This is the eighth in a series of articles that will cover a number of variations on classical yoga practices in the hopes of supporting teachers in finding safe and beneficial ways for all students to participate.
I admit it: I’ve had my not-so-shining moments teaching yoga. Times when a student couldn’t figure out how to practice a pose, and there was so much going on in class that I just moved on rather than help them figure it out. Those were painful moments for me. Sometimes finding a way to make an asana work for all the students in one class seems close to impossible—but we do need to try. So, how can we make the practices we teach accessible to all our students, especially when students are practicing at different levels in the same class?
Yoga teachers often receive little or no training in how to approach this issue. In an ideal world, all the students in each class would be practicing at the same level, but that’s not realistic. Once we begin teaching public classes, we immediately discover that every person’s body is entirely different, and we have to dig deep to find a creative side of ourselves that we may not have known we had in order to address our students’ needs.
We need to be prepared with skills and techniques to make all our students safe and comfortable in our classes. Most importantly, we need to give all our students equal attention and care. Often I see teachers tell students to find their own version of a pose, but this feels like a bit of a cop-out. A student might feel like they are doing an adapted variation of a pose by matching the outward appearance of that pose. But the real challenge for teachers is to understand the purpose and inner structure of a pose and find ways to offer similar benefits to students who are practicing at different levels, working from the inside out.
Here are some tips for making poses accessible to all of your students, even when you have students of different levels of practice in the same class.
Curiosity, Creativity, and Collaboration
The most important aspect of adapting asana is the attitude of the teacher and the relationship between the teacher and the student. Of course, my job is to keep students safe, but there is a way to balance my knowledge and experience as a teacher with the freedom that students find in their own personal exploration. Approaching the student as a collaborator in an exploration of possibilities can make the process more rewarding for everyone involved. My students often think of variations of poses that I never dreamed of, and I learn new things from them all the time.
We need to be prepared with skills and techniques to make all our students safe and comfortable in our classes.
Dissect the Pose
Generally, it’s helpful to begin by considering the benefits of the pose, the inner energetic experience of a pose, and why we practice it the way we do. Each pose offers an experience of prana (energy) moving in the body, and we can explore that energetic experience through our personal practice. With that knowledge, we can look at breaking a pose down into elements and offering our students the portions of the pose that are accessible to them.
For example, if we examine vrksasana, tree pose, we find so many different actions and effects: balancing; strengthening the supporting leg; hip opening in the raised leg; shoulder and chest opening (depending on the arm position); the energetic experience of being in a tall, open standing position; and more.
To make the pose accessible, the teacher can support the student in experiencing the elements that they can access, and provide guidance for removing the ones that are inaccessible. For example, using a wall for support in tree pose removes the element of balance so students can focus more on the inner structure of standing on one leg.
Similarly, a student practicing a seated variation of tree pose in a chair can potentially get the hip opening benefit of the leg position and the shoulder and chest expansion of the raised arms. From there, the teacher can lead the student inward to explore lifting and lengthening like a tree—even in a seated position—allowing them to access the inner energetic experience that I believe is essential to practicing asana.
Props are a yoga teacher’s best friend because they offer us ways of adapting the space around the student to fit their individual body. Among other things, props can raise the floor, connect parts of the body, add or relieve pressure, offer support for balance, and build structure in the pose. For example, a blanket under the hips when sitting cross-legged, such as in sukhasana (easy pose), can raise the floor and lower the knees, making it more comfortable.
Props can also change the relationship between parts of the body. A strap around the extended foot in a seated forward bend, like janu sirsasana (head to knee pose), can help a student relax into the pose and avoid straining the lower back. In this example, the strap is also creating an energetic structure for the pose. Rather than reaching out into space with the hands or straining to reach the toes, holding a strap that is connected to the foot can offer a grounded feeling that allows the body to release and let go.
Change Orientation/Effects of Gravity
Another way to adapt an asana is to change the body’s orientation in space, and therefore change the way that gravity affects the body. For example, for someone with tight hamstrings, a seated forward bend such as paschimottanasana can be challenging. If the person is struggling to sit upright in dandasana (staff pose), then they are already working against gravity just to lift and lengthen the spine, and bending forward with straight legs would be a strain. On the other hand, uttanasana, a standing forward bend, lets gravity help them to move into the pose. In this position, the student can focus on hinging at the hips and allow the weight of the upper body to gently stretch the hamstrings.
Make It Dynamic
Sometimes approaching an asana in a different way can make it more accessible. Moving into and out of a pose with the breath, which is called dynamic practice, can be a gentler experience than holding a pose in a more static way. For example, coming into bhujangasana (cobra pose) on an inhalation and coming out on an exhalation can be a useful way of exploring the practice and building strength.
Use Inner Experience
Sometimes when we can’t find a form of a pose that works for a student, we tell them to imagine the pose in their mind. On the one hand, this can feel like we’ve given up on that student, but on the other hand it’s an opportunity for them to explore the inner experience of an asana. Visualizing a practice is actually a very subtle and powerful way to practice. We can experience almost all the benefits of a pose by imagining that we’re doing it. Additionally, practicing asana in the mind can offer us an opportunity to explore the energetics of the practice in an even more subtle and refined way.
Yoga nidra, or guided relaxation, is an excellent example of the power of visualization. We can relax each part of the body as we move through it with the mind, and create a deeper experience of relaxation without physical movement. Alternate nostril breathing without the use of the hand is another great way to explore this. With practice, it’s possible to feel the breath moving in and out through one nostril at a time, even though we’re not physically closing the other nostril. The skills used in these subtle practices can translate to imaging asana practice if we know how to focus the mind.
As we gain experience in the classroom, we learn skills and techniques to vary the practices of yoga to meet the needs of the individuals in front of us. Having a clear understanding of the purpose of the practices and an array of techniques for varying them will allow a teacher to better serve all their students equally.
Learn more ways to make common yoga poses more accessible: