Pro Tips

How to Modify Yoga Poses

One of the most interesting and practical things I've learned in the viniyoga approach to teaching classes is how to modify various yoga tools. From yoga poses, to breathing patterns and meditation, all the pieces can be adapted to the different needs of individuals, or to a theme you might choose for a group class.

Learning how to modify yoga poses is crucial for teachers because group classes usually spend more time on asana than on other parts of practice, and modifications make poses more safe, effective and meaningful.  Plus, if you're just starting out with adapting yoga to different needs, it's easiest to begin with yoga poses, because they are tangible, visible things that can be understood at a gross level.

When you are modifying any yoga tool, the key idea to keep in mind is that these tools have function. There are really no rules, and the lists of alignment principles (knees over ankles, arms shoulder-height, feet 3 1/2 feet apart and parallel, etc) can be thrown out the window, as long as you and your students are paying attention and preserving the function of the chosen yoga pose.

Begin by defining what function you are hoping to achieve, choose movements and modifications that you anticipate will get you there, and pay attention to the students as they practice so you can guide them and change things as needed.

From a wide-angle view, here's how you can modify yoga poses:

Flexibility/Movement

These days, most people associate yoga with increased flexibility, and yoga poses are certainly a very useful tool for changing patterns of movement. Most yoga poses are designed with the idea of lengthening in mind--forward-bending lengthens the back of the body, for example, and lateral-bending lengthens the side.

As you are planning your class, think about what areas of the body you want to create the feeling of movement in. This depends on the overall purpose of your class and your specific population.

If you've observed that a student has lower back stiffness, you might have him change the position of his feet or bend his knees in a forward-bending pose, so that you can bring a bit more movement to the low back. You could have him sit on a chair or bolster to give the back more freedom in seated poses.

If you notice your students have shortness of breath, you might create more room for breathing by having students lift their arms wider so the rib cage moves more freely. Or you could emphasize forward-bending postures that move the abdomen in on the exhale to encourage a fuller breath.

Strength/Stability

Of course, yoga poses are not only about increasing flexibility. Most students in group classes will need some focus on developing strength as well. In fact, the people attracted to yoga class and bendy poses most likely need the strengthening aspect.

Take care not to confuse strength with strain, though. You don't want your students to be pushing or forcing their bodies past the boundary of what is safe for them. The same is true in regard to flexibility. Help them find a steady balance where the breath flows smoothly. (This is the concept of sthira-sukham-āsanam, Yoga Sutra 2.46.) 

You'll find that most students are disconnected from their strength in at least some areas of their body. Look for the areas that move too freely or seem to collapse--perhaps the shoulders, or lower back, or wrists. Those are the places that can use stability. You can modify yoga poses to give students the experience of what strength or stability feels like in the areas.

You can think of increasing stability as restricting movement. So for students whose lower backs arch excessively in virabhadrasana, a focus on lengthening the tailbone down will stabilize the lumbar spine. For hypermobile shoulders, interlacing fingers when bringing the arms overhead will restrict shoulder movement and encourage upper back strength. In standing poses, changing the width of the feet can restrict movement in the hips, legs and ankles and build strength.

Stability can also come from an outside source, and using a prop can help build a student's connection to inner strength. You might have your students place their back heel against a wall for added support in virabhadrasana or parsvottanasana. Or have students place a hand or fingertip against a wall in balancing poses.

Once your students have a feeling for strength without strain, then you can build and challenge it. You can remove common props, and have your students to try standing poses without a yoga mat. And you can introduce longer stays in poses that require strength.

Gesture/Attitude

A more subtle way of modifying yoga poses is to cultivate a particular attitude in them.

Give it a try:

  1. Sitting as you are, take 5-6 breaths with your shoulders rounded forward, just to see what that feels like.
  2. Then take several breaths with your shoulders in a neutral position.
  3. Then in a rolled back, military-style position.

Notice the difference in how you feel in each posture. By adopting a different "attitude" in your shoulders, you can influence how you feel, and even how you think.

Gestures are ways that your body communicates to the outside world, but they also leave an imprint on your mood and memory. Smiling, for instance, not only communicates joy or friendliness to others, but it lifts your own mood as well.

By incorporating simple, subtle gesture into yoga poses, we can bring the effects of the practice to a deeper level. It can be the subtle difference between turning palms up or down in a seated position, or bringing your hands over your heart while resting instead of to your lap or your sides.

Take some time to observe yourself and others, and you'll notice so many gestures and small movements that say a great deal about what the person is feeling and thinking. You can begin to incorporate gestures into yoga poses to evoke the feeling.

Just be sure to keep it subtle. Let your students feel what they feel. Don't try to control it by telling them what they are supposed to feel. If you are asking them to open their arms out to the sides as they breathe in, don't say they are "opening their hearts to possibilities." Let their experience speak for itself. Learning is much deeper when it comes from personal experience and inner wisdom, rather than an outside source.

Other Elements

There are many other ways you can modify a yoga pose. You might use a visualization, or bhavana, to influence how your students do and feel a movement. You could ask your students to imagine moving through water, for example, to help them move more slowly and fluidly, or you could have them imagine a rising sun, or a full moon, or a mountain. As with gestures above, an image or idea can create different attitudes in movement, and it impacts the rest of your system.

