Editor's note: The below are intended to be general recommendations for yoga practitioners and teachers. They are not a replacement for the personal advice of a health professional. Yoga teachers should remain within their scope of practice: This means not attempting to diagnose, treat, or offer medical advice to students.
Aiming for accessibility, the sequence below is tailored to work for multiple underlying conditions. It may be suitable for those with osteoporosis, kyphosis, sciatica, lumbar stenosis, knee discomfort, arthritis, frozen shoulder, tennis elbow, head, neck, and jaw pain, plantar fasciitis and bunions, and wrist issues like carpal tunnel syndrome, among others. Because of its cautiousness, it also may help to enhance safety for all students.
Naturally, anyone with an issue that impacts their practice should seek a medical professional’s personalized movement recommendation. Teachers can support students with underlying conditions by conversing with them about those recommendations, and also by refraining from giving most hands-on adjustments, which could place pressure on a vulnerable area about which they—or even their students—may not be aware.
You may need a bolster and a blanket for this practice. If you need help transitioning up from and down to the floor, or some assistance balancing, have a wall or chair nearby. Practice this sequence regularly, and augment it with sequences that are therapeutic for the specific conditions that you or your students may have.
Those who cannot stand comfortably or transition up from or down to the floor may be better served by Jivana Heyman’s accessible sequences (which include gentle strengthening) that can be done in a chair or bed.
Benefits: This introduction brings awareness to breath and body (and does it gently, since vigorous breathing exercises can be associated with some adverse effects).
Variations: When lying on your back, if the back of your neck shortens and your chin tips toward the ceiling, place a folded blanket under your head (as pictured above) for this and all the supine poses that follow.
With your hands on your belly, breathe in and out through your nose, encouraging your inhales and your exhales to grow comfortably deep. Notice how your inhales expand your belly; notice how your exhales draw your belly in and up toward your lowest front ribs.
Benefits: This can help reset the sacrum, potentially restoring pelvic symmetry and relieving back pain, while activating the legs and hips.
Lie on your back, with your legs stretched out in front of you and your toes pointing up toward the sky.
Draw your right knee toward your chest, grasping the shin or the thigh. Circle your leg and move your ankle and toes in any way that feels good to you. Work at a pace that feels appropriate.
Then, draw your leg toward your body and push your leg—your shin or your thigh—into your hands, but resisting with your hands, so that your leg hardly moves. Hold here for a few deep breaths.
Release your right leg, lengthening it out in front of you.
Do this exercise on the left side before moving on. (If you have sacroiliac pain, keep alternating sides until you have done it five times on each side, or feel a decrease in your pain.)
Benefits: This strengthens the hip abductors and mobilizes the shoulders.
Variations: The exercise can be softened by placing a folded blanket under each heel and the back of each hand (as shown) so that your hands and feet slide. It can be intensified by hovering the hands and feet off the ground.
Straighten your legs out in front of you, feet hip-distance apart, toes pointing up. Bring your arms alongside you, palms facing up. Inhale.
As you exhale, imagine you are making a snow angel. Skimming the floor, sweep your legs away from each other (turning your toes out as far as feels good) and sweep your arms up as close to your head as you comfortably can, keeping your palms facing up.
Inhale and bring your feet together and your arms alongside you. Exhale and sweep out again. Repeat this movement several times, moving with the breath.
Benefits: This is a core-strengthening exercise.
Variations: It can be intensified by straightening the legs and/or taking the arms overhead.
With your arms alongside you, lift your knees above your hips, bending them at right angles. Inhale here.
As you exhale, keep your left leg steady, and lower your right foot. (Avoid increasing the arch in your lower back: Keep your mid back grounded as you lift and lower your legs.) Touch your toes lightly to the mat, keeping a right-angle bend in your right knee.
Inhale to bring your right knee back up.
Exhale, and lower your left toes to the mat.
Inhale to bring your left knee back up.
Repeat, changing sides, for several breaths, or until fatigued.
Benefits: This pose builds coordination and core strength.
Variation: You could practice bird dog on your forearms, supporting your forearms with blocks if you like.
From tabletop with a blanket under your knees and shins, step your right foot back behind you, curling your toes in under you on the mat. If you (and your shoulders) like the idea, stretch your left arm forward, so that your hand is on the floor in front of you. Stay here for a few breaths, drawing your belly in with every exhale, or, lift your right leg up in line with your right hip, reaching back through your right heel, and lift your left arm as high as is comfortable (no higher than your shoulder).
Linger here for a few breaths, still drawing your belly in with every exhale. Then return to tabletop, and change sides.
Benefits: Mountain pose teaches optimal posture. This transition into the pose does not require flexion of the back or a partial inversion, and padding under the shins keeps pressure off the knees.
Variations: You can bring a hand to a nearby chair or wall if you need help rising. Stand against a wall to help with balance and/or to find a neutral spine.
From hands and knees, step your right foot forward into a low lunge and bring your spine to vertical, and your hands to your hips (or to nearby support). Press your right foot down to come up to a standing position.
