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Yoga Poses

14 Modifications For Common Yoga Poses That You’ve Probably Never Seen Before

Ever find that a standard alternative to a pose still doesn't feel right in your body? These accessible options will change that.

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Like most yoga teachers, I like to be ready with a comprehensive tool belt of pose variations to offer during class. I have always been interested in making my classes accessible to anyone, and I had always thought that was what I was doing. But when I was living and teaching in New York City, I had an experience that stumped me.

In any given studio class, there are usually a few people who need a modified practice. But there was one class in which everyone had their own specific needs. At the time, I had thought I had the best modifications in town. But those students were not shy about letting me know “That doesn’t work for me.”

This challenged me as a teacher. A lot. Each day, I would think, how can I learn to better help my students? I learned so much from my students, who became very dear to me, and their ability to ask for what they needed. This encouraged me to dig deeper and ultimately enroll in a yoga therapy program I had my heart set on for quite some time.

In this program, I learned so many tools to teach yoga in a way that meets the needs of each individual. Following are some of the modifications that I was able to eventually share with the students in that class. They made all the difference.

See also: So You Want to Try Yoga Therapy? Here’s Where to Start

              (Photo: Jenny Clise)

Child’s Pose on your back

Why it helps:

  • Takes pressure off the knees for those with knee injuries
  • Takes rounding out of the spine, alleviating further aggravation for anyone with disc herniation or osteoporosis
  • Takes pressure off your ankles for those with tendon, muscle, or bone injuries

How to: Start by lying on your back. Hug both knees into your chest. Keep your knees closer together for more of a lower back release or let your knees fall out to the sides and closer to your armpits to stretch deeper into your hips and groins. If grabbing your shins just below your knees is bothersome, you can reduce the pressure on your knee joints by resting your hands on the backs of your thighs above your knees. Stay here for 5–10 breaths. Option to instead keep your knees together and hands on your shins or the backs of your thighs.

(Photo: Jenny Clise)

Seated CatCow

Why it helps:

  • Eliminates weight on your wrists
  • Elevates your hips, taking pressure off your knees and low back to help those with tight psoas or hamstrings
  • Pelvic contact with the floor or a prop (such as a bolster) helps the spinal movement happen from the tailbone up

How to: Start in a seated cross-legged position. If you feel any rounding in your lower back or tension in your hip flexors, roll or fold a blanket and sit on the edge of it so your hips are higher than your knees. Interlace your hands in front of you and, on an inhalation, reach your arms toward the sky, pressing through the palms of your hands. Gently arch through your back and open across your chest.

(Photo: Jenny Clise)

On an exhalation, round through your back and press your palms forward in front of you. Draw your navel in towards your spine. Repeat for 5–10 repetitions. Option to instead place your hands on your knees.

See also: Got Wrist Pain? Here’s How to Modify Sun Salutation A

               (Photo: Jenny Clise)

Bird Dog on your back

Why it works:

  • All the core-strengthening benefits without putting any pressure on the wrist and knee joints
  • Helps students who have difficulty balancing
  • Helps inform neutral spine alignment by keeping the spine on the mat, reducing potential for lordosis in your low back or collapsing in your shoulders
  • Informs square hip alignment by lessening the chance of internally or externally rotating your back leg

How to: Start on your back with both of your feet firmly planted into the ground and your knees toward the sky. Draw your tailbone toward the backs of your knees, hollow out through your abdomen, and fire up your core. Come into position by lifting your shins so that they are parallel to the mat and your knees are stacked directly over your hip points. Reach your arms up so that your wrists are directly over your shoulders. On an inhale, extend your right leg forward and left arm back overhead Exhale and return to supine Tabletop position. Inhale, extend your left leg forward and right arm back overhead. Exhale and return to Tabletop. Repeat for 5–10 total repetitions.

               (Photo: Jenny Clise)

Mountain Pose with feet apart

Why it helps:

  • Minimizes strain on low back for those with tightness or pain
  • Helps support weight distribution and improve balance by stacking hip points over knees over ankles
  • A block supports proper parallel foot alignment and informs those who pronate (feet roll in toward block) or supinate (feet roll away from block)
  • Squeezing block between feet can help correct bow-legged alignment by strengthening inner thighs

How to: Place a block on its lowest height and narrowest width between your feet. Allow the inner edge of your big toe to make contact with the block but allow for a sliver of space between your heels and the block. Stand tall and elongate through your spinal column. Your hands can be resting, face forward, at your sides or you can press the palms of your hands together in Anjali mudra (prayer hands) at your heart center.

Gently lengthen your tailbone down toward your heels to take some of the sway out of your lower back. Notice if your feet tend to roll in toward the block or away. Use the block as a reference for where you need to shift weight to feel it equally distributed across your feet and ankles. If you are on the side of bowing out your legs, squeeze the block to engage your inner thighs and lengthen through your outer legs. Relax your shoulders down your back and away from your ears. Soften through the muscles of your face and steady your gaze. Stay here for 5–10 breaths.

