When I first started teaching yoga as a young, bouncy person in their 20s, my understanding of what was challenging for everyone was bound up in what I personally found challenging. In being keen to teach widely and inclusively, my teaching methods had to rapidly evolve to meet my students’ needs without over- or under-challenging them.
As yoga is a science, this was an experiment of applying a technique and observing the results. In the early days, I lost some students when my sequences were too tricky and potentially dangerous. When I scaled back too dramatically, one of my “chronologically experienced” yogis chirped at me, “We’re just older than you—we’re not dead!”
Yoga teachers aim to offer classes that do the most good with the least risk, especially given a diversity of student experience and mobility. We know that yoga provides wide-ranging benefits, but injuries are still possible, as with any movement practice. Adapting sequences to reduce injury is vital when your student body is diverse. However, if a class does not provide sufficient opportunities for mobilizing and strengthening joints and tissues, we may not meet our students’ needs.
Accommodation does not need to sacrifice challenge, but it does require some creativity and openness. Since yoga sequences often rely on the movement between postures for the dynamic element of practice, we can take that principle and offer movement within postures. With a solid foundation, especially those that do not demand too much of our balance, we can offer suitably beneficial and challenging classes for most bodies.
While yoga postures offer us the opportunity for inner reflection and a greater awareness of the subtle aspects of spirit, I like to think of movements within yoga postures as maintenance for our spirit’s container. By including both in our classes, we offer well-rounded sequences that demonstrate this physical and subtle interdependence.
This is essential to a sustainable yoga practice. What differentiates yoga from other movement modalities is a foundational commitment to cultivating loving-kindness (ahimsa) and an openness to experience it as it unfolds, rather than pre-determining what it must be.
This sequence could fit just after your class warm-up or as the conclusion of your standing sequence to bring everyone back to the ground. You’ll notice that there are only two activities on knees and then wrists. Even though working on hands and knees is more accessible in mobility terms, it can place too much pressure on these joints. When you want to reduce the risk of injury, increase efficiency, and help your students build trust in their movement abilities, working close to the ground is ideal (i.e., lots of work on the back, sides, and seated).
Each of these activities should be repeated several times. I usually cue the first few movements and then give some time for self-guided movement exploration. All of these activities could be sequenced individually elsewhere in practice or repeated in sets punctuated with other yoga postures.
A yoga sequence that meets students where they are
Side-Bending Proposal Stance
Step into a short lunge stance—the same position you would use for a marriage proposal (you may want knee padding). Curl your back toes under, if this is an option, and then “kitten paw” your hands by spreading your fingers and giving them a little curl.
Mimicking a kitten climbing your furniture, do a side bend to the right with your left arm reaching up and your right elbow drawing into your right side, then to the left with your left elbow drawing to your left side and right arm reaching overhead to the left. Repeat.
Half Bird Dogs
From Tabletop, lift your left leg back, keeping it at hip height and spread your toes to engage your foot. Bring your left knee toward your left shoulder and then extend back again. Repeat on both sides.
You can practice this many ways, including adding arm movements (I prefer to teach limbs moving parallel rather than crossing through). For honing hip flexion, you may want to stop short of your shoulder and instead emphasize keeping your spine still. Alternatively, you can practice it as pictured by allowing your spine to round as your hip flexes.
Sit with your legs extended, toes pointing up to the ceiling, and arms extended straight out (parallel to your legs) in front of you like you were doing a Frankenstein’s monster impression.
Twist to the left while pulling your left elbow back and reaching your right arm forward. Then, do the same movement, but pulling your right elbow back. Continue to switch sides slowly.
As you slowly twist back and forth, try to pull the opposite thigh bone back into its socket. Try to keep yourself erect over your pelvis, rather than leaning back.
Beach Reading Hips
Lie on your left side like you were reading a book on the beach—prop your head up using your left hand. Bend your knees and pull them toward your chest, with legs stacked and your right hand on the ground in front of you. Push your feet into each other (anchoring them together) and lift them off the ground. Keeping your ankles together, pull your right knee away from your left knee slowly, and then slowly lower it. Repeat this motion and switch sides.
If this posture is going well for you, you can add a challenge. When your knee comes up, reach forward with your free hand, like you are picking an apple out of a basket. As your knee comes down, pull your elbow back like you are using a bow and arrow. Repeat this pattern and then switch sides.
Ode to Jane Fonda
Lie flat on your back on the mat, and bring legs into butterfly pose (soles of feet together, knees open). Press down into the edges of your feet to press your hips toward the ceiling, rolling up through your spine, and then gently come back down. Keep your bum strong and engaged while you roll up and down your spine, and barely touch the ground with your hips.
For an added challenge, you can add pulses, squeezing your hips toward the ceiling while holding the upward position (it can also feel nice to follow this exercise with reclined Pigeon Pose, sometimes called a figure-4 stretch).
Ride a Bike, Pet the Dog
I love this activity for its endurance, creativity, and mobilizing movements. It is a space to get creative, as well as a great litmus test to see how well your class moves.
From a supine (lying down) position, pull your legs over your body and start to mimic pedaling an upside-down bicycle. Dial up the pressure, so your movements are slow. Then add 15–20 inches of space between your legs, and remember—the higher your legs go, the less load there is on the lower back. Feel free to explore your range here. Pretend you’re painting with a paintbrush held in your toes, or petting a dog with your feet. You can also explore side-to-side movement in the hips if that feels good to you.