You can use story and myth as well. One of my teachers began a class by telling a story about Ananta, the great serpent, to illustrate the concept of sthira/sukha. The image of the soft, heavy coils of the serpent's body and its strong, protective hood rising up was a powerful tool in communicating the idea of ease and stability.

Breath is, of course, a wonderful way to influence the effect of a yoga pose. It can be as simple as just noticing the breath, or imagining the breath move into or out of the body in a certain pattern. You could have students begin breathing just before the movement starts, so that the movement grows from the breath. Or students could count different parts of breath as they are moving or staying in a yoga pose.

I love introducing chanting or mantra in yoga poses. You can use a simple word or phrase (in Sanskrit or English) and ask the students to say it in their minds each time they come into the pose. Even just making a soft sound like "ahhh" brings the students to a more focused practice.

There is no end to ways you can modify yoga poses to make them a more personal and meaningful experience for your students, and to make them more than goals to reach, or an exercise to get through. Yoga poses have potential to enrich and harmonize the lives of your students. The teacher's role is to understand how they work, to see the impact they are having during practice, and to shape the practice and poses to serve their students best.

3 Things You Can Do to Breathe Better Now

When it's hot and humid outside like it is now, a lot of people tell me they can't breathe.

Especially if you have asthma or COPD, the air feels too heavy to pull in and your breath is short and unsatisfying.

You try to breathe in, but the inhale feels tight, like there isn't enough space.

But what you may not feel is that the exhale is probably also short.

When you don't get enough air out of your lungs on the exhale, then you don't create the natural vacuum your body relies on to pull air in for your inhale.

Now, forcing all the air out in a big whoosh is not going to solve the problem. Do that a few times, and you'll either hurt yourself, or you'll make your breath even shorter.

Here are three easy things you can do to breathe more easily today:

I've put them in a five-minute yoga practice recording for your convenience.

Try to do the practice once a day for a few days in a row, and your breath will be so much easier and full.


Finding Balance

Most of my new students arrive at yoga class ready to exercise.

They are ready to stretch, to balance, and maybe sweat a bit, so they can change, or fix, or maintain their bodies.

Then I ask them to breathe.

Over and over, I ask them to breathe. Finally, we move a bit, but I ask them to move slowly, or gently, or gradually.

This is not something most adults are used to doing. Especially in an exercise class.

But I wouldn't insist on it so strongly if it didn't work so well.

You see, yoga is not like other types of physical exercise.

Or it least, it ought not be, because it was designed to work differently. Yoga is about being able to direct the mind, because great change is possible (inevitable, really) when our perspective is cleared.

And as far as yoga is concerned, the mind and body are linked together so strongly, that moving and placing the body in a specific way is a very good preparation for meditation.

Patanjali's Yoga Sutra gives the properties of yoga postures:

Sthira-sukham-āsanam.

Posture (āsana) is steady (sthira) and comfortable (sukha). Yoga postures have support and adequate strength, and they do not create pain or exacerbate medical conditions.

Prayatna-śaithilya-ananta-samāpatti-bhyām.

It is a perfect balance of effort (prayatna) and effortlessness (śaithilya) combined (bhyām) with complete and endless (ananta) concentration (samāpatti).

This feeling of perfect balance is so different than what we do in exercise and other physical work.

In exercise, we are encouraged to push beyond our limits, to lift one more, run faster or farther, and to get the job done. It's a test of will to overcome your physical limitations.

But will and tenacity can be misguided. They are directed by the ego, and can drive you full-speed in directions that you thought you wanted to go, but end up bringing you frustration or pain, upset your life or relationships.

I'm not denigrating exercise or physical fitness. But yoga is in a different category of activity. It's in the business of helping you see clearly. And letting you perpetuate habits of overworking, overcompensating or avoiding conflict is not in the program.

In my own practice, sthira-sukha is the absence of certain habits.

There is no setting of my jaw, no determination to achieve or prove something, and there is no reaching or pulling further. It feels like there is an internal engine giving me purpose and strength, but it's not willpower. It's a steady, feeling, quiet focus.

When I teach, I see too much sthira when my student's faces become hard around the corners of their eyes and lips. Their body language becomes rigid and closed. Their breath is loud or stops or moves in a sudden whoosh instead of a soft, steady stream. They seem to be pushing or holding on fiercely.

I see too much sukha when a student's spine looks collapsed. When their bodies surrender and suddenly look too heavy for them to hold. Their breath is uneven or too faint or quick. They are disengaged, and their attention flits from one thing in the room to another.

When my students achieve sthira-sukha in class, I can see their eyes and faces are calm. Their bodies have a sense of endless inner strength. They are fully invested in the practice, and move and breathe with a purposefulness that brings the work to a deeper level than just their bodies. 

Until they have sthira-sukha, they are doing exercise. Yes, it might be useful exercise. But when they have the balance of stability and ease, they are doing yoga.

If you've ever been in the room during one of my classes, I'm sure you have felt the difference.

