Why modifying a pose isn't yoga therapy

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A student arrives at one of your regular classes and tells you she’s got a disk lesion. Just behind her is another student who mentions he’s got a bit of tendonitis. And there, right at the back, is a new student who you can see is struggling to keep up before the end of the warm up. How do you manage all these diverse bodies in one class?


And those are just the injuries and restrictions that you know about. With 1 in 3 Australians receiving a cancer diagnosis during their lifetime, 2 million Australians experiencing anxiety and up to 80% experiencing back pain, you can be sure that for every student who tells you about their condition, there are several others suffering in silence.


Yoga is, and always has been, therapeutic. But the rise of large group classes and the popularity of flowing vinyasa styles has created a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to yoga that just doesn’t work for much of the population. How do you stop and modify a practice for students with injuries when you are demonstrating a non-stop flow sequence?

 It hasn’t always been like this. Yoga was traditionally taught in small groups or one-to-one, allowing the teacher to tailor each practice to the needs of the individual. In many classes today, ‘modification’ means adapting a general practice so that the injured student can stagger through without doing themselves a greater injury. That is not the goal of yoga therapy.


Rather than offering a prop or modification to help a student manage a pose that would otherwise be too challenging for them,  yoga therapy goes back to the traditional roots of yoga and looks at each unique individual and asks ‘What does this person need?’ And the answer is sometimes surprising.


A Prescription for Yoga


I’m often asked by yoga teachers “what’s a good pose for back ache” or “what practice should I give a student with depression?” These questions are a great start, because they acknowledge that students with special needs require more than a general asana class.  But they also highlight a way of thinking that is at odds with the principles of yoga therapy. Yoga therapy is not prescriptive – there is no single pose or sequence that fixes back pain, no pranayama that is good for everybody with depression. Each individual student needs to be treated differently and simply prescribing ‘two down dogs’ in the same way a doctor might prescribe pain killers simply doesn’t work.


One of my teachers illustrated this by describing a couple who arrived at his yoga studio with the same health conditions – obesity and depression. A standard Western way of treating these students would be to ask “what does the literature say is the best way to treat depression and obesity”? But the yoga therapist takes a more nuanced approach.


After spending time with the students, the teacher determined that the husband was overweight as a result of drinking too much alcohol. His alcohol consumption had sky-rocketed since losing his job several months ago, an event that had propelled him into depression. The wife was depressed as a result of her weight gain – she felt exhausted, unhealthy and judged by her friends, making her reclusive and unhappy.


Even though they have the same symptoms, the causes are very different and so the yoga therapist offers different practices – mantra for the husband (often used to treat depression) and dynamic asana for the wife to help her  regulate her eating habits and improve her physical health. I’ve simplified the story, but it is a good example of how yoga therapy deals with the whole person. 


But back to the question of how do you manage a number of diverse bodies in a group asana class? While there are many techniques to help you work with groups (the most important one being to educate and empower your students to practice in the way that’s best for them), students with specific conditions would benefit from private yoga therapy. As a yoga teacher, this offers many benefits. Firstly, you get to know your students and understand their bodies, motivations and concerns. Secondly, you can offer them a home practice that specifically targets their individual needs. Thirdly, you can provide tailored guidelines to help your students get the most out of group class – for example, teaching them why and how to modify certain types of poses in order to practice safely.


In both group and private settings, yoga therapy is an extremely powerful tool for healing. It is a rich framework for understanding students, piecing together patterns of pathology and identifying the most appropriate practices to meet their individual needs.


Want to know more about Yoga Therapy? Download the Adore Yoga Therapy Teacher Training Prospectus here:

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