my hands on a stranger's butt for the first time is an odd feeling — even if my fingers barely brush the aforementioned nether reaches while I lean my weight into their hips, helping those gluteus maximus to rise skyward like the moon with which they're so often conflated. Odd because, unlike other such experiences, this one is purely mechanical, and almost anonymous.
That wouldn't be so for those who do bodywork for a living, or a doctor, maybe even a ski, dance or piano instructor. But with 99 per cent of the touching I do confined to a keyboard, my first day on a job that involves handling body parts has me nervous about getting it right. I get over that quickly, because although I might not know the person, I do know this: their Downward Dog could be a hell of a lot better. I just have to make sure not to step on their hands.
I case you haven't figured it out, I'm a Yoga Assistant. Have I done this before? No. But having practiced yoga in hundreds of classes — during each of which, at some point, someone "assisted" me by re-aligning my arms, legs, or attitude, twisting my torso, straightening by back, lengthening my hamstrings, kicking my feet out from under me or down-regulating a poor pose with derisive laughter or "why don't you try this instead...." — I'm qualified to apprentice.
Celebrated globe-trotting yogi Julia McCabe shows me how to accomplish a few of these adjustments; she insists it's serious business — though she can't stop laughing at my ham-fisted attempts. (Just so you know, pushing hips up, up and away in Downward Dog may be a classic assist, but it's a whole new ball game when you're on the other side of the body, so to speak.)
Yoga Assistant isn't a career, but temporary employment for instructors-in-training, who get to see how a real class operates, make notes from the sidelines, and reach in when need be. An assistant watches how a seasoned teacher physically navigates a class, observing them observing, listening to the delivery of instructions, tracking the accuracy of responses, and, perhaps most importantly, committing to memory the sequences of poses that lie at the heart of yoga. They may also, as I had done, hand out blocks and straps to arrivals. Because yoga junkies are used to fetching their own accessories (selecting, I imagine, the least-stinky, least-stained items), such unexpected facilitation threw some for a loop. First crisis: some folks wanted more than one block each — should I limit them in case we ran out? Heavy.
No worries, though. Before class began, McCabe's awkward explanation of my presence fell with blessed lightness, eliciting laughs when she suggested I'd be available to fetch glasses of water for those in need. Once she had the class warmed up and moving through routines, the work of levelling arms, pointing out poor foot position, and pushing butts began.
The viewpoint of the non-participant was interesting, as I now saw for the first time what yoga instructors see daily — e.g., how poses can be sloppy to start (like a crescent-shaped High Plank) before sharpening once the body's natural resistance is overcome. This particular class was a collectively yoga-experienced group of mostly regulars; lithe and mat-broken, their poses were generally well executed. Not so during her morning class, notes McCabe, who avers she could have used my assistance when a pile of flex-challenged, muscle-bound members of the National Ski Team showed up.
I could relate. Years ago, I'd started yoga similarly — and comically — inflexible, the result of a lifetime of very specific activities. That experience actually helps me here, as the job requires you to recognize individuals' physical baselines. The prime directive is to align pupils' poses so they're readied for maximum benefit, pointing out the physical direction they should aim for — even if it's years away. They'll eventually arrive, as long as you keep pointing.
Still, I feel I have little to do here. But that's only because I've made the rookie mistake of searching for gross physical malfeasance when most of what requires adjusting is ever-so-subtle — things argus-eyed McCabe sees without even thinking about it. Watching her pick it out as she prowls the interstices of mats is like being led through the dark by a cat.
Further observing the teacher, as the job dictates, I note she is also, as is her hallmark, having way too much fun — grooving to the music, moving lighthearted and light-handed from one acolyte to another, a bird flitting between statues.
And then it's done, the corpses of another practice lined silent on the floor in Savasana, grateful eyes closed, lost in thought. Looking for all the world like some kind of flash-mob performance art collapsed at my feet, I wonder if there's anything to do. Actually, several "touches" can be offered in Savasana, including cranio-sacral releases. But that's teacher territory, not mine.
After all, pushing butts is one thing, but getting into someone's head? That's next level.
Leslie Anthony is a Whistler-based author, editor, biologist and bon vivant who has never met a mountain he didn't like.
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