By Nate Hulfish
The first time I ever took a yoga class, it was at Anjali. It was February of 2011. I knew absolutely nothing. I did know that I was at a point in time when I really needed to get out of my head and into my body, so I decided to give yoga a try.
Heather Whelehan was the teacher that morning. I felt nervous and self-conscious and very foolish. Child’s pose I could do, no problem… but downward facing dog?… that was a different story. I immediately retreated back into my head, and just as I thought, “This is stupid, I’ll never be able to do this,” Heather put her hands on top of mine and pushed them firmly into the ground. The physical connection snapped me out of my head and way into my body. She said, “Push into your hands, move your chest toward your thighs.” Suddenly, I was actually in downward facing dog. She whispered, “You got it, you’re good,” and she moved along. She gave me the assist. She saw me, spoke to me, offered me encouragement, and grounded me in more ways than she knew. My first three classes were with Heather, and each time, she gave me an assist that deepened my practice. Physical connection got me out of my head and into my body. It’s what I needed, and why I came back.
During mentoring with Lisa Duffy, she let me in on a secret (it may have been the very thing Heather was doing when she assisted me). Lisa said, “Get your hands on someone right at the beginning of class. It will get you out of your head and bring you into your body.” When I had my Magic Carpet – an experience that Lisa sprung on me five minutes before class – my only thought as I called child’s pose was, “Go put your hands on someone, right now.” Heather was in the room, so I picked her. I gave her the assist this time, and it did exactly what Lisa said it would… it brought me out of my head and into my body, and the rest of the practice flowed from there.
Assisting is about both the student and the teacher. It’s an opportunity to be of service to a student: to see them, speak to them, offer them encouragement, and deepen their practice. That’s what Heather did for me. It’s also an opportunity to be physically aware of yourself as a teacher: to pay attention, to physically connect, to be present, and to mean the words you say. That’s what Lisa’s advice was all about.
Early on in my practice, I can remember eagerly hoping that the teacher would give me an assist (OK, I’ll admit it… I still long for that). Every time I receive an assist, I learn something and something changes in my body and being. As a teacher, I want to expand my ability to assist because every assist I give is an opportunity to help a student move out of their head, deeper into their body, and deeper into their practice.
The Art of Assisting is an opportunity to learn how to better be of service to my students, and it’s opportunity to learn how to be more physically aware of my own self as a teacher. The two go hand in hand and deepen each other. I would like go deeper, and participating in the Art of Assisting would be like receiving a great assist on my mat – I’ll learn more about myself, and things will change in my body and being.