7 Ways to Modify in a Yoga Class

You’ve probably heard this statement more than once – yoga is for everyone. And then you probably saw a photo on Instagram with a girl bending her body in half and thought to yourself….

Hell no, yoga is not for everyone, and it’s definitely not for me.

Well here’s the trick, yoga is for everyone, but only when you learn how to modify the postures. And even trickier, modifications don’t just come naturally to us, they have to be taught by the teacher, and then practiced by the yogi.

In a nutshell – the yoga teacher is your guide, you are your own teacher, and you have to decide when to change-up the posture.

I remember my first years of practicing yoga and I ALWAYS listened to the yoga teacher. I never turned down a challenge, I never thought to deviate from the instructor’s cues, and I never put my knees down. In my mind, knees down equaled weakness…. (sad, but true).

Fast forward to now, I’m the first person to have my knees down, the first person to bend my knees, the first person to take a more restorative variation, and always the person who’s doing the random ish in the corner.

And let me tell you friends, it’s so fucking liberating.

I love moving my body the way I want and need to move it. Yes, I love my teachers guidance and creativity, but at the end of the day – I’m the only person who knows my  body in that moment and it’s my responsibility to take care of it.

Period. End of story.

With that said – I give you permission to take control of your body – in yoga and in everyday life. I challenge you to start listening to your incredibly intelligent vessel, modify the yoga posture, do an entirely different posture, or maybe put those damn knees down!

And now that we have all that yoga inspiration, soul moving ish out-of-the-way, let’s get on with this tutorial.

Below are 7 modifications for VERY common yoga postures that are practiced. Please use this tutorial to deepen and strengthen your practice and to develop your inner  guide as a yoga teacher.

1. Bend Your Knees

I can’t stress this enough, please bend your knees!

The majority of human beings (minus babies, children, and ballerinas) have tight ass hamstrings. As much yoga as I do, my hammies are still tight and take lengths of time and a heated room to soften them up. It’s simply a fact of life – the older we get, the more we sit, the tighter we become.

Often times, yoga practitioners will see a yogi with straight/locked-out legs and think it’s the correct position. Well, it’s not and even more importantly – by locking out the legs, the hamstrings will begin to pull on the low back and over time, cause all sorts of injuries (been there, done that, learn from my mistakes).

I always recommend taking a slight bend in the knee, at the very least. If a slight bend isn’t enough, then take a deeper bend.

Poses that I LOVE to bend my knees in:

  • Forward folds (standing or seated).
  • One-legged balancing postures like half-moon, dancer, and standing splits.
  • The sun salutation sequence – the swan dive forward, the halfway lift, and the forward fold actions.

*To be clear, when I use the word bend, it can be a varying degree of bentness (not sure if that’s a word). Different postures will allow for a deeper or softer bend, it’s your choice yogis!

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2. Put Your Knees Down

Now that you’ve mastered the art of bending the knees, let’s practice putting them down.

The majority of people who start yoga lack upper body strength, it’s just the way it is (especially women). When you combine the lack of upper body strength with a ridiculous amount of vinyasa sequences, the result will usually be injury. To avoid ripping or pulling anything in our precious bodies, I recommend taking the knees down.

Plank pose is a perfect example posture of when to set the knees down. Many yoga classes focus on building core strength as it’s the foundation of the yoga practice….so plank will become your best friend. While you’re both getting to know one another, take it slow, there’s no need to rush the relationship.

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7 Ways to Modify in a Yoga Class - Pin now, read later!

3. Knees, Chest, Chin vs. Chaturanga

*Disclaimer – I totally forgot to snap a pic of chaturanga for this example, please forgive me. 

Another popular transition/posture in yoga is lowering down from plank pose into chaturanga dandasana. Chaturanga dandasana translates to four limbed staff pose, aka you need to be as straight as possible and as solid as possible.

Again, when you’re new to  yoga or simply taking it easy, chaturanga is not the pose to mess with. Don’t even go there! Instead, perform the transition by doing the following:

  • From plank pose, let the knees soften to the ground.
  • Lean forward and allow the shoulders to pass the wrists.
  • On an exhale breath, bend at the elbows and lower the body to the ground, keeping the elbows tucked into the rib-cage on the descent.
  • As you lower, think knees, chest, and chin.

This is a beautiful variation to take and one that I highly recommend, regardless of your skill level. Please try it!

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4. Cobra Pose vs. Upward Facing Dog

In keeping with our vinyasa/sun salutation theme, let’s cover the next pose in the sequence – the heart opener.

The first picture shows upward facing dog which is the traditional posture in the sequence and one that takes a serious amount of core, arm, and upper/back body strength. It’s definitely a high-maintenance pose.

To train the backside body and work up to upward facing dog, I recommend cobra pose. Now don’t underestimate the power of this posture either, it’s quite the doozy when it comes to strength and flexibility, so don’t overdo it!

