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Teaching with Compassion: Yoga Modifications to Offer in All-Levels

Two yoga instructors use yoga modification blocks during their sequence.

If you have ever taught an all-levels yoga class, you know how complicated it can be to cater to a room of students who are all at different levels in their practice. On top of this, one student’s practice may vary from day to day depending on what else is going on in their life, their level of energy, or how frequently they practiced in the last week.

In the Yoga Sutras, sage Patanjali invites us to practice ahimsa (non-harming). As a yoga teacher, one of the ways that you can practice this is by ensuring that your students have access to a safe a and enjoyable practice - and for many of them, this may mean modifying postures. 

In addition to appropriate cues, props can provide a great support for yoga practitioners of all levels. For beginners, it helps emphasize alignment and allows students to gradually build strength and flexibility at their own pace - without pain or injury. Props can also be immensely supportive for spinal health

Common Props for Seamless Yoga Modifications

Here are some of the common props that you can guide your students to use to support their practice:

Yoga Blocks

Yoga blocks are typically made of foam, wood, or cork and come in various sizes. Most yoga blocks have a standard dimension of 6 x 9 inches, with a width that can vary from 3-5 inches. All of these dimensions means that the blocks can be used at a variety of heights, allowing your students to adjust as they progress. Blocks are used to bring the floor closer in a practice, making many postures more accessible for those with tight hips or hamstrings or where spinal extension is challenging. They can also be used to create more length for practitioners who are flexible (e.g., allowing you to reach past your toes in a forward fold). Essentially the blocks become an extension of the student’s arms or legs. Wood and cork yoga blocks work best for weight bearing postures (e.g., half moon, triangle pose), whereas foam blocks are useful to provide support in more yin/restorative postures (e.g., pigeon, supported bridge).

Yoga Blankets 

Yoga blankets are the most versatile prop you never knew you needed. Similar to blocks, they help bring the floor closer to you, but can also provide cushioning and comfort as needed. For instance, a blanket can be a great support under the knees in any kneeling postures. If you don’t have a yoga blanket, try using a beach towel. They provide the perfect balance of softness, but can also fold into many different shapes to suit your needs. 

Yoga Bolsters 

Yoga Bolsters provide a useful support for opening the heart and ribcage, or supporting the hips and low back. They come in a variety of sizes, and the firmness varies between different brands, so it is necessary to experiment and find the one that meets your needs. If you don’t have a bolster, two rectangular pillows stacked on top of one another can go a long way. 

Yoga Straps

Yoga straps can be used to improve posture and alignment, and also to allow your students to access a wider range of motion. For example, using a strap around in the feet in a forward fold can help students with tight hamstrings to keep their spine neutral, while moving their torso towards their legs. While they may not touch their nose to their legs, this will help them develop the right alignment and give them the freedom to advance over time. 

So now that you know a little more about these four common props, let’s get into some specific examples of how you can guide your students to use them to support their practice. 

A yoga teacher uses her yoga strap as a yoga modification tool.

Yoga Postures for Yoga Modifications

I recommend trying these yoga posture modifications in your own body first to notice how they feel for you. All instructions are provided in a way that can be shared directly with your students. 

