“I’m sorry,” I told a yoga instructor last week. “I don’t think I can do this without a block.”
I had fallen out of Half Moon pose for the third time. Sweat ran down my face. My right quadriceps were trembling. I was struggling to catch my breath after an intense twisting sequence. Yet I still felt an urge to apologize when I reached down for a foam block to steady myself.
Then I asked myself – when did “modification” start to sound like a dirty word?
After all, there is nothing inherently shameful about taking a block or a strap to your mat before practice begins. Props are tools, nothing more or less: they support us in difficult postures and deepen our expressions in postures we know well. The same goes for dropping our knees when our arms are shaking or folding back into Child’s Pose when we’ve lost our breath. Those changes support us, too: they allow our minds to slow, our muscles to relax, and our awareness to return to our breath.
But somewhere along the line, we’ve attached meaning to these modifications. Sometimes they don’t feel like a statement on our ability to be compassionate towards our bodies or to be intentional in creating peace during our practice. Sometimes they feel like weakness.
In that state of mind, making an adjustment during class can feel shameful, weak, or wrong. But when we shape our yoga practice around what feels good in our bodies, we invite joy onto our mat. More importantly, we begin to cultivate a kindness to ourselves that we can carry off the mat and into our lives.
Here are 9 modifications you can make in your practice to invite peace, joy, and compassion onto the mat with you.
1. Bend your knees in Downward-Facing Dog.
Why is it that we find ourselves straining to touch our heels to the ground in Downward-Facing Dog? Maybe it’s because we forget that this pose is meant to be grounding and, yes, even restful – even though it’s also amazing for building strength. So take some of the strain out by bending your knees. Not only will this modification allow you to create strength by relying on your muscles (not your joints) and to find proper alignment (by elongating your spine and tilting your pelvis towards the ceiling), but your calves and hamstrings will thank you, too.
2. Stay on your feet during Sun Salutation B.
If you’re sweating by the time class hits Sun Bs, you may feel the urge to pant, too – something that can draw your attention away from steady breath. Rather than pushing yourself through the entire sequence, allow yourself to be still and remain in Warrior I on one side while others complete a vinyasa. When the instructor calls for Warrior I on the other leg, simply switch sides. This modification invites you to value your breath over stress – a good lesson both on and off the mat.
3. Lift off in Triangle.
The goal in Triangle pose is to build steadiness in the legs and beautifully expand the torso, creating space throughout the back and chest. It’s not to force your hand to the ground at the expense of that beautiful length in your side-body. Try this on for size: place a block at the outside of your front foot (start with the block at its highest, and know that you can move it lower from there). Lean your front arm forward, creating length in your side-body, and let your hand gently drift down towards the block. From there, you can even let the top arm drift open, enjoying an expansive, heart-opening stretch of the chest.
4. Flip your Half Pigeon upside-down. (And take the angst with it.)
Suffering is a choice, and this never feels more true than in Half-Pigeon pose. Many of us suffer in this pose without really knowing why: our hamstrings feel tight, our hips won’t square, our knees hurt, our lower backs pinch, our calves won’t form a parallel to the front of the mat, etc. Some days it may feel worthwhile to powerfully open the hips without all the angst (or the knee pain). Turn your pigeon upside-down by threading the needle: lie on your back, cross one ankle over the opposite thigh, and pull that thigh towards you by threading your hands through the gap in your legs.
If you’d like to practice squaring your hips as you open them, try this posture up against a wall. You can sit with one hip up against a wall, shift sideways to let your legs come up, and thread the needle from there, dragging the top foot down the wall to intensify the stretch.
5. Bring more ease into your Easy Seated pose.
What’s easy about Easy Seated Pose if your back is throbbing with discomfort? If your knees don’t naturally sink below your hips when seated (and most of ours don’t), then your spine is not in neutral alignment. That can lead to some pretty intense discomfort – and a huge distraction from your breath or your meditation. Ease into comfort by elevating your hips with a blanket or a block until your knees sink to a peaceful, luxurious level.
6. Rise into Waterfall instead of Shoulderstand.
Sometimes I wonder how many yoga classes I've finished by trying to force myself into the classic Shoulderstand/Plow/Deaf Man’s Pose closing sequence without ever questioning why it made my neck and back ache. The pain was sometimes so intense that I would spend most of Savasana in a supine twist to alleviate the throbbing. It was years before an instructor offered up a modification: slide a block under the sacrum, as if you were coming into a supported Bridge Pose, and then let the legs rise peacefully to the ceiling in Waterfall Pose.
It turns out that the purpose of an inversion at the end of class is to allow freshly-oxygenated blood to circulate throughout the body, reinvigorating the organs, lymph nodes, and glands. It’s also to realign the spine after intensive postures, to lower the heart rate, and to soothe the nervous system in preparation for Savasana. All of this can be achieved with an easy Waterfall Pose. Try opening your hands to the sky, too, as a symbol of receiving prosperity, peace, and joy. (For extra juiciness, try this against a wall.)
7. Drop your gaze.
If your neck aches while looking up at your fingertips in a twist or towards the ceiling in a bind, let your drishti fall to the floor or straight ahead. The goal of the drishti in yoga class is to create a soft, focused gaze that develops concentration. Ultimately, we are trying to gaze outward while bringing our awareness inwards – not to strain a sore neck.
8. Let Child’s Pose serve you anytime.
This modification may sound like a given. But if we let it, it can also be a radical act of compassionate revolution. Child’s Pose teaches us to respectfully respond to our body’s needs by taking the time to rest, reevaluate, and connect again to our breath and intention.
Sink into Child’s pose if you’ve just finished a challenging sequence, if your breath is moving faster than you intend, if you become aware that your mind is a million miles away, if it sounds like a delicious way to spend five minutes…the list goes on. Bottom line? There is no wrong time to take Child’s Pose. There is no length of time that is unacceptable to spend in Child’s Pose. And even this gentle stretch can be modified for deeper peace. Feel free to tuck a blanket on top of your heels to comfort painful knees, or between your forehead and your mat to soothe an aching head.
9. Massage your sore ego.
Sometimes we try to push ourselves into a pose that we’re just not ready for. Maybe it looks incredible, or maybe we just don’t want to feel left out in a class full of advanced practitioners. But when we do so, we let our ego swim up to distract us from the joy that yoga can bring. Modify by closing your eyes, breathing deeply, and enjoying the stretch that is best for your body in this very moment. Remind yourself that comparing yourself to others is at the very heart of unhappiness. Stay on your own mat, in your own body, and nourish a sense of peace, joy, and gratitude for the gift of your own practice.
If there is a moral to modification, it’s this: when we modify, we don’t create meaning about what we are and aren’t capable of doing. We don’t send a message to the whole classroom about our strength, our dedication to yoga, or our flexibility (or lack thereof). What we do is cultivate kindness. We choose compassion over struggle and gentleness over coercion. We send a signal to our bodies, our minds, and our hearts that we are consciously choosing to practice today in a way that will allow us to joyfully practice tomorrow.
Ultimately, when we practice kindness on the mat, we are teaching ourselves to practice kindness off the mat: by forgiving ourselves when we slip up, by going easy on ourselves when we struggle, and by extending that compassion to others in our lives. So bend your knees a little. Bring a block to your mat before class starts. It’s not just so that you can practice with compassion today – it’s so that you can practice compassion in your life.
Anna Squires studies political science, journalism, and creative writing at Colorado College. There is nothing she enjoys more in a yoga class than laughing so hard she falls out of a pose, especially since then she doesn’t have to hold it anymore. She hails from Atlanta, GA.