top of page

Adapting for Student Types


Adaptation vs. Generic vs. Therapeutics

In the sections below we share powerful “adaptive principles.” But first we explain what we mean by that term.

Adaptation vs. Therapy or Therapeutics

In the past, we’ve used the word “therapeutic” to differentiate the process of adapting for individuals vs. “generic” teachings that are used universally with “healthy” students in an unrestricted yoga class.

But as yoga TEACHING and yoga THERAPY have evolved in the West, there has come to be a more clear distinction between the two professions.

The term “therapeutics” is now best reserved for referring to yoga therapy whereby the therapist works individually with a client to design an individual plan.

The terms “adaptive” and “adaptation” better describe the expectations of a yoga teacher in a group class.


  1. In contrast to “generic” teachings, adaptive principles involve some level of customization of teachings. In fact, customization or individualizing could be other words for adaptation.

  2. Adaptation implies the teachings are chosen, varied or applied to respond to a particular situation — typically an injury or condition.

  3. This may be a response to one student who has unique needs compared to the class at large, such as a pregnant student in a drop-in class.

  4. Or it can be the development of a class plan for a specialized class, such as yoga for seniors or students with scoliosis, anxiety or chronic pain.

Thus, a sequence or philosophy teaching that will be used with all students in a drop-in class would be “generic” teachings.

Advising a pregnant student about poses to avoid or teaching a sequence designed for students with knee issues would be “adapted,” “customized,” “individualized,” or “applied” teachings.



General Adaptation Approach

Background Knowledge

  1. Of fundamental importance is knowing When & How to Refer Students Out for Diagnosis or Individual Assessment.

  2. Next, be sure you are familiar with trauma-sensitive teachings in order to support the psychological and emotional safety of all student populations.

  3. It’s also very important to know how to work with pain, particularly as it relates to the different needs arising from chronic vs. acute pain.

First Priority

  • As with yoga in general, adaptation is a process of self-exploration and empowerment.

  • That is, yoga teachers do not diagnose or endeavor to “treat” a condition. Rather, they guide the student in a process of discovery, whereby the student may recover her sense of wholeness / balance / integrity.

General Approach

  1. Focus more on what a student can do than what she can’t do.

  2. Address and integrate the person’s various aspects or koshas.

  3. Determine the energetic need (langhana or brahmana) to guide choice of practices.

  4. Draw from many yoga techniques beyond asana including breathwork, visualization and meditation, chanting and philosophy.

  5. Encourage students to become aware of daily life patterns that contribute to or exacerbate imbalances.

Wholeness & The “Can Do” Bias

Yoga therapy sees each person as an expression and reflection of the infinite possibilities and intelligence of the source energy. – Joseph LePage

Inherent Worthiness & Wholeness

  • In this modern world that has lost sight of so many things, a most revolutionary and invaluable foundation of yoga is the explicit principle that every person is a perfect and whole expression of the one infinite source. Everything starts from the person’s inherent worthiness and wholeness just as she is.

  • While a person may be experiencing pain or severe disability, it is understood that beneath these qualities of experience is the whole and perfect Self who is never damaged.

  • From awareness of her inherent worthiness and wholeness, the student embarks on a journey. The journey itself comes to be experienced as “a homecoming to a place of inner balance, awareness, and wholeness.”

  • The tools of yoga are used on the journey “to open the appropriate doorway to the student’s own potential for health, healing, and awakening, all of which is already present.” (Joseph LePage)

  • It is understood that the journey may lead to any number of outcomes, such as healing underlying imbalance, relief from symptoms, or more tranquility in living with a chronic condition.

The Can-Do Bias

  • A powerful and beautiful offering is a focus on what a student can do more than what she can’t do.

  • If a student cannot safely raise her arms above her head, or cannot practice forward bends that compress the belly, such knowledge is fundamental to know and guide the practice. But once such limitations are acknowledged, the focus then turns to all the yoga tools that are safe and useful.

  • Teachers can help their students enjoy a rich and satisfying practice full of mindfully-chosen asana, visualization, pranayama, chanting, meditation, and so on.

  • Students may have heard that injury can be a great teacher. Teachers can help students to experience this powerful lesson through encouraging a perspective of curiosity. Injuries invite more self-awareness plus increasing knowledge of such things as the contraindications and purpose of some poses. With this growing knowledge, the student becomes more empowered as she learns to choose and adapt practices.

  • This focus on experiencing and honoring all that the student can do to bring restoration and balance may be a powerful antidote to the typical negativity surrounding injury and condition.

Empowerment vs. Prescription

  • As you know, yoga teachers and therapists are not qualified to diagnose conditions or prescribe treatment.

  • But the reason that yoga teachers do not act as “prescribers” goes beyond just their scope of practice. The entire perspective of yoga is different; with an intent of Self-realization, it approaches practice and healing in a different way.