   (Photo: Jenny Clise)

Chair Pose with feet apart

Why it helps:

  • Minimizes strain on low back for those with tightness or pain
  • Helps support weight distribution and improve balance by stacking hip points over knees over ankles
  • Block supports proper parallel foot alignment and informs those who pronate (feet roll in ) or supinate (feet roll out)

How to: Place a block on its lowest height and narrowest width between your feet. Allow the inner edge of your big toe to make contact with the block but allow for a sliver of space between your heels and the block. Stand tall and elongate through your spinal column. Sit your hips back in space as if you were reaching back to sit in a chair. Gaze down and ensure you can still see all your toes. If you cannot, your knees are too far forward in front of your ankles and you will need to either shift your weight further back or straighten your legs slightly. Use the block to inform the parallel alignment of your feet and keep your knees stacked directly over your ankles.

You can reach your arms overhead to bring your biceps alongside your ears or you can press the palms of your hands together in Anjali mudra (prayer hands) at your heart center. Relax your shoulders down your back and away from your ears, creating more space in your cervical spine. Stay here for 5–10 breaths.

             (Photo: Jenny Clise)

Side Angle Pose while kneeling

Why it helps:

  • Kneeling supports better balance by stabilizing your legs and hips
  • Grabbing the ankle helps knee-over-ankle alignment and gives students the ability to either push down to roll the chest open, or pull up on the ankle to move the low ribs further away from their hip crease—improving equal lengthening of the torso on both sides.

How to: Stand on your knees. Bring your right foot to the mat and start to bend your right knee until it is directly above your right ankle and your shin is perpendicular to the mat. Level your hip points so they face the left long side of the mat and are equal height from the mat. Rest your right elbow on your right thigh and start to twist left, taking a lateral stretch with your torso. Play with grabbing your right shin or ankle with your right hand. Note that you can have your arm in front of your thigh, using it to nudge the right knee back so it stays stacked over your ankle or you can extend your arm behind your right thigh and use your muscle strength to press your outer right knee into your arm. Either extend your left arm towards the sky or place your left hand on your left hip and roll your left elbow open. Let your right ribs encourage the left ribs to roll open so that they move as a barrel and twist with the spine. Reach your low ribs away from your pelvis, lengthening through both sides of the body. Stay here for 5–10 breaths. Repeat on the other side.

           (Photo: Jenny Clise)

Revolved Chair Pose with block

Why it helps:

  • Raises the ground to meet you, which helps eliminate rounding in the spine that can limit spinal rotation
  • Supports core engagement, especially in the obliques, by using the block instead of leveraging your elbow into your knee to twist
  • Protects the sacroiliac joint from derangement since the lumbar spine and SI joint are not designed well for the twisting motion, so when the spine twists and the hips are not grounded, it helps to allow the hips to follow in the twisting motion

How to:
Begin in Chair Pose with a block half a foot in front of you and a little to the right on its tallest setting. On an exhale, begin to twist your torso to the right and reach for the block with your left hand or fingertips. You can place your right hand on your lower back to encourage lengthening (as opposed to rounding) in the lumbar spine. Roll your right elbow up toward the sky and open your chest. Press into your left hand or fingertips to draw your shoulder down and away from your left ear. Squeeze your shoulder blades together and broaden across your collarbones. If you are twisting right, allow your left knee to come slightly in front of the right knee. This is OK. Stay here for 5–10 breaths. Repeat on the other side.

Note:
Over time, you can move the block further to the right of you as you feel more comfortable deepening the twist. It’s important to keep pressing your hand onto the block. This helps increase your active range of motion in the twist, whereas the passive range of motion that we often use to push or strain as we try to deepen into the pose can lead to injury.

              (Photo: Jenny Clise)

Tree Pose with a block under your foot

Why it works:

  • Decreases knee flexion for those with knee injuries
  • Helps support equal weight distribution when you’re working on balance
  • Can help with bone-strengthening for those with osteoporosis while minimizing the risk of falling or fracturing
  • Reduces the risk of internally rotating the hips and putting a strainful sway in the low back by having the foot further away from the body

How to: From Tadasana (Mountain Pose), place a block on its highest setting to the side and slightly forward of your right foot. Shift your weight into your left foot and place your right foot on the block. Lengthen your tailbone down toward your left heel. Draw your shoulder blades down your back. Focus your drishti (gaze) at one point to aid in balance. Stay here for 5–10 breaths. Repeat on the other side.

