How to Teach a Mixed-Level Yoga Class

How do you keep everyone safe and happy in a mixed-level yoga class? There’s no easy answer.

In a recent teacher training, I asked trainees to share their ideas about teachers and classes they’ve observed. Specifically, I asked 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 and 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 during the class?

How to Assess Differences in a Mixed-Level Yoga Class

How to assess differences in a mixed-level yoga class

I can only speculate, but several possible reasons come to mind. First, the class was a vinyasa 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 classroom. There are many conditions that students would rather not announce to their classmates. 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 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. If a student’s issues are complex, I sometimes suggest that they see me in private before attending a group class. That way, I can more easily provide a safe space for them, as well as the other students, who may also need my attention.

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

Yoga student practicing Reclined Bound Angle Pose (Supta Baddha Konasana) with props as an alternative pose

Too often these days, people are often encouraged to lie down or practice Child’s Pose (Balasana) if they want to opt-out of a particular pose. This is a healthier option than cajoling students to do every pose no matter what. But it seems a bit lazy, and it may also cause some students 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, hundreds of yoga asanas. Is Child’s Pose the only alternative?

There are many poses that have similar effects to 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 Hero’s Pose (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, these alternatives might produce similar effects:

  • Lunge Pose (Anjaneyasana)
  • Easy Sitting Pose (Sukhasana), also with support such as a pillow or blanket under the pelvis. A student with knee issues may also want to place support such as a yoga block or folded blanket under the thigh of the injured knee.
  • Half Hero Pose (Ardha Virasana) on their easy side with a lunge on the other, etc.
  • Reclining Bound Angle Pose (Supta Baddhakonasana) can stand in for Reclining Hero’s Pose (Supta Virasana) in students with knee problems. Students with knee issues may benefit from extra support under their thighs so that the knees are elevated.

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 Pose (Sarvangasana), Upward Bow Pose (Urdhva Dhanurasana), and Hero’s Pose (Virasana). That way all your students can benefit from your sequences regardless of whether they can practice every pose.

Curiosity and Creativity in a Mixed-Level Yoga Class

How to practice and teach yoga with curiosity and creativity in a mixed level class with modified Downward Facing Dog 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, heart conditions, back injuries, or cancer treatment regimens are the same. Co-learning with individual students is 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 student and inspire them to love the practice that feeds them right now, in this moment, no matter what it looks like.

Reprinted with permission from Hugger Mugger Yoga Products. 
Charlotte Bell writer

Charlotte Bell began practicing yoga in 1982 and began teaching in 1986. She was certified by B.K.S. Iyengar in 1989 following a trip to Pune. In 1986, she began practicing Insight Meditation with her mentors Pujari and Abhilasha Keays. Her asana classes blend mindfulness with physical movement. Charlotte writes a column for Catalyst Magazine and serves as editor for Yoga U Online. She is the author of two books: Mindful Yoga, Mindful Life, and Yoga for Meditators, both published by Rodmell Press. She also edits Hugger Mugger Yoga Products’ blog and is a founding board member for GreenTREE Yoga, a non-profit that brings yoga to underserved populations. A lifelong musician, she plays oboe and English horn in the Salt Lake Symphony and the folk sextet Red Rock Rondo whose 2010 PBS music special won two Emmys.

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