Follow these pointers to safely practice cobra pose:

  • Begin lying face down with the legs together at the back of the mat, big toes touching.
  • Bring the hands to either side of the low ribs and line the thumbs up with your nipples (yes I know, I said the word nipple).
  • Engage the legs and let the knee caps lift off the ground.
  • Roll the shoulders onto the back and engage low belly.
  • On an inhale breath, peel the chest up off the mat and imagine pulling the heart through and up.
  • On an exhale breath, melt the chest back down.
  • Repeat this lifting and softening action a few times – inhaling to lift up and exhaling to melt down.

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7 Ways to Modify in a Yoga Class - Pin now, read later!

5. Side Plank w/ a Knee Down

Side plank or vasisthasana is one of my favorite postures to practice, hands down!

The posture is a great reminder that by stacking the body, you can achieve anything in yoga (and in life too). It’s all a game of building blocks, one block must go here, the other there, and then voila – you’ve built a beautiful piece of art.

I make it sound super simple, which it’s not, but you get me…

The first photo is the full expression of the pose and requires a lot of strength, focus, and balance. Once you connect the dots, the pose will happen effortlessly.

While you’re building strength, focus, and balance, I recommend taking the knee down as shown in the photo below. I also recommend taking the knee down if you’re recovering from any injures or simply feel like having a low-key practice.

I’m not going to list out the cues for how to enter into the posture, but I will point out some key alignment cues to help further your side plank relationship.

  • For both variations, stack the wrist over shoulder, shoulder over shoulder, and then shoulder over wrist – working from the top down.
  • For the full expression, lift the hips high and then open them towards the sky. Also, stack both feet and flex through the bottom of the foot to help aid in balance and stability.
  • For the knee down variation, stack the hip directly over the knee and the keep the lengthened leg’s foot flush to the ground.
  • In both variations, focus on expanding across the collarbone and opening through the heart center.

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7 Ways to Modify in a Yoga Class - Pin now, read later!

6. Low Lunge vs. High Lunge

These two poses will definitely become your best friend in a yoga class, they’re both heavily used by yoga teachers…. and for really great reasons.

Both versions offer the below benefits:

  • Strengthens the quadricpes and butt muscles.
  • Stretches the psoas and hips – my favorite part of the pose!
  • Expands your lungs, chest, and shoulders.
  • Develops stamina in the thighs.
  • Improves balance, focus, and core stability.

With all of that being said, the full expression is sometimes just too much. I find that after sitting all damn day at my desk, I cannot comfortably perform the high lunge version, it takes me a few low lunges to truly enjoy and benefit from the full expression.

I highly recommend taking the knee down, as shown in the second photo, if recovering from injury, if not warm enough, or if you simply want a gentler version.

Remember – it’s your practice, not your neighbors, not the person on social media, but yours. Take control of how you want to feel in the pose, and if that means bringing a knee down – then so be it!

7 Ways to Modify in a Yoga Class - Pin now, read later!

7 Ways to Modify in a Yoga Class - Pin now, read later!

7. Figure Four vs. Pigeon Pose

This modification holds a special place in my heart as it helped heal me through my sciatica/piriformis injury. It’s such a lifesaver – literally.

So here’s the deal – pigeon pose is an exceptional posture to help increase your flexibility, open the hip flexor and rotator muscles, and ease tension for those who suffer  from low back & sciatic nerve pain.

But contrary to what it’s supposed to do, it worsened my sciatic nerve/low back pain…. Because of this, I had to break up with pigeon pose for a few months.

This is where figure four & me started to fall in love.

I HIGHLY recommend figure four instead of pigeon pose if you’re hyper flexible and tend to dump into the lower back area. I also HIGHLY recommend figure four if you suffer from any knee injuries or general knee pain.

Important things to remember:

  • Always keep the foot flexed that’s closest to the body, this protects the knee.
  • In full pigeon, I recommend stretching the hip flexor first by taking low lunge on that side. This will relieve tension while the hips are opening.
  • In figure four, keep the back of the neck long, the shoulders melting down and away from the ears, and use the strength of your arms to bring the knees closer into the chest.

7 Ways to Modify in a Yoga Class - Pin now, read later!

7 Ways to Modify in a Yoga Class - Pin now, read later!

And the ridiculously long, detailed, how-to modify tutorial has come to an end!

If you’ve made it this far, thank you so much for reading and educating yourself on the different ways to modify in your yoga practice. I applaud your dedication!

Psst: Want to take these modifications & explore yoga basics? Click here to join my FREE Back to Yoga Basics Course!

Please always remember – you must begin to feel your body and understand what it needs in each specific moment, on that specific day, and in that specific posture – then adjust to that communication.

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Hey! I’m Allie.

I’m a self-growth student, freedom-seeker, yoga teacher and the founder of a tight-knit online yoga community: the Body Mind Soul Studio. I’m here to teach you how to transform your life on-and-off-the-mat with a holistic yoga practice.

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If your practice has waned, if your yoga journey feels lonely or you like the way I share yoga’s teachings, then this is where you need to be. Join me once a month, for free, to practice yoga as a community.