  • Of course, that is not to discount the value of a diagnosis and treatment plan from a healthcare provider. Rather, the point here is about yoga’s approach. Yoga works fine as an adjunct treatment with western medicine but itself does not use a prescriptive approach.

  • The process begins by helping the student to see herself as the whole person she is, in body, mind and spirit. And from there, the journey she is invited on includes “helping you realize yourself as a self-governing expert of your own life and issues.” (Michelle Pitman)

  • The process invites curiosity, exploration and self-empowerment. Michelle Pitman’s article quoted above offers an inspirational and practical teaching on this vital topic.

Yogic Toolbox + Integration of Learning

A Vast Yogic Toolbox

A holistic approach uses many yoga techniques beyond asana including breathwork, visualization and meditation, chanting and philosophy.

Many More Tools than Asana

My desire for all those who have only been exposed to the asana part of yoga is that they have an opportunity to appreciate the depth and breadth of this great tradition. When you have a life-threatening or serious condition, you can’t rely on what you could rely on before. Yoga is like a raft that can help you go through these things. But in my case it wasn’t asana. It wasn’t even breathing. It was attitude, prayer. – Gary Kraftsow

Integration of Learning

  • Becoming aware of daily life patterns that contribute to imbalance is a central part of the healing journey. Posture, stress management techniques and other such aspects of daily life often hold the key to continued and lasting balance and health.

  • In addition, incorporating daily maintenance practices is a common technique for helping students to experience and maintain desired states of health.


Practice Foundations


  1. Stress and the nervous system are a key component of virtually every situation. It’s essential that teacher and student have a very clear understanding of the vital role of the nervous system and how it can relate to the manifestation and relief of symptoms and conditions.

  2. Repetitive, simple movement in pain-free range of movement is a fundamental tactic in many therapeutic approaches that can be applied in most adaptive situations as well. More movement is introduced gradually as pain diminishes.

  3. Students will naturally tend to compensate in a way that lessens the challenge to the targeted area (particularly as it relates to spinal curves). Thus, teachers need to stay observant to see how a targeted action is practiced.

  4. Joint health is related to the healthy functioning of surrounding muscles.

Langhana & Brahamana

  • The fundamental Ayurvedic principle of aiming to bring balance teaches that when there is excess heat, we endeavor to cool; when there is restriction, we strive to release tension; when too mobile, we stabilize, and so on.

  • Thus, a fundamental consideration when working individually is to determine a need for langhana or brahmana.

Langhana vs. Brahmana

The basic orientation of any treatment is either that of reduction or purification (langhana) or that of tonification or building (brahmana). Reduction therapy is called for when there is some kind of excess in the system that must be reduced: excess weight, toxicity, hyperactivity or anxiety. Tonification therapy works to nourish the system. This is useful in conditions such as general weakness, low energy, specific debilities or lack of confidence. – Gary Kraftsow

Movement Guidelines

  • In addition to watching for the tendency to compensate, teachers will want to keep in mind is the relationship between joint health and muscular balance. You can delve into this topic via the links below.

The following recommendations come from A G Mohan in Yoga Therapy 2004, pgs 172-173:

  • Know whether movement increases or decreases pain.

  • At first, avoid movements and positions that place stress on affected body part. As student progresses and pain diminishes, movements can be introduced gradually.

  • Dynamic movements that alternately bend and stretch can help with stiffness and avoid stress sometimes caused by static positions.

  • Start from where the person is. Mohan reminds us that classical asanas arose in a culture where people sat on the floor in a cross-legged or squat position for several hours per day. Using the same asana with people who have completely different lifestyle and habits “can aggravate or even cause structural problems.”

Trauma-Informed Teaching Guidelines


Why Trauma-Aware Teaching is Important

Sometimes people think that a trauma-informed approach is only for people with major trauma. And yes, it is absolutely critical to teach with a trauma-sensitive lens when working with people experiencing acute trauma symptoms. But the truth is that we all hold and carry a lot in our bodies-minds-hearts. Trauma-informed yoga is for everyone, no exceptions. – Rosa Vissers

  • Trauma-sensitive teaching promotes psychological and emotional safety, a key consideration for all teaching situations.

  • One in four students in your class is likely to have trauma in their history.

  • While trauma survivors “may or may not still be reactive to it… we won’t know unless we inadvertently trigger something.” (Celeste Mendelsohn) Teachers are unlikely to be made aware of such triggering because students who experience generalized anxiety or flashbacks, for instance, are not likely to report such experiences to the teacher.

  • Teachers unaware of trauma-sensitive principles may cause students to turn away from body-based practices. (Dr. Jamie Marich)

  • Becoming informed about trauma will also prepare you for teaching during crisis. If your community experiences a natural disaster, for example, this preparation will help you to skillfully provide support within your community.

What You’ll Learn

Research shows that successful trauma treatment requires healing the effects that trauma has caused in the body and nervous system. Thus, yoga can be an optimal tool in trauma healing and is a prime opportunity for supporting students in their healing process.

