Using Modifications And Variations To Personalize Your Yoga Practice

Shannon Brady
Using Modifications And Variations To Personalize Your Yoga Practice

Scroll through a yoga studio’s online schedule of classes, and you’re likely to see ‘all levels’ listed by most. If you’re new to yoga, you might just be scratching your crown chakra over this one.

All levels? In one class? Hmm - tough to imagine Ms. Cirque du Soleil getting her flow on harmoniously next to Big Bob whose forward fold is a good 3-foot distance between fingers and toes. Kinda like those ‘one size fits all’ designer tees that used to be all the rage, where one size really fits 14-year old Russian models.

But here’s the thing. Your mat really IS welcome in an all levels class, regardless of experience level. The key lies in applying modifications and variations. Both tools make it possible for the contortionist and cement block to get their yoga groove on in the same class.

This goes beyond the mat too. We’re all unique, but frequently share the same space, in the studio and beyond. So how do we apply modifications and variations to be our best and brightest selves? Here are a few ways:

1. Keep Your Third Eye On Your Own Business

Tempting, yes, to gawk at the bendy one wrapping her foot behind her head. Don’t. This isn’t the circus. It’s yoga class already. Mimicking her jaw-dropping posture is just plain silly, so quit clowning around and pay serious attention to what your body needs in yoga practice.

A good instructor will offer several versions of a particular pose to suit your range of motion and level of experience. Likewise, if you ARE that bendy one needing a deeper place to dig, by all means go for it. Just leave the side show act for the circus and stay within the framework of the instructor’s sequencing.

2. Check The Ego At The Door

Think back to your last extended side angle pose. Were you quick to wrestle one arm under your quivering thigh, the other behind your back to ‘achieve’ the bind, with white knuckles and a caved in chest?

Not to mention a complete shutdown of the breath and clenched jaw? All to prove you are an ‘advanced’ yogi?? Alright, I’m providing an extreme example here, but I see this in class often enough to bring it up.

That deep bind is fine if your shoulders, spine, hips, and spirit are open enough to find benefit, but if not, exhale and modify the posture. A forearm to knee perhaps, or even a complete time out in child’s pose if today’s side angle just ain’t happening. Work with your instructor to find a better fit for your fabulous, unique self. You’ll grow deeper in your practice, and get a little closer to rocking that arm bind one day. Just not today.

Keeping the ego in check can get us out of other binds too, including financial ones. My switch from corporate chick to yoga teacher means no more springing for pricey designer duds I can no longer afford, including that fabulous little tee the Russian model is featuring in Vogue. Even if it is the right size.

Get Inspired, But Be Yourself

My biggest lesson to date is to be myself. Not follow the script of teachers I’ve been inspired by. Sure, I’ll borrow a few cues and sequence ideas that resonated with me, but not before tweaking and translating them into my own authentic voice.

In other words... modifying what I’ve learned to make it authentic. Much as I’d love to recite all the chakras from memory without a handy cheat sheet, demonstrate a one-armed handstand and belt out a chant Krishna Das would be proud of, it just ain’t me.

But with modifications embracing my quirky style and where I am in my practice and teaching, I can share a wee bit about the heart chakra, demo a two-handed Namaste and allow Krishna Das to do his thing on the stereo without me getting in the way.

Same thing with your practice. Get inspired. Be yourself. And use modifications and variations to explore your own wonderful version of the poses your teacher is offering that day.

Leveling Out The Field

If I still haven’t convinced you to roll out the mat in an ‘all levels’ class, don’t hurl your block at me just yet. There are options! Most studios offer an intro series for absolute beginners, where poses are broken down and explained, and new practitioners can flow free of any “why can’t I do THAT?” distractions.

And for those who can do THAT, there’s likely a master class or two on most schedules offering you ample opportunity to get the other leg behind your head. Private yoga sessions are another way to discover your own sweet flow.

So whatever the level, there’s a yoga class just right for you. Namaste and see you in class!