All yoga teachers have experienced it at least once in their teaching careers: You create a masterpiece of a class and you’re excited to offer it to your students. Every detail has been considered, the flow is creative and smooth and you’re ready for your students to experience its potential. You excitedly walk into the room and…your “regulars” are nowhere to be found and you have no idea if what you have planned is appropriate for these students. Or most people are reclining back on bolsters looking ready for savasana when you had arm balances on tap. Or everybody seems amped up, the room is roaring with conversation and you came prepared with something downtempo and contemplative. Or maybe you dive in and then see the signs of either excessive struggle and frustration (not breathing, grimacing, confusion) or distraction and boredom (looking around, picking at things, checking the time).
In any scenario where what you have planned for a group class doesn’t jive with the students, the mood, the skill or the energy level, do you just scrap our work and wing it? Or is there a more elegant solution to meet people right where they are without completely abandoning your plan?
The ability to skillfully modify classes on the fly is one of a yoga teacher’s greatest assets. Meticulously planning your classes ahead of time indicates a clear intention and focus, a commitment both to the craft and to our students and speaks to our professionalism. But, our preparation must also be supple enough to withstand the unexpected. And we, the teachers, must be well practiced enough in non-attachment to our vision and our offerings to ensure that what we teach supports our students and is meeting them where they are on any given day. Since the only constant in life is change, we want our classes to be adaptable to whatever—or whomever—arises.
4 Ways to Skillfully Modify Yoga Classes
1. Start with the relationship between poses
At the root of skillful modification is an understanding of the nature of each asana and its relationship to all other asanas. In teacher trainings, I ask students to “dissect” every asana to understand its key anatomical actions (What is primarily stretching? What is primarily engaging?), its key energetics (Is it activating? Is it pacifying?) and its bhava, or vibe (What feeling state does it commonly evoke?). This gets them identifying relationships that exist between asanas. While this initially requires a hefty investment of time and energy, building this “database” of asanas and relationships makes confidently and intelligently modifying on the fly a reality. This effort enables us to quickly identify viable and closely related alternatives to the poses in the class we originally planned. Let’s look at a simple example:
Key anatomical actions: Neutral hip standing pose, hamstring stretch of standing (front) leg, quadriceps engagement of standing (front) leg, gluteal muscles engagement of lifted (back) leg, abdominals and erector spinae engagement of trunk.
Key energetics: Activating, fiery, challenging
Bhava: Focused, intense, powerful
But what if Warrior III was just too much on any given day? Is there a related alternative that addresses some of the same key actions but with different energetics and bhava that are more appropriate for this day? Yes! Let’s take a look:
Key anatomical actions: Neutral hip standing pose, hamstring stretch of front leg, quadriceps engagement of front leg, gluteal muscles engagement of back leg, abdominals and erector spinae engagement of trunk.
Key energetics: Pacifying, earthy, engaging
Bhava: Focused, calm, grounding
So on a day when Warrior III is too much, Pyramid would be an excellent alternative in that it offers very similar anatomical actions but in a more pacifying and grounding way. Having this relationship knowledge on hand will give you the ability to take any sequence of poses and swap out those poses that aren’t a good fit for other options that are still closely related but different in important ways.
When you recognize the need to modify, a smart first pass of your existing class would be to identify the most complex poses in it and either down-level (simplify) or up-level (intensify) them for whom you are teaching by choosing other related asanas. You can start to build your catalog of asana relationships with these and go from there.
2. Adjust the pacing
In addition to assessing the complexity of your class when modifying and making changes to your pose choices, another step would be to adjust your pacing. While rushing is never advised in yoga, we can either accelerate or decelerate the pace of the class to meet our students more appropriately by adding or subtracting asanas from our sequences to affect the pacing. In general, experienced students may be able to maintain awareness and focus (dharana) through more complex sequences. If you need to up-level your original class, are there related postures you could add to your sequences? These additions will generally require that your pace slightly accelerates and your students will have to rise to the challenge of maintaining focus in ever-changing motion.
Conversely, in general, less experienced students will be able to maintain awareness and focus in sparser sequences. Are there postures that could be removed from your original class that will allow for you to spend more time on the remaining postures and move more slowly and methodically? Pacing greatly impacts focus and mood—adjusting it allows us to find just the right complexity and tempo to keep people engaged and appropriately challenged.
3. Consider the impact of repetition
An often overlooked way to modify your classes on the fly is to use more or less repetition of postures or sequences. Experienced students may be more fittingly challenged by diversity in the class. That is to say, less repetition of postures or sequences may keep them more tuned in to the new challenges arising. So we can look for opportunities to offer more diversity in sequences and transitions between them. On the other hand, on days when our students feel more mentally lethargic or are less experienced, we can utilize repetition as a way to simplify and go deeper into the experience of the postures without triggering frustration or feeling overwhelmed. As teachers we should be cautious about believing repetition is “boring”. Sometimes that repetition can help soothe an overworked nervous system and provide clarity and “lightbulb” moments for our students.
4. Change up the transitions
Transitions between individual poses or sequences are another way to modify in the moment. In the case of up-leveling a class, consider ways to get from Point A to Point B that are more complex and challenging. An example would be coming out of a standing pose sequence to head into the connecting vinyasa (Plank, Chaturanga, Upward Dog, Downward Dog). The direct path is to come out of the final standing pose by placing your hands down in lunge, step back to Plank and go through the connecting vinyasa.
More complex paths might be to come out of the standing pose into a Lunge and explore a kick up toward Handstand or to step to Plank and explore a Side Plank or to step to the top of the mat and explore another arm balance like Crow and then flow into the connecting vinyasa. If, on the other hand, your class already included these challenging transitions and you deem them excessively complex for the class today, you can simplify by removing them and chose the simplest path from Point A to Point B.
Keep in mind that simple and methodical doesn’t always mean easy or gentle. Nor do complex and fast-paced always mean advanced. It helps to think of our students as having a different appetite every day. Sometimes they are ravenous for more and have the ability to digest it all. Other days, the appetite isn’t there and their capacity to stay present and engaged is more limited. As teachers, we use our knowledge of asana relationships, the power of pacing, the impact of repetition, and opportunities in transitions to be like yogic chefs and modify to make the experience fully digestible and deliciously satisfying.
Teachers, want more wisdom from Gina Caputo? Join her free webinar, Simple Is The New Advanced: Vinyasa Sequencing For Mindfulness, on Tuesday, July 25 at 2 pm EDT. Sign up today!
About Our Expert
Gina Caputo is the Founder and Director of the Colorado School of Yoga. Learn more about her and where you can practice with her at ginacaputo.com.