Updated: Aug 12
Knowing when and how to modify our practice or workout is an important way to honor our bodies and their chronic or temporary limitations. This allows us to keep active while owning our own safety and wellbeing. A modification can range from using a prop such as a block or blanket to make a pose accessible, adjusting the pose (e.g., changing the placement of your foot for better alignment or balance), or skipping a pose or exercise all together.
Be Prepared to Modify in the Following Three Scenarios:
1. Pre-exisitng injury, condition or awareness of a limitation. If you have a known injury, condition or tendency that might make certain poses or exercises unsafe or painful, decide how you will make accommodations. For example, if you are recovering from a broken wrist, down dog or being on all fours is off the menu. If you have vertigo, all moves that place the heart below the hips, such as standing forward folds or inversions, are contraindicated. If you have swayback (lordosis), consider a tuck of the tailbone where appropriate to maintain a natural and healthy curve of the lumbar spine. Tight hips? Invest in yoga blocks to assist opening in poses such as Pigeon and Supta Baddha Konasana.
How to Modify Here? Plan in advance! Be honest with yourself about where your body is today. This itself is a helpful exercise in mindfulness and acceptance of what is. Don’t ignore the signals your body is sending you by wishing away a condition or injury. Without judgement or emotion, take stock of what limitations your body might have and educate yourself. Call your doctor to find out what you should not be doing, and ways you can adjust or modify to continue your practice. Do some online research on reputable sites to learn about contraindications and workarounds. Ask your instructor in advance for ways to modify for that particular class. Hire a Personal Trainer, or work with a Physical Therapist, to develop a menu of personalized modifications for you.
2. Unexpected Pain. Pain is the body’s way of telling us to stop! When a child places her hand on a hot stove, she will instinctively listen to that message by pulling her hand away. As adults, we often lose that connection to our inner wisdom, or override our intuition with a harmful “no pain no gain” mentality. Granted, especially in the practice of yoga, we have the opportunity to explore the line between sensation and pain. (While we want to avoid pain, we want to learn how to safely stay with sensation for both the physical benefit of greater opening and the mental/emotional benefits of processing stuck energy and beliefs that no longer serve us). This understanding of our individual “edge” is learned over time, however. Err on the side of caution here. If it feels like pain - stop.
How to Modify Here? So you’ve stopped what was causing pain, but what do you do to modify while everyone else is continuing to lunge or breathe through Pigeon? Develop some “go to” places for your body. For many people, this is child’s pose. The larger your toolkit here, the more confident you will be in going to a safe pose or move. When you are taking classes or working on your own, become aware of poses or moves where your body feels awesome and safely aligned, and place that move in your toolkit to pull out when the pose or exercise being cued isn’t serving you. Again, if you need help developing your “go-to” toolkit, seek the help of an instructor or a trainer.
3. Loss of Good Form or Alignment. Proper form and alignment is important to keep our bodies safe and healthy. For example, a 90 degree angle of the knee over the ankle in Warrior I & II and when doing a lunge protects the knee by not overloading it with too much body weight. If we continue to hold a pose or do an exercise when we can no longer maintain proper alignment, our practice becomes counterproductive and we risk hurting ourselves. Modifying here requires mindful awareness of how are bodies moving and non-judgmentally noting when we’ve lost alignment.
How to Modify Here? Stopping is of course is always an option, especially if in the moment you are just not sure how to make a modification to continue. Often, however, modifications here are simpler fixes. For example, if you lose the proper alignment of a straight, strong spine when holding plank pose or doing pushups, place your knees down on your mat and continue. If you can no longer maintain balance in tree pose with your foot on the inner thigh, slide your foot down to the calf or place your big toe on the floor. Once again, if you need assistance here, ask your instructor before or after class, or work with a qualified trainer one on one.