Gentle Yoga: Tips for Teachers

March 21, 2017    BY Janice Quirt

So you’ve been asked to teach a gentle yoga class. Students are looking for one, and you want to oblige. You may find yourself thinking: Sure! But…what exactly is gentle yoga?

Understand Expectations

First, you need to determine who your target audience is and what the word “gentle” means to them. “Gentle yoga” means different things to different people. Consider the following:

‌• Will it be a flow class, all seated, or something in between?

‌• Will the class have a therapeutic focus—i.e., are the majority of those you’ll be teaching recovering from injury?

‌• Will there be a restorative component or yoga nidra?

In answering these questions, consider a few hallmarks of a good gentle yoga class.

What Makes a Yoga Class “Gentle”?

Gentle yoga lies somewhere along the spectrum between flow and a class that is mostly seated or with long holds (such as restorative or yin yoga). It offers nurturing, kindness, and compassion for the body, regardless of whether a student is injured or healthy, young or old, pregnant or not. In other words, it is not simply your vinyasa or power yoga class slowed down a bit. Reconciling your own definition of “gentle yoga” with that of your students will be important in offering a class that is helpful and rewarding for all. If it turns out that your interpretations are vastly different, you might teach from a reasonable base of student expectations, and from there add other possible options.

Reconciling your own definition of “gentle yoga” with that of your students will be important in offering a class that is helpful and rewarding for all.

Whether you teach a standing flow or with the entire class on the floor, gentle yoga moves slowly and mindfully—allowing every student to move safely into each pose, with sufficient time to employ props and make adjustments. Especially for the first few classes, it could take five minutes or more for everyone in the class to fine-tune alignment in a single pose.

Using props will be a huge benefit. Often students don’t know how to position the props to best suit their needs. They might need some input, as well as the opportunity to experiment and discover (through trial and error) what works and what doesn’t. And remember that the wall is also a prop, and some yogis may need to use it for balance poses or to move in and out of certain asanas (even seated ones, leaning against the wall, and/or placing their hands on the wall to come up), and that takes time.

What to Avoid in Gentle Yoga

When teaching standing poses, try to group them together. In gentle yoga, it’s best to avoid a lot of transitioning from standing to sitting and back again. Participants might have trouble moving between the two, not to mention the energetic shifts that occur when transitioning to the floor from standing, and vice versa. Minimizing these shifts will allow for a smoother experience, which is especially important in a gentle yoga class. Also consider modifications for standing poses that use the wall or a chair. Fear of falling can make it difficult to stay in a pose or to stick with a practice.

Another thing to avoid in gentle yoga is cramming too many poses into a practice. You may teach only five or six poses, but if you take your time with them and allow students to explore them with different alignment, modifications, and props, these will be five “go to” poses that students are comfortable practicing.

As a teacher of gentle yoga, use the props when you demonstrate, even if you don’t need them. Lead by example, showing how props can help every yogi get the most out of a pose.

Also consider words and language. Avoid saying “If you can’t,” as in, “If you can’t touch the floor, use blocks.” Instead, offer props as options, and explain why they’re useful: “One option is to use the blocks to bring the floor closer to you.” Meet your students where they are, and cue from there. Similarly, avoid using the word “just” in a way that suggests limitation—as in, “If your back rounds in downward facing dog, just bend your knees.” Rather, build from a basic expression of the pose, and encourage students to stay and breathe wherever they find their edge—observing any changes that develop, and evolving with the breath and with time. Invite students who haven’t yet found their edge, or who are in the mood for something different, to try another expression of the pose (refraining from labeling it “advanced” or “harder” or “deeper”).

Meet your students where they are, and cue from there.

Addressing Common Concerns

Students may not know what to expect from a gentle class. They may wonder if the class is seated or standing, or if people with injuries can participate. Or they may think they’re not flexible enough to take even a gentle class.

Some may have a fear of falling or getting into a pose they can’t get out of (or appearing awkward doing so). If they have limited mobility, they may be self-conscious about getting up from the floor or moving down to the floor. A chair or bar can be useful, but students may still worry about appearing ungainly. Offer students the opportunity to come early to get themselves set up without anyone watching.

Here are a few more concerns students might have:

‌• Concern that the practice will hurt or cause pain afterward

‌• Concern that their need for additional help may look like “hogging” the teacher’s attention

‌• Concern about their lack of knowledge as to how to use props and how to move the body

In your advance promotional materials and class descriptions, provide an idea of the scope of the class so that students know what to expect. And consider addressing potential concerns during the class. Your reassurances can be peppered throughout the practice while students are holding poses, offered in a lighthearted manner that allows everyone to relax into the experience. Students will be relieved that you can relate to what they are feeling.

Poses and Practices Suitable for Gentle Yoga

Practices that show synergies with gentle yoga include:

‌• Restorative

‌• Yin

‌• Seated movement and meditation

‌• Yoga nidra

Some wonderful asanas suitable for gentle yoga include:

‌• Mountain pose (tadasana)

‌• Standing forward bend (uttanasana) or half standing forward bend (ardha uttanasana)

‌• Warrior I (virabhadrasana I) with a shorter and wider stance

‌• Downward facing dog (adho mukha svanasana) with bent knees, raised heels, and a shortened stance as needed

‌• Bound angle/butterfly pose (baddha konasana) seated or reclined, with a bolster and with blocks under knees/upper thighs

‌• Staff pose (dandasana) with support such as a rolled blanket under bent knees

‌• Seated forward bend (paschimottanasana) and head-to-knee pose (janu sirsasana) also with support under the extended-leg(s) knees

‌• Inverted action pose (viparita karani) using the wall for support is especially gentle

‌• Seated twists such as bharadvajasana

‌• Child’s pose (balasana) supported over a bolster can be a good variation

‌• Knees-to-chest pose (apanasana)

‌• Jathara parivartanasana (reclined abdominal twist) with the support of a bolster, blanket, or block between the floor and legs

‌• Savasana supported, face down, or face up 

As in other yoga classes, a theme for your class could focus on one body part or on a collection of similar poses (such as forward folds). It might work toward a peak pose, or simply offer a potpourri of different poses. Take your time to build a mindful and respectful gentle yoga class, and it may well become your most popular and rewarding class. Consider ending with an extra-long savasana that has elements of yoga nidra, and your students may find themselves sleeping more soundly at night.

A mantra for your gentle yoga teaching might be “Different strokes for different folks.” Respect the varied nature of each student’s body and range of motion. And be mindful of the point where each student begins, which is important in any yoga class. Then, enjoy the gentle yoga journey!

Janice Quirt
Janice Quirt first discovered yoga as a child in the 70s, watching her mother flip through a yoga book to try poses in their basement. Following that, her favourite part of playing rugby was leading the team stretch - a flowing sequence of deep holds. Janice specializes in Yoga Nidra, slow flow, yin and restorative yoga, and has studied with Bernie Clark and Rod Stryker. She is influenced by the teachings of Sarah Powers and Paul Grilley. Janice lives her yoga through hiking, photography,... Read more>>