Everybody is different. You’ve heard that before, right? Did you think about it though? Do you think about it in yoga?
When you see someone touching their toes, holding plank pose indefinitely or tree pose without wobbling, do you think about the fact that every single physical body is different? Or do you waste time wondering what’s wrong with you and why you can’t quite do any or all of the above?
Our bodies are uniquely ours and, to add to that, our bodies are continuously changing and evolving in which case, on a cellular level at least, every day we are just that little bit different than the day before. Consider that each time you step on to the mat.
Firstly, comparing yourself to others in a yoga class is completely pointless. You are not them. You are different to them.
They are not you and they are different to you. It’s not good or bad, it just is.
Flexible Fiona may not yet have the stability to hold a balancing pose and strong Stephen may not yet have the flexibility for forward folds or backbends and the like.
Add to this the fact that our bodies are different every time we step on to the mat depending on what may be going on in our lives at any given moment, be it stress, fatigue, anger, grief, happiness, high energy levels… the list goes on… affects our energy levels and ability to relax and open up in a yoga class.
All of these lead to the point of this article. Why modify? Our ego-centric nature and innate competitiveness with ourselves and others may lead us to think that modifications in a yoga class are for ‘beginners’ or ‘people who can’t do yoga’.
We may think that if a teacher offers us a prop of some sort, we have ‘failed’. If a teacher offers us the challenge of taking the pose a little further, we must accept, no matter how not ready our bodies may be. This is not the case.
In fact, forcing the body into a pose it is not ready for will create a negative experience that the brain and body will shy away from in the future. Easing yourself into poses and building on them a little at a time is much more effective than yanking yourself into an uncomfortable position. Think of your yoga teacher as a guide but ultimately, the pose you take is your choice. Listen to your body and choose wisely.
Here are a few modifications for some common yoga poses
Bend Your Knees
Bend your knees people!
You are not a bad person if you bend your knees, I promise!
The majority of us have tight hamstrings. Whether you run, cycle or sit in a chair most of the day, chances are your hamstrings are tight meaning pushing yourself into a forward fold to touch your toes can have an adverse effect on your lower back. This is relevant to a variety of poses such as forward folds, downward dog and more. How much you bend your knees is your choice but know that this is an option.
Props are a great way to discover the real benefits of a pose using proper alignment minus any discomfort. If your hands don’t quite reach the floor in certain poses, why not ‘bring the mountain to Mohammed’ i.e. bring the floor closer to you using blocks?
To get the benefits of a good stretch without risk of injury, use a strap. This doesn’t make you bad at yoga. Introducing props lets your body experience how the final pose could feel if you ever get there and if you don’t, it’s not a failure. It may be down to your physical proportions for example. At least you get to try it out though.
Put Your Knees Down
The ‘knees down’ modification is relevant in so many instances. Firstly, chaturanga dandasana. Regularly used in vinyasa or ‘flow’ classes as a transition from plank to low cobra or ‘up dog’, chaturanga dandasana (four-limbed staff pose) requires upper body strength and control.
The pose is generally repeated numerous times in a flow style class and if done incorrectly repeatedly, it can lead to a shoulder injury in particular.
Whether you’re at the early stages of your yoga journey or just plain tired, taking the knees down in this pose offers the opportunity to build on upper body strength using the correct shoulder alignment or to simply ‘take a load off’.
From your plank pose, lower the knees to the ground and then begin to lean forward letting the shoulders pass the wrists. As you exhale, start bending the elbows and lowering the body to the ground, keeping the elbows tight towards the rib cage.
Lunges present themselves in a variety of different poses and offer great benefits such as strengthening the quads and the glutes, stretching the hip flexors and improving balance. However, there may be days where a high lunge isn’t available to you. Whether not warm enough, tired or injured, the option to do a low lunge is always available and just as beneficial. Here you can still enjoy the stretch and also work on proper alignment
Side Plank requires a great deal of strength, focus and balance. It can also put a lot of pressure on the wrist if the alignment is even just a little off. Dropping your knee in side plank can give you time to work on the correct alignment or take pressure off the wrist if you are experiencing any pain or injury. Or, like I said if you’re just plain tired!
Cobra Vs Up Dog
Again, in a vinyasa or ‘flow’ style class, the practitioner has the option to move from chaturanga dandasana into either cobra or upward facing dog. ‘Up dog’ is a serious pose, recruiting a huge amount of core, arm and upper body strength which, with improper alignment can take its toll on the shoulders or put pressure on the lower back.
To preserve energy, manage wrist or lumbar tenderness or, to simply work on developing the correct alignment, substitute a low cobra for an ‘up dog’ until you either understand the pose or have the energy to follow through.
Childs Pose is Your Friend
In any yoga class, there is an open invitation to rest in child’s pose whenever you want. Whether you’re a seasoned yogi, feeling a bit tired, nursing an injury, or starting out and just getting a feel for a class, it’s ok to randomly decide to rest in child’s pose at any stage during the class.
Don’t push yourself beyond your ‘edge’, explore your ‘edge’ and rest when you need to. Your body will thank you and reward in return.
Whatever stage you are at in your yoga practice, know that you have options and take them.
Practicing yoga offers the opportunity to gain an understanding of your body and what it needs at any given moment in any given posture. Ditch any competitive notions you may have had in your practice and instead, approach everything with a sense of curiosity.
You are not failing if you take a modification, you are in fact demonstrating discernment and working in harmony with yourself. The benefits of yoga extend beyond the physical.
Giving yourself an hour or so to practice, centering, breathing deeply are all highly beneficial and can be practised on all levels. I’ve been practising yoga for many years now and I still bend my knees in downward dog and forward folds. I still use props in certain poses.
I take to my knees transitioning to chaturanga when I’m tired and I take cobra when I’m not in the mood for up dog.
I’m often found in child's pose.
I sometimes fall over in standing poses and I’m afraid of handstands. It doesn’t make me good or bad at yoga and, if anything, it helps me in my teaching because… I can relate. I’m ok with where I’m at. Are you?