Trauma-aware teaching will give you the skills to:

  1. Prevent unknowingly causing re-traumatization in students.

  2. More effectively support individuals who may be on a trauma healing journey.

  3. Promote an emotionally and psychologically safe space for all students.

How to Prepare

  • Attending a workshop on trauma and trauma-sensitive teaching through an outreach organization is of tremendous help in developing awareness, sensitivity and skill to safely serve students. If you’re going to teach specifically for the purposes of trauma healing then, of course, such training is highly advisable.

  • Whether or not you attend such a training, we’ve worked hard to bring you solid material for maximizing your effectiveness as a teacher in your community.

Teaching Guidelines Overview

At the heart of trauma-sensitive teaching is granting complete student autonomy. Students are in charge of what they do with their body and how they interpret their feelings and experiences.

Some ways to communicate and uphold this vital priority include:

  1. Behave in a way that acknowledges that some students may be carrying trauma and stress.

  2. Avoid the appearance of governing or judging.

  3. Be cautious with space and touch.

  4. Speak respectfully, clearly and mindfully, giving explicit autonomy to students to have their own experience.

  5. Avoid common triggers and respond to apparent triggers with care.

Following are more detailed considerations for each of these five topics.

Be Aware

#1 Behave in a way that acknowledges that some students may be carrying trauma and stress.

  1. Be aware that some students may have had to overcome tremendous fear or inner resistance simply to arrive at class. Preparing to inhabit and move their body in public can be terrifying for many reasons.

  2. Kindly welcome all students with a genuine smile and calm demeanor.

  3. Be sure that entrances and exits are not being inadvertently obstructed.

  4. Arrange the room in a way that allows for some students to have their back to a wall if possible. Also, make the entrances and exits visible to students from their mat, as possible.

  5. In your opening remarks, you may wish to congratulate students on doing something positive for themselves and explicitly give them autonomy over themselves and their practice, including permission to leave the classroom if they wish.

Facilitate vs. Govern

#2 Avoid the appearance of governing or judging.

  1. Most students will see the teacher as an authority figure which will cause particular internal reactions based on the individual history of each student. In a trauma-sensitive approach, the teacher is seen as a “facilitator” and much is done to help set this tone. Specifically, teachers are advised to avoid appearing as if they are an outsider that is governing or evaluating students.

  2. In the more common class paradigm, teachers are advised to move around the room in order to better observe and adjust students. Trauma-sensitive teachers are aware that some students will have a need to know where the teacher is at all times and therefore, moving around a lot may cause hyper-vigilance in those students. Therefore, teachers are advised to be mindful about their movements and to consider staying in the sightline of students. Avoid coming up behind students.

  3. In trauma-sensitive yoga, the facilitator enters into “a shared, authentic experience” with the students and is therefore more likely to engage in asana movements simultaneously with students.


Respect Student Space

#3 Be cautious with space and touch.

  1. Do not touch students or invade their energetic space in any way without explicit permission.

  2. The default trauma-sensitive approach is to not use touch due to the extremely high likelihood of traumatized students losing trust, dissociating or experiencing re-traumatization.

  3. Students who attended classes at the Trauma Center (which specifically does not use hands-on assists) came to find an increase in their enjoyment of touch in general. Thus, the yoga itself works to increase students’ enjoyment of being in their bodies without the necessity of touch from the teacher.

  4. In cases where touch is included in class, be very well-versed in hands-on adjustment guidelines and provide an extremely comfortable way for students to decline.

Speak Clearly & Mindfully

#4 Speak respectfully, clearly and mindfully, giving explicit autonomy to students to have their own experience.

  1. At the heart of trauma sensitive teaching is the fundamental that students are “totally, completely, unequivocally in charge” of themselves.

  2. Explicitly give students autonomy over their bodies and experience. If even one student is new to you, re-state the teachings that grant students authority over themselves and provide guidelines for staying safe.

  3. Avoid communicating in a way that can be construed as commanding, or implying there is a “preferred” or “right” way. As opposed to such an authoritative approach, trauma-sensitive teaching uses invitational language. This is not the same as “wishy-washy.”

  4. Speak clearly, directly and specifically. Celeste Mendelsohn explains that trauma survivors may find it particularly difficult to pay attention and suggests minimizing “flowery” language. Speaking more specifically about tangible, body-based actions is likely to be more effective with trauma-survivors.

  5. As always, do not state that a pose or practice will have a particular result. For example, avoid such statements as “Notice how good it feels to x” or “This pose alleviates anxiety.”

  6. Don’t say that you are providing a “safe space” and instead endeavor to create one. (See more in Readings below to understand how saying a space is safe is akin to saying a student should feel what you tell her to feel.)

Be Mindful of Triggers

#5 Avoid common triggers and respond to apparent triggers with care.

