How to Modify Your Favorite Yoga Poses

How to Modify Your Favorite Yoga Poses

Written by Angela Wunder PT, DPT

Yoga is one of many forms of exercise that helps to improve strength and flexibility and also incorporates mindfulness with the possibility of providing stress relief. Some yoga poses are relatively simple and passive, and some that appear incredibly complicated or require a fair amount of muscle strength and endurance. Like any exercise/sport, yoga requires practice and gradual progression to work towards higher level poses.

There is often criticism that yoga is responsible for injury and places you in positions that are vulnerable or for “over-stretching.” The truth is, any yoga pose can be modified to fit the individual, and as any other activity, progression and rest are needed! A good teacher will use proper yoga cues to help guide these progressions or modifications, but even better you can do so your self! Here are some common yoga poses with ways to modify them to accommodate for pain or for a way to practice while you are building strength and flexibility. For more detailed guidance regarding pain and continuing activities, see a physical therapist - he or she will evaluate and provide recommendations accordingly.

1. Downward Dog

Downward Dog is considered an inversion (basically poses where you are upside down). It looks a little like this:

image of downward dog yoga pose

Fingers are spread wide to distribute force, legs are slightly bend or straight, spine is neutral/extended with core active, and ideally heels melt to the ground. If you can achieve this position with your hands to the floor, you could modify bending the knees, allowing the heels to stay lifted, and go from there.

Some, due to injury/pain/stiffness may not be able to achieve this position though, and that’s ok- if you are at home, push a chair against the wall for stability and place your hands on the chair to improve ease of the posture. If a chair is too low, try a counter/table top.

image of downward dog using a chair

In class, try utilizing blocks to accomplish the same effect. Just be sure to push the blocks to the wall for stability while you are getting started.

image of downward dog using yoga blocks

2. Chair Pose

This pose is great for building quadriceps and gluteal muscles. It also encourages correct upper back and shoulder posture. It looks like this:

image of woman doing chair pose

If you have shoulder pain, or feel out of breath from limited endurance you can bring your arms to chest level or even place your hands in prayer position at your chest. Other than limiting how deep you squat, you can modify this pose in 2 ways while building up your leg strength. You could perform this position at the wall, using the wall for a bit of support. For this you will want to pay attention to your shoulders.

If this is still too intensive, you could utilize the wall as a support in class, facing away from the wall, as in a wall squat. At home, you could place a chair behind you, and utilize that chair as needed. Try to hover above the chair, or sit in the chair and activate the muscles you would use if you were to stand up from the chair.

image of woman doing chair pose using a stool

3. Camel Pose

This pose is great to open the chest, but to perform without modification requires a large amount of back and neck extension, which is may unavailable to some individuals. It is performed in a kneeling position and looks like this:

image of woman performing camel pose

The picture above shows how to progress into the pose and also how you could slightly modify (staying as the second picture) eliminating the reach to the ankles. There is another option as well. First, in class, you place blocks behind you and rest your hands on the blocks, adding or taking away as you need.

image of woman doing camel pose using yoga blocks

You could also place a chair behind you at home, and reach for the chair.

image of women doing camel pose using chairs

These are just a few examples, but there are limitless variations to all poses. Always ask your instructor for assistance, and ALWAYS listen to your body. Your instructor will encourage you to do as much as you can, but stay where you need, utilize modifications you need, and take breaks when needed. And if you do have an injury, see your physical therapist. A physical therapist can advise you on the best postures or activities for you to perform at home for recovery and advise you on precautions to take with your body during yoga or your preferred sport.

Image Sources:
- Yoga for Healthy Aging