When I first started practicing yoga, I thought the idea — the point of the whole exercise — was to improve in strength and flexibility so I wouldn’t need to modify the poses or use props during class. It seemed logical enough — Beginners use props and modify their practice. More experienced yoga practitioners didn’t.
But as I’ve practice yoga more and more, I’ve come to embrace yoga props and modifications. In fact, I think that I use props more now than I did when I first started yoga 15 years ago – yoga blocks, yoga strap, bolsters and blankets.
I think that it’s because I’ve started to learn not to let my ego take control of my yoga practice, that it’s less about the physical expression of a posture than the intent behind it and the attention paid to proper alignment.
As I’m returning to my yoga practice after shoulder surgery, I’m re-learning that lesson over and over as I figure out how to modify yoga poses to be suit my shoulder’s current strength, flexibility and range of motion.
When I teach my yoga classes, I always encourage my students to modify yoga poses to make it safe for their bodies. There are a number of reasons why you should consider modifying your yoga practice including:
- Energy level i.e. there are just some days when you are tired and beat and there’s no reason to push yourself, adding more stress to your already stressed body and mind
- Better alignment to help you find a safer expression of a posture due to limited flexibility, range of motion or purely anatomical reasons i.e. some of us are born with shorter arms, legs, torso, etc. that just makes it harder to come into certain postures with good alignment without using props.
While you may know that you should modify your yoga practice, you may not know how to modify yoga poses during class, especially if your teacher doesn’t always offer them or call them out.
Here are 12 ways to modify yoga poses:
1. Bend your knees in down dog or standing forward folds.
This helps you keep from straining your hamstrings and lower back and lets you keep the integrity of the upper body and back in downward-facing dog (keeping a nice, long straight line without hunching in the shoulders).
2. Use blocks under your hands in forward folds.
If you can’t reach the floor with your hands or just your fingertips reach the ground, consider using blocks. This brings the floor up closer to you.
3. Drop your back knee in lunges.
This makes the pose less strenuous and lets you focus on proper alignment in the front leg (knee stacked over your ankle, knee tracking in-line with your second and third toe, knee not falling inwards). With the back knee down, you can also focus on keeping your hips squared to the front edge of the mat.
4. Do Knees-Chest-Chin pose or hold High Plank pose instead of Chaturanga.
Chaturanga is a pose that you move through over and over again, especially if you practice vinyasa or asthanga yoga. But it’s a really demanding posture. These two options take some of the pressure off your shoulder and help you build up strength but remember to keep pulling your shoulder heads up and back in knees-chest-chin.
By the way, here’s how to fix your chaturanga pose.
5. Skip the vinyasa and move straight to downward facing dog.
You can ALWAYS skip the vinyasa (chaturanga to upward facing dog to downward facing dog). Doing a million vinyasas will not make you a better yogi.
6. Do Cobra pose instead of upward-facing dog.
Upward-facing dog is another pose that places a lot of pressure on the shoulder. You can modify this posture by doing cobra pose or baby cobra pose, both of which offer the same heart opening benefits of upward facing dog without stressing your shoulders or lower back.
7. Come to down-dog split before stepping forward from downward-facing dog to a lunge or warrior pose.
Frankly, sometimes, it’s hard to step forward straight from downward-facing dog to a lunge or warrior pose. If you lift your leg up first to downdog split, you give yourself a little more room to step your foot forward to the top of the meat.
8. Use cactus arms instead of straight arms overhead in high lunge or Warrior I pose.
In order to reach your arms straight overhead, you need the range of motion in your shoulder joint as well as mobility in your lats. If you’re limited in either area, come to cactus-shaped arms instead. Bend your elbows so that they come in line with your shoulders and fingertips point towards the ceiling. Your arms will look like a cactus or goal posts. This allows you to keep the chest open and upright when you lack shoulder mobility.
9. Use a block under your hand in poses like half moon, extended side angle, triangle, revolved triangle or revolved half moon.
The block helps bring the floor closer to you and helps you maintain proper alignment while in the pose.
10. Place your hand on your hip in twisting postures.
When you come into a twist pose, sometimes it’s hard to keep the chest from collapsing or rolling down toward the ground when you bring your hands together in prayer. Instead, place your hand on your hip that you’re twisting towards.
For example, if you are coming into a crescent lunge twist to the left, bring your right elbow to the outside of your left knee. Instead of bringing your hands together, place your left hand on your left hip. This will help you keep rotating the chest toward the left and up towards the ceiling. You can also use your hand to pull your left hip back as you twist towards the left.
You can also keep your hand on your hip in triangle and extended side angle pose too.
11. Use a strap for seated forward folds.
The strap, in effect, extends the reach of your arms. This helps you keep your back long as you fold forward instead of letting your lower back slump.
12. Child’s pose.
At any time during your practice, you can come into child’s pose to rest, recollect your breath and refocus.
This post is part of the Ask a Yogini series. Each month, I’ll answer a question about yoga – anything that you’re curious about. Chances are, if you have the question, someone else does too! Leave any questions you may have in the comments below!
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