  1. Closing the eyes can be anxiety-provoking for some students. Give instructions in a way that makes it okay to keep the eyes open. “Just hearing that they have a choice about the eyes, instead of feeling commanded to close the eyes, generally makes people more comfortable about giving closed eyes a try.” (Dr. Jamie Marich) For those who wish to keep their eyes open, suggest softening the gaze and choosing a drishti.

  2. As always, do not compliment or comment on students’ bodies.

  3. Be particularly mindful about Savasana. Use soft lighting as opposed to no lighting. Ensure students have blankets or anything else they need. Keep your movements to a minimum.

  4. Do not direct a student’s experience but instead consider how you can guide students to try things. For example, do not tell a student to relax. It’s not uncommon for such a directive to be given by an abuser to a victim. Rather, inspire a feeling of relaxation as opposed to directing it. You might suggest a lengthening of the exhalation, gently drawing the belly in, releasing the shoulders, and softening the face. Some replacement words for “relax” suggested by expert Jamie Marich include “loosen,” “soften,” “ease” and “rest.”

  5. Some considerations include using “seat” instead of “butt,” “heart” instead of “chest” and avoiding “groin,” and “pelvis.” In situations where the class is known to be trauma victims, consider also that the words “pose” and “position” can trigger sexual abuse victims who were forced to perform or be photographed.  (Julie Grossman)

Be aware if a student makes a comment or joke or appears uncomfortable or confused:

  1. Treat it as an opportunity to be supportive and to promote autonomy.

  2. Quietly ask if the pose makes the student uncomfortable and express that there are alternatives.

  3. Celeste Mendelsohn gave the example of teaching Cat-Cow flow. As a new student came onto hands and knees and heard instructions to move the spine and gaze, she appeared a bit shocked and said she hadn’t done something like this is in this kind of environment before. Mendelsohn asked if the pose made her uncomfortable and when the student replied, “Yeah, sorta,” she suggested that the student try the spinal flow from a seat.

Cautions: Diagnosis & Referral

  1. As a reminder, yoga teachers—and even yoga therapists—are not trained or licensed to diagnose injury, illness or disorder. You may wish to be very clear about this point, and to ask students if they have obtained a diagnosis.

  2. Be prepared to refer students to an expert. Have contact information for qualified experts that you can provide, as needed. See more in When to Refer Out which includes how to respond to students, and questions for their medical provider.

  3. Yoga is likely to be an excellent supplemental resource for students. But of course, teachers must be cautious and clear when responding to students’ individual needs so that yoga support is not construed as a diagnosis, a “prescription,” or a recommendation for sole treatment.




Working with Pain in Yoga

Foundations & Priorities

Before embarking on particular strategies and tactics for working with pain in yoga, you may wish to consider these as foundations and priorities:

  1. Learn to differentiate sensation and pain.

  2. Avoid pain in practice.

  3. If a student is seeking pain, help her to let this go for now. This may not be easy but seeing and experiencing success in using yoga to relieve stress may provide motivation. Perhaps over time, you may be able to gently encourage that she investigate the reasons why she has this tendency. (i.e. Is there a lack of differentiation between sensation and pain? Or is the desire for pain a response to one’s personal history?)

Inner Listening Skills

Hatha Yoga as a Tool

Hatha Yoga practice is known for its effectiveness at helping students to notice bodily sensations and to learn to better interpret and evaluate them. Teachers can help to teach the importance of these skills and how to grow in this area.

  • Consider it a priority to foster a non-competitive environment to effectively inspire students to pay attention inwardly, resisting any sense of peer pressure.

  • Note that students will interpret cues differently based on their dosha and other unique personality characteristics. For instance, the cue, “Do what feels good” could prompt one person with a history of trauma to overwork due to an overactive nervous system that has grown accustomed to intensity and pain. It could prompt another to practice ineffectively due to an inherent lack of motivation. Better would be cues that help students to inquire in a way that takes account of their own tendencies, such as “Stop here and notice the quality of your breath before deciding whether to go further or to back off.”

  • With practice, students tend to improve their ability to evaluate sensation and decide whether it is healthy or unhealthy for them in this moment.

Using the Breath as a Guide

The fundamental yogic tool of breath awareness is often used as a key to improve the ability to interpret and evaluate sensation.

  • When the breath quickens, stops or becomes shallow, for instance, this can be considered a clue to bring more awareness to the present moment.

  • While some demanding poses may require a faster breath rate, gasping or holding the breath may indicate pain and can be used as a prompt to relax, lessen effort, and otherwise slow down and adapt while observing sensation.

Learning Edges by Going Too Far

  • A common way in which we learn is by going “too far” and suffering an injury.

  • As Baxter Bell notes in the quote below, rather than this being discouraging, we might accept that this is simply a way in which we learn our limits and edges.

