by Charlotte Bell
(Hint: There’s no easy answer.)
Last weekend began the first segment of a teacher training I’ve been co-teaching for the past three years. It’s always fun to meet the new trainees and to hear inspiring stories about how Yoga practice has changed their lives.
During the last class of the weekend, we asked them to share with us what they consider to be essential qualities for a teacher. We also invited them to share their experiences with various teachers and tell us about what has worked and what hasn’t.
One student related this story that she found confusing: A teacher in a fairly large, mixed-level class asked students if there were any injuries or health issues that might affect their ability to participate in the class. One student raised his hand explained that his knees were injured and unstable. The teacher then proceeded to teach the class she had planned—a class filled with kneeling poses and others that required deep knee flexion—and didn’t offer modifications to the injured student.
The teacher trainee asked: Why would a teacher go to the trouble of asking about injuries and then not address them in class?
I can only speculate, but several possible reasons come to mind. First, the class was a flow class. There’s not a lot of time to introduce modifications and props when students are only spending a few seconds in each pose. Second, perhaps the teacher was fairly new and needed the security of her planned sequence in order to feel confident. Or maybe the teacher simply wasn’t familiar with how to modify poses to accommodate knee problems or what alternatives the student could substitute for the class she’d planned.
In any case, there are additional problems with this strategy—or lack of strategy—that I can identify at the outset. First of all, I never ask students about their injuries or conditions in the class room. There are many conditions that students would rather not announce to a class full of people they don’t know. I always ask new students these questions in private, followed by questions such as, “What movements irritate your injury?” or “Has a doctor or physical therapist recommended that you not do certain movements?” If I’m unfamiliar with the physiology of their condition, I will ask them for specifics.
Sometimes other questions arise from their answers, and I always ask those questions, too. Sometimes I recommend that they see me for a private session so that we both have a better idea of how to work with their condition in a safe, healthy way. And sometimes I’ve suggested that a student not participate in a group class until I’ve seen them in private, because their issues are complex enough that I’m not sure I can provide a safe space for them when my attention needs to be spread among many others as well.
There have been times, too, when I have recommended that a student see a qualified therapist before coming to class. After decades of living in my city, I’ve amassed a fairly lengthy list of incredible healers and bodyworkers whose modalities may be more appropriate for particular situations than yoga classes might be.
Beyond Child’s Pose
Too often these days, people are encouraged to lie down or practice Child’s Pose if they want to opt out of a particular pose. While this is a healthier option than cajoling students to do every pose no matter what, it seems a bit lazy, and it may also cause a student to spend half the class in Child’s Pose. Nothing against Child’s Pose, but there are other ways to handle modifications that won’t make these students feel like outliers. Think about it: There are, by some counts, thousands of yoga asanas. Are Child’s Pose and supine lying the only alternatives?
Certainly not. There are many poses that have similar effects of those you want to teach, but that won’t compromise a student’s imbalance or injury. For example, people with knee issues often struggle with Virasana. Sometimes elevating their pelvis with blankets, a block or a bolster will alleviate their knee pain so that they can sit comfortably. Sometimes not. When no amount of height under the pelvis is enough, I suggest alternatives that produce at least some of the same effects: lunges, Sukhasana (also with support), Baddha Konasana (with support under the knees if needed), Half Virasana on their easy side with a lunge on the other, etc. Supta Baddhakonasana can stand in for Supta (lying down) Virasana in students with knee problems. Both calm the nervous system, increase circulation to the legs and help balance digestive issues.
I encourage teachers to make a list of poses that impart similar effects that can serve as alternatives to more challenging poses such as Shoulderstand, Upward Bow and Virasana. That way all your students can benefit from your sequences regardless of whether they can practice every pose.
Knowing how to integrate different body types, ages and conditions into a mixed-level class is an art. It takes time and patience to learn, and there are no one-size-fits-all answers. Each situation is different—no two knee injuries or back injuries or depressive states or cancer treatment regimens are the same. Much of the time the practice of working with students of many different conditions becomes a rich opportunity for both teachers and students.
The ability to see each student as an individual is essential to maintaining a safe container for your classes. First, you have to get to know your students. Huge classes may spread lots of good energy, but they’re not so conducive to meeting the needs of individuals with infinitely variable constitutions, temperaments and genetics. If our classes are to help our students live more graceful lives, we must get to know each one of them and inspire them to love the practice that feeds them right now, in this moment, no matter what it looks like.
Charlotte Bell is a yoga and meditation teacher, oboist and writer living in Salt Lake City. She writes for Hugger Mugger Yoga Products’s blog and Catalyst Magazine, and has published two books with Rodmell Press: Mindful Yoga, Mindful Life and Yoga for Meditators.