When people are really doing yoga, they have presence and a deep power about them. They aren't just going through a series of motions, or following instructions to get somewhere. They are completely engaged, and they get more benefit from the practice as a result.

What they are learning through their bodies becomes a part of them.

It takes repeated practicing over a period of time to know what sthira-sukha feels like, and to be able to find it again. That's why I encourage students to practice, every day. It doesn't have to be a full 60-minute sequence to be incredibly useful. Five or ten minutes is enough to remember how to be stable and easy in your body. And eventually, that feeling becomes the norm.

When it does, then you are no longer distressed (an-abhighātaḥ) by conflict (dvaṅdva).

Tato dvaṅdva-an-abhighātaḥ.

When you have mastered this feeling of sthira-sukha, you know it so well that things which caused stress before no longer bother you.

You know you are capable of meeting challenges directly, without strain or avoidance.

You no longer worry about what will happen, because you feel safe, strong and easy inside.

The feeling of steadiness and ease has become a part of who you are.

Why do we use Ujjayi breath?

Most new yoga students are surprised by how much I talk about the breath during class. In fact, I probably give more directions for your breath than your body in a typical group class.

Our ability to control our breath is one of the most powerful tools we have in yoga practice. Consider the vital role that breath plays in our body--its influence is everywhere! 

What's very cool about yoga is that a long time ago, people realized they could change how they feel and how their minds and bodies work by changing their breathing patterns. Notice your breath as you imagine being surprised, excited, relaxed, angry or sad. It changes a lot.

One of the things we might do in yoga is breathe in a relaxed way, and that way of breathing persuades the other parts of your system that you are relaxed. And then you really are relaxed.

It's a little more complicated than that, and we spend a lot of time talking about and practicing this stuff in teacher training, but that's the gist of how it works.

There is a great deal of utility in manipulating the breath if you know what you're doing. And learning something like ujjayi breath is a perfect start to yoga breathing practices.

First, here's a little tutorial on how to do ujjayi breath:

  1. Breathe in through your nose, and as you exhale, whisper "ahhhhhh" a few times.
  2. As you make the whisper sound, listen to it. See how smooth you can make the sound and see if it can last the entire length of your exhale.
  3. Then, close your mouth and see if you can still make the same whisper sound as you breathe out through your nose.

That's really all there is to it. You may also be able to add the whisper sound to the inhale right away, but in my experience, the inhale is a bit trickier to work with for new students. I suggest sticking to exhale only for a week or so and add the inhale as it becomes easy.

If you prefer to listen and practice, I have a recording all about ujjayi breath here.

Admittedly, spending a lot of time thinking about your breath and making a sound with it is strange at first. But there are three very useful things that ujjayi breath brings to your yoga practice:

1. Makes the breath more substantial

Creating a noise gives your breath a sound and a feeling that makes it easier to notice and control. Something as subtle as air becomes more tangible, and it's more satisfying to work with and focus on, especially for beginning students.

The sound and sensation also give students something to focus on. You can't tell someone to clear their mind and expect them to successfully keep their mind empty and still. Our minds don't work that way. They need something to do. And focusing on creating and listening to a sound in the breath is a nice little challenge to keep the mind engaged.

As the student advances, his breath grows more soft and subtle, so that even ujjayi breath is barely audible.

2. Provides feedback

One of primary elements of ujjayi breath is that the sound or sensation created should become entirely smooth and require almost no effort.

You'll notice in the beginning that the volume may change throughout the length of your exhale, or the breath may sputter or break up a bit. But as you become more proficient, you'll be able to maintain a very smooth sound even during movement and in more challenging breathing practices.

A break or unevenness in the breath is an indication that you are working beyond the level of effort that's useful or desirable in yoga. Most of the systems we are working with in yoga are highly refined, and they don't welcome forceful disruptions. Listening to the breath and staying at a level where the breath is smooth keeps your yoga practice healthy and effective.

3. Lengthens the breath

To create the whisper-like sound in your breath, your throat needs to gently constrict a bit. And this constriction slows the stream of air that passes through, in the same way that a drink flows more slowly through a narrow straw than through a wide one.

I won't spend a lot of time on it here, but one of the main ways that we influence the breath in yoga is by using different ratios for the inhale and exhale.

A inhale that is longer than the exhale is excitatory, and can produce anxiety, so I don't use it in yoga class.

An exhale that is longer than the inhale, on the other hand, tends to have a very relaxing influence. I use that one a lot.

Creating the sound with ujjayi breath gives students the ability to more precisely control the stream of air as it leaves or enters. So if I ask them to breathe in for 6 counts and out for 12, they have more capability of controlling the breath.

 

There you have it: three very good reasons to practice ujjayi breath.

If you're curious, the word ujjayi is in Sanskrit, the ancient language of India, and comes from the root "ud," which means up. The entire word means something like "one who is moving up," and in the case of yoga studies, one who is advancing or becoming enlightened. You may have heard your teacher refer to ujjayi breath as victorious breath or ocean breath as well. We yogis are quite fond of this tool and give it many names!

Enjoy your breathing! As I always say (not really, but perhaps I should), "Breathing every day keeps the doctor away!"