Suffering is Optional

From the ability to notice sensation comes the empowering awareness that pain and suffering are different and that suffering— “the second arrow”—is optional.

Working with Pain in Yoga

  1. Begin by evaluating your current pain level. When pain is high, begin with relaxation and “start or stay with gentle poses… [or] maybe imagine the poses.”

  2. When experiencing pain, identify and release contraction.

  3. Be aware of asanas that can aggravate particular types of pain and approach them with caution, avoiding as appropriate. For example, with shoulder pain, approach weight-bearing poses such as Chaturanga Dandasana with caution, building up slowly and mindfully.

  4. Since stress is an underlying factor exacerbating virtually all other health conditions, the stress relief from yoga can have a major effect on health and promoting pain relief. Thus, practicing in a way that brings relaxation and nervous system balance is a key to pain relief.

More Considerations

  1. Begin with simple movements where there is no pain, gradually increasing movement mindfully.

  2. In addition to avoiding working directly with the area that is painful, Mukunda Stiles shares the powerful insight of strengthening below the site of pain and relaxing the area opposite it.

  3. Consider the many tools aside from asana that are effective at addressing pain, such as chanting, pranayama and guided visualization.






About Pregnancy & Prenatal Yoga


Be Prepared


  • It’s relatively common for pregnant students to attend general drop-in classes.

  • Pregnant students have unique needs and risks compared to others, so it’s important to be prepared.

  • There is a big difference between many drop-in yoga classes and a Prenatal Yoga Class.

  • A Prenatal Yoga Class teaches only practices that are safe for pregnant students and offers other specialized support such as community-building, childbirth education, and other resource sharing.

  • Since open classes are by definition not Prenatal Yoga Classes, teachers of drop-in classes need to know when to refer students out, and how to help pregnant students identify safe and effective adaptations.

General Approach

No two pregnancies are the same! So there is no one-size-fits-all recommendations, but we have lots of helpful considerations here that can guide you in helping pregnant students have a safe and enjoyable practice.

Two primary considerations are:

  1. Should you refer out or accommodate the student in a drop-in class?

  2. How can you be sure she knows what to avoid and how to safely adapt?

Key areas to consider regarding pregnant students include:

  • Stage of pregnancy

  • The student’s yoga experience

  • Health, including whether this is considered a high risk pregnancy

How Yoga Support Pregnancy

Women can be disablingly sick or running races throughout pregnancy – this human experience is truly vast… In a process that changes day to day, the most important gift we can offer pregnant women, especially those new to Yoga, is the practice of returning to a place where they can observe and connect with themselves… Asana is important for those who are able, but by no means the end-all be-all of Yoga at this time of life – they are simply a tool to support the process. In the transition to motherhood (for the first or multiple times), the Earth shifts under your feet. Yoga helps you find your footing. – Tammy, Bosler

When to Refer Out

  1. If the student has never practiced yoga before or has health conditions in addition to pregnancy (or this is considered a high risk pregnancy), refer her to a Prenatal Yoga Class.

  2. If the student is in her first trimester and your class is strenuous, or you are uncomfortable providing knowledgeable adaptations, please refer out or explain the safety considerations below, advising that she practice gentle yoga during the first trimester (when miscarriage is most common).

  3. While teachers of drop-in classes can positively serve other pregnant students, you may still wish to ensure pregnant students are aware of how Prenatal Yoga Classes can support them with such activities as pregnancy-specific visualizations, birth preparation and sharing experiences with other pregnant students.

Prenatal or Open Classes?

If you have never practiced yoga or have practiced very little before your pregnancy, you should practice only prenatal yoga while pregnant. If you already had a strong yoga practice before your pregnancy, you may be able to continue a fairly vigorous practice-with modifications-after your first trimester. – Lynn Felder

A Difference in Prenatal Yoga Classes

Some prenatal classes start with a check-in circle so that the teacher can learn about the students’ bodies and pregnancies and teach the class to the needs of those attending. This circle can also be a place for pregnant people to share resources and learn from one another and their teacher. – Anne Phyfe Palmer

Important Physical Changes

More Instability

  • The hormone relaxing is released upon conception. It relaxes the muscles, ligaments and tendons,

  • This results in a relative instability for the pregnant student and increases the chances of overstretching and hyperextending joints.

  • As a result, there’s a need to take more care with balance and avoiding overstretching.

·Increased Blood Flow

  • In pregnancy, the body increases blood to nourish the growing baby. A pregnant woman may experience as much as 50 percent more blood flowing through her body!

  • One of the many consequences of this blood flow increase is a greater tendency to experience light-headedness or dizziness when transitioning from, say, a lying down position to upright.

  • As a result, there’s a need to both limit the number of transitions and to take more time in transitioning from sitting or lying down to standing.