             (Photo: Jenny Clise)

Reclined Tree Pose with blanket

Why it helps:

  • Supports those who are working on balance
  • Informs good spinal alignment
  • Supports your knees and hips and reduces strain on the ankle of the straight leg
  • Takes weight off of foot and ankle for students with injuries

How to: Start lying on your back with a folded blanket within reach. Bend your left knee and place the sole of your foot on your right calf or inner thigh. Slide the blanket either under your left knee or thigh to support your hips, especially if you feel your right hip wanting to lift off the mat. Flex through your right foot so that all five toes are pointing toward the ceiling. Your palms can come together to touch or you can reach your arms overhead with your arms framing your ears. Press the back of your right leg into the ground as if you were trying to get your shin and thigh bones to touch the mat. Stay here for 5–10 breaths. Repeat on the other side.

             (Photo: Jenny Clise)

Supported Wheel Pose

Why it helps:

  • Elevates your hips and lessens the intensity of the pose and the potential for back strain
  • Makes reaching for your ankles easier
  • Keeps your knees and thighs grounded, which helps keep your knees from moving away from one another, which can cause pinching in your low back
  • Takes some weight (hence discomfort) out of the midsection
  • Helps support lengthening and creating space in your low back (lumbar spine)

How to: Start in Tabletop with a bolster on the ground, just behind your wrists. From there, lower the front of your hips down onto the bolster and lift up through your chest. Engage through your hamstrings and begin to bend at your knees, drawing your heels toward your glutes. Reach back for your ankles, one hand at a time. If you are able to capture your ankles, kick into your hands to press your thighs down into the mat and lift up and open through the chest. Stay here for 5–10 breaths.

(Photo: Jenny Clise)

Reclining Bound Angle with a blanket

Why it helps:

  • Keeps the soles of your feet together and maintains your ankles in a neutral supported position
  • Decreases the amount of stress placed on the knees and hips and elevates your knees and shins

How to:
Start in a seated Bound Angle Pose and have at least one rolled or narrowly folded blanket within reach. Place the center of the blanket on the inner edges of your feet, then wrap it around your outer ankles and draw it under the ankles and calves to support the opening of your legs. Walk your arms behind you to slowly lower the spine onto the mat. If you feel any pinching in your low back, come back up and adjust slide your ankles further away from you. This will alleviate the pressure of the pull on the psoas on the low back. You can bring the rolled edge of another blanket behind your neck to support your cervical spine. Stay here for up to 5 minutes.

                 (Photo: Jenny Clise)

Crow or Crane Pose on your back

Why it helps:

  • Eliminates weight on your wrists
  • Relieves pain for those who have shoulder or rotator cuff injuries and cannot yet do weight-bearing exercises
  • Removes the very real “fear” element
  • Good for developing core and upper body strength as well as the shoulder protraction needed for traditional Crow or Crane Pose

How to: Start on your back with both of your feet firmly planted on the ground and your knees bent. Draw your tailbone toward the backs of your knees and hollow through your abdomen and fire up your core. Come into a supine Tabletop position by lifting your shins parallel to the mat with your knees stacked directly over your hip points. Reach your arms straight up.

Flex your wrists as if you were pushing the ceiling away. Take a deep breath in. As you exhale, draw your knees to your triceps (or as close as you can get) and press your arms straight up to the ceiling. As you reach your arms, protract through your shoulders by trying to lift your shoulder blades off of the mat. Inhale and return to supine Tabletop. Repeat for a total of 5–10 repetitions.

               (Photo: Jenny Clise)

Seated Pigeon or Z-Sit

Why it helps:

  • Creates an overall stretch in the hips and entire body that’s less intense than traditional or reclined Pigeon Pose
  • Takes pressure off your knees and the rotator muscles of your legs by elevating your hips
  • Works towards lengthening the psoas but is gentler than traditional Pigeon Pose

How to: From Tabletop, slide your left knee toward your left wrist and bring your right knee back behind you so that your thighs are parallel to the long sides of the mat. Your shins can be either perpendicular to your thighs or you can bend your knees and bring them to approximately 45-degree angles. If you feel any tension in your knees or hips, place a blanket under your sitting bones. Work your left hip forward and down, moving in the direction of squaring your hips to face the front of the mat. Your torso can be upright or slightly forward. Stay here for 5–10 breaths. Repeat on the other side.

                 (Photo: Jenny Clise)

Supported Savasana

Why it works:

  • Supports students who have “tech neck” or kyphosis of the spine
  • Supports a slight bend in the knees, alleviating pressure in the lumbar spine and psoas

How to: Start in Savasana. Roll a blanket and place it under your knees. Roll the edge of a blanket until it is about 2–3 inches thick and rest it under your neck in the space. Pull the blanket backward behind your head until you feel a slight tucking of your chin. Stop when your chin is parallel with your forehead. You can wrap the excess blanket around your head as a relaxing pillow that gives you the comfort of a “tucked in” sensation or leave the excess blanket as is. Breathe here for 5–10 minutes.

Note: You will know if you or a student needs a blanket under their neck because the chin will be higher than the forehead.

See also: Tight Hamstrings? Here’s How to Modify Your Practice to Make Standing Poses Doable