Set your feet up hip-distance apart, toes facing forward. Stack your hips over your heels, your shoulders over your hips, and your ears over your shoulders (or as close as they can come while keeping the back of your neck long). With your arms alongside you, broaden across your collarbones and face your palms forward. Press down with your feet and reach up through the crown of your head. Hold here for several breaths, infusing the pose with breath.
Benefits: Relieves tension at the side of the neck.
Variation: If this hand position is not possible, because of tightness in the shoulders, for instance, students can keep their arms at their sides.
Reaching your right arm behind you, interlace your hands at the left side of your waist, lowering your right shoulder slightly. Lower your left ear toward your left shoulder until you feel a gentle stretch along the right side of your neck. Hold here for several breaths.
Then, lift your head up; lower your arms to your sides. Circle your shoulders.
Repeat with your hands interlaced at the right side of your waist. After several breaths on that side, lower your arms down, and then roll your shoulders out.
Benefits: This increases quadriceps strength and hip flexibility without moving the hips into extremes of rotation or knees into extremes of flexion.
Step your feet about shoulder-distance apart, turning your toes and knees out away from each other slightly. Bring one hand to your heart and your other hand to your belly. Inhale here.
On your exhale, tip your tailbone back slightly and lower your torso by a few degrees as you bend both knees, tracking them toward the centers of your feet.
On your inhale, rise back up. Repeat this movement several times, not going deeper than your knees comfortably allow.
Next time you are in a sustainable squat, hold it. With your hand on your heart, remind your heart to lift. With your hand on your belly, remind your belly to draw in and up with every exhale. Stay here for several breaths, or reach your arms overhead. Continue to press your thighs away from each other so that your knees track toward the centers of your feet.
Benefits: This version of staff pose prioritizes spinal length, and the transition into it through kneeling does not require partial inversion or extreme spinal flexion.
Variations: Those who cannot bear weight on the palms can make fists. Placing the feet against a wall as shown in this article, working to root the feet and track the knees with the centermost toes can help to relieve hamstring tension without forward folding.
From mountain pose, bring your hands to your hips and root down with your right foot. Step the left foot a small step back, and then bend both knees to come down into a lunge, bringing the left knee to the floor.
Bring your hands down to the floor alongside or in front of your right foot, then step your right knee back to meet your left in tabletop.
Sink your hips back to one side of your heels and swing your legs out in front of you.
Place your hands on the mat a couple of inches behind your hips, with palms or fists down. (You can turn your hands to face any way that helps you to broaden your collarbones.)
Press down with your heels, turning your toes and knees up toward the ceiling. Drop the tops of your thighs, and root your sitting bones. Press down with your hands or your fists and boost your heart up toward the ceiling. Hold here for several breaths.
For more of a stretch in your hamstrings, walk your hands closer to your hips, but keep your spine upright and your legs straight, heels down, and toes up.
Benefits: This pose gently moves the thoracic spine toward extension, while keeping the lower back in a more neutral position.
Variations: Those with sciatica aggravated by contraction of the gluteals could practice supported bridge, with the support of a bolster placed lengthwise from the buttocks to the shoulder blades, and head and shoulders on the floor. (Keeping the knees bent and feet down would yield a smaller backbend, while straightening the legs out—and, if you like, looping the ankles with a belt—would amplify the backbend.)
For more core activation, or for help keeping the knees aiming forward, students can squeeze a block between the thighs.
With your feet on the mat hip-distance apart a few inches below your sitting bones, and knees and toes pointing forward, bend your elbows at right angles alongside your rib cage, palms facing each other. Roll your shoulders up toward your ears, press them down toward the floor, and wriggle your shoulder blades toward each other. Inhale here.
On an exhale, draw your belly in and press down with your upper arms and your feet to lift your hips up. (Aim to create a diagonal line from knees to hips to shoulders, rather than to lift your hips as high as your knees, which may be too much lumbar extension for some.) Stay here for several breaths before lowering slowly.
Benefits: This mild twist encourages spine and hip mobility.
Variations: To soften the twist, you could place a bolster on either side of the mat to support your knees.
Bend your knees up toward the ceiling, feet on the floor about shoulder-distance apart, a foot or so in front of your sitting bones. Inhale here.
As you exhale, lower your knees to the right as far as feels good, rolling onto the edges of your feet.
Inhale back up, then lower your knees to the left.
Move side to side several times, then hold for several breaths on each side.
Benefits: This pose gently stretches the muscles of the waist and rib cage.
Variations: If taking your hands behind your head is uncomfortable, bring your arms out to the sides in “cactus,” or rest your hands on your belly.
Lengthen your legs out in front of you and interlace your hands behind your head. Step your right foot a few inches to the right.
Cross your left ankle over your right ankle, and arc your upper body a few degrees over to the right, keeping your head heavy and your shoulders relaxed. Spend several breaths here, then return to center, and do the second side.
Close the practice with a savasana or supported fish with a rolled up blanket or yoga mat or a bolster under your back: the final pose shown here. As you rise to continue your day, notice the effects of this practice. Were you able to approach your breath? To approach calmness? Sometimes, a more approachable practice may help bring these possibilities nearer.
Photography: Andrea Killam