Preparation & Communication

Be Prepared & Engage with the Student

Jessica Hefty is an RN, Lactation Counselor and Yoga Teacher trained in prenatal and postnatal yoga. She offers the following advice for teachers of drop-in classes:

  1. Be prepared with information on prenatal classes at your studio or elsewhere to share with pregnant students.

  2. Connect with each individual student as they enter your class. Ask if they have any health conditions, including if they could be pregnant.

  3. Ask pregnant students if they have discussed practicing yoga with their healthcare provider. If they have not, encourage them to do so.

  4. Ask what trimester of pregnancy she is in so you can modify poses appropriately (see below).

  5. Have a brief safety discussion (see below) prior to the beginning of class.

  6. Be fully present to your students during class—watch for individual and group feedback. Stay aware of your student’s needs, limits and safety.  Make personal contact with eyes, speech and appropriate touch.

Communicate Positively

Consider Language to Avoid Alienating Students

Over the years, I have had many expecting mothers share their experience of feeling singled out or alienated in all-levels classes because of all the “do nots” and fearful language around prenatal practice.  While I think teachers have an absolute responsibility to keep mamas safe and healthy during class, I think there is an opportunity to utilize empowering language and communicate freedom inside the practice.  It can be as simple as the difference between: “If you’re pregnant, DO NOT practice this twist” and “If deep twisting is not currently in your practice or you’re practicing for two, please express this twist to the open side and enjoy a smile from your fellow yogis” (since they’d be facing the opposite way.) – Laura Hand

Teach Yoga as a Tool to Process Fear & Uncertainty

Give Space for Expressing & Processing Fear & Uncertainty

Fear of pregnancy and childbirth are normal, and Yoga is the best tool available to help with something this powerful. Part of the washing away of the complexity of the woman’s experience in lieu of celebrating the arrival of a baby is to ‘stay positive’ or avoid anxiety. However, this can leave some women without an outlet to process their fears. Find out who your students are and support them – again, a good approach to any Yoga class. Give space to women in class or after (in a less formal setting) to be able to ask and express fears and uncertainties. – Tammy, Bosler


Cautions & Safety Suggestions

For All Pregnant Students

  1. If the student is new to yoga or has other health conditions (including a high risk pregnancy), refer her to a Prenatal Yoga Class.

  2. Never hold the breath.

  3. Do not practice pranayama such as “breath of fire.” Instead, focus only on gentle, Breathing Fundamentals.

  4. Do not overheat.

  5. Do not allow heart rate to elevate significantly. (The breath should flow comfortably.)

  6. Take shorter stances in standing poses and stretch to about 80% of end-range.

  7. Practicing poses from hands-and-knees is a potential alternative for poses that are typically practiced on the belly. (A blanket under knees can reduce discomfort.) An option for supine poses is to create a reclined set-up so student is not lying flat.

  8. Describe resting poses that can be used as needed throughout class (for example, a modified Balasana—wide-legged child pose).

First Trimester (0-12 weeks)

  1. Suggestions from “All Pregnant Students” plus the following.

  2. A gentle practice is recommended as this is the trimester when the pregnancy is becoming established and is also when miscarriage is most likely to occur.

  3. If the student already has a strong practice, she is advised to alter her practice to avoid inversions, jumps, abdominal strengtheners and twists during the first trimester. Gentle inversions and open twists may be added back later.

Second Trimester (13-27 weeks)

  1. Suggestions from “All Pregnant Students” plus the following.

  2. Avoid lying on belly.

  3. Avoid lying flat on back due to potentially compressing vena cava. (Instead, prop up.)

  4. Avoid deep or closed twists.

  5. Avoid deep backbends.

  6. Avoid ab-training and arm balances, and modify any other poses that compress the belly.

  7. Do not jump in or out of poses.

Third Trimester (28-40 weeks)

All suggestions from 2nd trimester, plus, consider the position of baby and avoid inversions.

Third Trimester: Consider Position of Baby

Third trimester is a time to begin to consider the position of the baby… Babies are subject to gravity, so that 10-minute headstand is not recommended. Restorative poses lying back—even if the body is elevated—for too long can encourage baby into a posterior position. Practicing poses on all fours can encourage the baby’s spine away from the birth giver’s spine, and many all-fours poses are utilized in labor. – Sage Caprice Abowitt


Contraindicated Pose List

The information above explains the thinking behind choosing poses that are safe and effective for pregnant students. We believe that is an effective way to think about contraindications rather than trying to memorize a pose-by-pose list. But here are specific poses that are contraindications as well.

Pregnancy, in General


  • Apanasana (Knees to Chest)

  • Ardha Matsyendrasana (Half Lord of the Fishes Pose)

  • Bhujangasana (Cobra Pose)

  • Halasana (Plow Pose)*

  • Kurmasana (Tortoise Pose)

  • Navasana (Boat Pose)

  • Parivrtta Parsvakonasana (Revolved Side Angle)

  • Parivrtta Trikonasana (Revolved Triangle Pose)

  • Parsvottanasana (Pyramid Pose)

  • Salabhasana (Locust Pose)

  • Standing Forward Bends

  • Tittibhasana (Firefly Pose)

  • Twists, Deep or Closed (and any twists during 1st trimester)

  • Urdhva Mukha Svanasana (Upward Facing Dog Pose)

  • Yoganidrasana (Yogic Sleep)


*Some sources say Halasana is okay if there was an established practice prior to pregnancy.