  • Bound angle pose (blanket, strap, blocks)
    • Modifications: (1) Place a folded yoga blanket under your seat; if unable to keep your spine tall, use a strap; (2) Create a loop with the strap and place it around your body, letting the strap rest on the low back, between the waist and sacrum. Place the front part of the strap under your feet, a portion will also be resting over the ankles. Tighten as needed; (3) If your knees feel uncomfortable or there is too much stretch in the inner thighs, place a yoga block underneath each hip.
      • Benefits: Helps maintain spine in an elongated position, increases comfort in knees and inner thighs; increases the amount of time your students can stay in the posture.
        • Note: Blocks, rolled up yoga blankets, or pillows under the hips can also be used in the reclined variation of this posture to make it restorative for your students and can be a nice alternative to savasana. 
  • Bridge Pose (1 block)
    • Modification: Lie on your back with your knees bent and soles of the feet on the floor. Lift hips up and place a yoga block (at the height that is most comfortable for the student) underneath the sacrum. The higher the height, the more extension that will be required through the spine.
      • Benefits: Supports spinal extension and reduces the amount of low back strength needed to maintain the posture (thereby providing some relief for the low back region). With the block at the lowest height, this posture often feels restorative for students. 
  • Camel Pose (2 blocks)
    • Modification: Place yoga blocks beside the outer edges of your feet, at the highest height. Start with hands behind the hips as you open through the heart. If able to go further, reach hands back and place them on the blocks to further facilitate opening through the heart. 
      • Benefits: Reduces the amount of spinal extension required in the posture, yoga blocks provide additional leverage to open through the heart space (if accessible). 
  • Child’s Pose (1-2 blankets, 1 block)
    • Modifications: Find table top position, (1) Place a rolled yoga blanket or hand towel under the feet, where the ankle meets the top of the foot, (2) Place a folded yoga blanket under the hips and/or yoga blanket/block under the head
      • Benefit: (1) Reduces stretch in the ankles/tops of the feet, (2) Relieves strain in the back if your student is not able to easily move their hips towards the floor
  • Downward facing dog (2 blocks or chair)
    • Modification: Start in table top position. Place hands on yoga blocks at the lowest height and lift hips up and back to find the posture. Bend knees if required to keep neutral through the spine. You can also have your students use a chair (rather than blocks under the hands) for an even gentler version of the posture.
    • Benefits: Creates space in the shoulders and neck, brings the hips closer to the thighs, alleviates pressure in the hands and wrists
  • Easy Pose (1-2 blankets)
    • Modification: Place a folded yoga blanket under the seat
    • Benefits: This modification helps students to have the hips lifted higher than the knees which can reduce pain in the knees, hips, and low back. This will allow your students to stay in the posture for an extended period of time and is useful for longer meditation practices.
  • Extended Side Angle Pose or Triangle Pose (1 block)Modification: Place a block on the inner edge of the front leg (for triangle pose, block can also be placed on outer edge). Bring hand to the block (rather than towards the floor) when coming into the posture.
    • Benefits: Reduces strain on the side body from reaching towards the floor and allows the student to open through the chest more easily, while maintaining a neutral spine.
  • Half Moon Pose (1 block)
    • Modification: Place a block approximately 30-50 cm forward and to the right from the front foot. Bring hand to block when coming into the posture.
    • Benefits: Reduces strain on the side body that may result from reaching towards the floor and allows weight to be more evenly distributed between weight bearing leg, hips and shoulders. The use of the block also enables the student to more easily elongate legs and arms and provides helps students with tight hamstrings to externally rotate the lifted leg and open the chest. 
  • Hero’s Pose (1-3 blocks)
    • Modification: Place blocks underneath the seat.
      • Benefits: Alleviates pressure in the knees by reducing the angle between the thighs and calves, and allows the practitioner to sit up taller and breathe with more ease.
  • Pigeon or Sleeping Pigeon (1-2 blocks, optional: bolster)
    • Modification: Find pigeon pose. (1) Place a block or bolster under front hip; (2) Place a block or bolster under hands, forearms or head
    • Benefits: (1) Relieves tension in the low back and knees and allows for further release towards the floor since the hip has something to rest on; (2) Supports the release of tension in the neck and shoulders and allows your students to find additional release.  
      • Note: A bolster can also be used in place of block to provide support to both hips. For this posture, foam blocks are recommended due to their ability to slightly change shape. 
  • Revolved Triangle Pose (1 block)
    • Modification: Place a block beside the front foot on the inside or outside. Use the block as a support when twisting into the posture.  
    • Benefits: Helps facilitate the twisting action through the mid-section of the body, maintains neutrality of the spine. 
  • Savasana (1 blanket, 1 bolster)
    • Modification: Place a bolster under the knees and folded yoga blanket under the head
    • Benefits: The bolster allows the low back to settle into the earth, rather than arching up off it, and can reduce low back pain that some students may experience in savasana. The yoga blanket maintains the neck in a neutral position and provides added comfort. These modifications allow savasana to be a little extra restorative, activating the parasympathetic nervous system. 
    • A few more options for making savasana restorative can be found here
  • Seated Forward Fold (yoga blanket or bolster)
    • Modification: Place a folded yoga blanket under the hips. If required bend the knees or place a bolster underneath the knees.
    • Benefits: Reduces stretch through the hamstrings and helps keep spine neutral while folding forward.

There are so many ways that you can encourage your students to use props to support their practice. Many times, it’s about noticing where they are feeling challenged or appear to be tight or tense. When providing hand on adjustments always ask your students for permission before modifying.

It can be very compassionate to introduce these yoga posture modifications as part of an all-levels practice (you don’t have to demonstrate them all at once) to make students feel safer to take the variations, as they may often feel like they have to come into the posture the same way as you. Each person has a beautiful unique body and using props to offer yoga posture modifications as part of a practice is a great way to honor that. 

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