Pregnancy, 2nd & 3rd Trimesters


  • Backbends, Deep

  • Dhanurasana (Bow Pose)

  • Forward Bends, Strenuous

  • Halasana (Plow Pose)

  • Jumping

  • Prone Poses (Avoid lying on belly)

  • Supine Poses without support (Avoid lying flat on back)

  • Urdhva Dhanurasana (Upward Bow Pose)


Pregnancy, Last Month

  • Prasarita Padottanasana (Wide Legged Standing Forward Bend)




Teaching Beginners

Remember the Beginner’s Experience

Over time, we may forget what it was like to be a beginner. Here are some reminders!

  • It may be “exotic.” The sights and smells in the room may be new. The teacher’s tone and instructions may be unlike any they have heard before.

  • Some students will be completely detached from their body and find the requests to move their body in particular ways to be confounding as they attempt to find their body in space.

  • Others may have extensive experience in physical endeavors but find the practice and effects of asana to be unique and perhaps even startling.

  • As we can recall from the first times we did anything—driving a car on a 3-lane highway, for instance—the brain is busy processing and reacting to everything that is new to it. When we have not yet developed any neural pathways (habits) for sights and experiences, it can be tiring, challenging, exciting or wondrous in ways that routines are not.

  • A new student is likely to find asana practice quite challenging. Do you remember how it felt to practice standing poses in your first classes? Holding Virabhadrasana I (Warrior 1 Pose) for five breaths, for example, can be extremely challenging for many students. It takes mental focus to process the instructions, maintain conscious breathing, and keep the attention from wandering. There may be intense sensation from tight hip flexors or a weak core.

  • And remember: beginners tend to overwork everything. One sign of experience in anything is to apply just the effort required, without wasting unnecessary energy. Beginners, on the other hand, will tend to tense their face and jaw, hold their breath, and recruit many muscles that needn’t be working. This is mentally and physically tiring.

Overview of Considerations

Here you’ll find considerations for teaching students who are new to the physical practices of yoga. We have organized our support for teaching beginners into these categories:


  1. Be thoughtful and supportive.

  2. Teach beginners with particular care.

  3. Promote safety.

  4. Sequence mindfully and simply.

  5. Teach clearly.

  6. Be mindful in choosing pose versions.


Be Thoughtful & Supportive

  1. Arrive early in order to be fully prepared and present and have time to talk individually with each student.

  2. Personally, welcome each student.

  3. Introduce yourself and ask the student’s name. Hold respectful eye contact and smile.

  4. Help them set up their mat and props.

  5. Speak softly or pull the student aside in order to have a moment of private conversation. Ask questions regarding experience in yoga and other physical activities: Are you under the care of a healthcare provider? Have you had any surgeries? Are you pregnant? Do you have any current injuries or conditions?

  6. Say something reassuring that the student can focus on, such as process vs. attaining a posture, or prioritizing breath awareness.

Teach Beginners with Particular Care

  1. Make it easier for students to see you demonstrate poses by moving around the room.

  2. There is a risk that students who are singled out for support may feel that they are “not good at yoga” or they may simply be uncomfortable with such attention. Thus, when you are considering attending one-on-one to promote safety or comfort, you may wish to carefully consider how often you single out a particular student.

  3. One option, if the number of students is small enough, is to assist each student individually so no particular student feels like she is getting more “correction.”

  4. Be sure to teach some safe pose versions that students can do “right enough” without your individualized teaching.

Promote Safety

  1. Teach students HOW to take responsibility for themselves, beginning with cultivating inner awareness. Rather than telling students what to expect in poses, invite them to take note of effects in their breath and mind and what they feel in their body. This can begin to transfer any expectations for responsibility and awareness from an external guide to the student herself.

  2. Teach students how to distinguish between sensation and pain.

  3. Teach students to use their breath as an indication of their inner state.

  4. Stay mindful of the fundamentals of wise practice.

Sequence Mindfully & Simply

  1. With beginners, “less is more.” Teach fewer poses, take more time, and practice more repetition.

  2. Utilize sequencing fundamentals including proper warm up, mindful preparation for every forthcoming pose, and inclusion of neutralizing and countering poses.

  3. Beginner sequences are not necessarily gentle. Many “beginner poses” are still quite challenging.

  4. When teaching a beginner series, it’s advised to keep your sequence and/or poses consistent. That is, use a sequence template which is repeated week-to-week. This way, students get the benefits of repetition and building on their developing skills.

  5. Use the principle of “scaffolding:” as students show proficiency, build on with new poses.

  6. Since building a proper foundation is critical to safety and proper alignment, it’s important to give new students enough instruction and time to find a proper foundation for each pose.

  7. While a few opportunities to deepen into a posture may be effective, in general it is advisable to avoid long holds within an asana (which tends to be more appropriate for experienced students). Instead, consider including dynamic movement and repetition for newer students.

  8. It’s advisable when teaching beginners to teach relatively few one-sided poses in a row. That is, teach only one to two poses before switching sides.

Teach Clearly

  1. Avoid overwhelming students with too much information; stay focused.

  2. Speak and demonstrate clearly.

  3. Teach Breathing Fundamentals, including the relationship between breath and movement and breathing in held postures.

  4. Teach drishti, gently focusing the eyes on a single point.

  5. Focus on alignment and safety.

  6. Speak respectfully.

  7. Teach students how to ground and then to find length, extension, space.

Choose Appropriate Pose Versions

  1. Student safety is of utmost importance, of course, and therefore being comfortable teaching, many variations and alternatives is a vital skill for teaching beginners.

  2. Choose accessible versions to model and teach.

  3. Know the intention and primary actions of all poses you are teaching.

  4. Share one simple intention of the pose and offer safe ways for students to meet the intention of the pose and to develop their ability to perform the key actions.



Mixed Level Classes


The vast majority of classes draw students of various experience levels. This is arguably one of the most challenging areas of skill development for teachers. To effectively meet the needs of both new and experienced students is a deeply satisfying accomplishment. But it takes skill and attention.

Areas to consider focusing on include:

  • Effectively demonstrating variations.

  • Using language that is respectful and inclusive as well as empowering.

  • Prioritizing how you attend to individual needs.

Demonstrating Effectively

Demonstration Technique

We are big proponents of the approach Baxter Bell M.D. describes below. It allows for complete demonstration of all variations you wish to teach. And it offers more experienced students the opportunity to experience the value in variations they may rarely experience.

Meditation Seats, Too

This same approach is an effective way to inspire students to choose a meditation seat that is optimal for their body. You might demonstrate a highly propped version of Virasana (Hero’s Pose) to the whole class, for instance, or a cross-legged seat propped on two folded blankets. In the propped cross-legged seat, you can show the relationship between knees and hips and why this is important. You can then offer students the option of progressively removing propping only as optimal alignment is maintained.

Grouping Students by Skill Level

When it’s possible and appropriate, you may wish to have students set up in such a way that beginners or those with particular conditions are in one area of class. This will enable you to more efficiently demonstrate and assist them.


Another option, as noted in the article above, is to utilize an assistant or a student assistant to demonstrate one version to a subset of class while you demonstrate another.

Speaking Respectfully to Different Levels


  • Do your words imply a hierarchy of value based on experience or of physical capability?

  • Do your teaching descriptions of variations and steps toward challenging poses imply some are better than others or are associated with being a better or worse student?

  • How do you support beginners with poor body awareness and little exposure to common yoga cues?

Example for Consideration

Instead of:

  • “If you can’t do the full pose, you can use a block.”

  • Such a statement implies the version without the block is better when in fact a full, traditional pose done incorrectly or with strain is not better than a variation done safely and with breath awareness.

  • Nor does that expression describe the value of using a block or how to use it effectively.


  • Experiment with words that avoid hierarchy and that teach the why and how of the variations.

  • Teaching Why & How: “Press your hand into the block so that you can create length in the side body.”

  • Avoiding Hierarchy of Options: “Press your hand into the block. Stay here and breathe fully. Feel length in both side bodies. If your arm reaches the floor without losing that feeling of length, then remove the block and press your hand into the floor.”

  • Another approach: “Option A, press your hand into the block. Option B, press your hand into the floor.”

“Beginner” and “Advanced”

  • Consider the meaning of the word “beginner” to you, and how you use it with students.

  • Some students who have been practicing for many years may never be able to perform the full versions of particular poses due to physical limitations. So if a variation is termed as being for beginners or for those who “can’t” do the full pose, it seems this student is improperly being called a beginner.

  • A yoga practice whose goal is to increase functional health and reduce mental fluctuations can be done in many ways and a particular asana version is unimportant to a yoga practice, unless the practitioner were to see it as one. In light of this, how might teachers use words around experience level and advanced expressions of physical practices?

Prioritizing Individual Needs

Due to the nature of a mixed-levels class, you may be presented with a plethora of considerations for which students to give individual attention or adjustments. You may wish to take note of what is instinctive for you:

  • Is it fun and easy for you to help students practice advanced variations?

  • Do you have a tendency to over-correct beginners?

  • Do you have a fear of – or aversion to – working with a particular type of student or condition?

With this awareness, you can reach out for guidance or study in areas of weakness or otherwise evolve your approach to ensure it optimally supports

bottom of page