One question we hear often is, ‘If I take modifications, does it mean I’m no good at yoga?’
The very simple answer is ‘NO!’
Yoga has been practised in many forms, countries and environments for hundreds of years. It has been used in religious and spiritual practice, as well as, more recently, in gyms and PE classes. We all come to practise for different reasons – strength and flexibility, mental health and meditation, general fitness or to help physical ailments. Yoga is an adaptable, shapeshifting practice.
But, when we are encouraged to explore the variety of modifications available, we often resist.
Why is this? One of the main reasons is that the term ‘modification’ is often interpreted as a way of saying ‘if you can’t do it.’ But this way of looking at different versions of postures can be detrimental to happy, safe and beneficial yoga practice – and might even hinder progress.
If we are injured, inflexible, or overweight we are more likely to seek a modification – but what’s perhaps concerning is how often we reach for an advanced modification before we are ready.
For instance, being fit and strong doesn’t necessarily mean being flexible, but if we are strong, we feel we must push further. Our perceptions of ourselves often prevent us from listening to our bodies.
If we are not tuning in to how we feel physically and mentally, we are missing the mindfulness of yoga.
We are all guilty of both pushing ourselves too hard, and also sometimes being a little lazy.
Some days you might be bounding with energy, wanting to try every pose possible. Others, it’s a mission to get to the mat at all – you’d much rather wrap yourself in a duvet and be at one with the sofa. A change in mood is normal and understandable – each practice is unique. The important thing is that you are on your mat.
So, how does using an incorrect modification affect us?
The answer is different depending on the reason or the pose. Incorrect placement can lead to injury, as well as making the pose less likely to develop.
A good example is the classic high-to-low plank. Pushing your elbows too far out or forward can put unnecessary pressure on your rotator cuff. Tracking your elbows close to your body and moving your weight forward engages your chest, triceps, lats, traps, and biceps, protecting your shoulders.
Another common error is allowing your hips to dip, risking injury to your lower back. By hugging in your abdominals, pulling navel to spine and engaging the glutes (buttocks), your spine can remain supported in a straight line as you lower your body.
If you are unable to support your spine properly, it’s far better to lower your knees and protect your back; that’s what’s important – not being able to the full plank.
Using the three Ts can help us decide which modifications are best for our individual progression:
Listen to your body. You’ll have heard our Blessed teachers say that the pose your body resists is the one it needs most. If a pose is difficult, take a modification, but still do it. Tuning-in means becoming aware of what your body doesn’t want. When muscles quiver, shake, and generate heat, it’s good – we’re gaining strength. But if your bones feel painful (knees, lower back, shoulders), then adjust, because something is probably wrong. It is so important to listen to the Blessed teachers when they tell you how to build a pose properly and safely. Don’t ignore them in favour of a more Instagram-worthy pose.
If your go-to modification has become easy or over-used, experiment! Even if you can only hold the new modification briefly, you are still moving a little further forward with your practice. And one day you’ll hold for an extra breath, or two, three or four, and suddenly this is your new normal.
On the other hand, if you always reach for an advanced position, try a prior modification. In a crescent lunge twist go from a full bind to a half bind and see if this allows you open your upper shoulder further. In half pigeon, see whether bringing your foot closer to your body, or not leaning so far forward allows your hips to square and not collapse. The tiniest corrections can help prevent injury.
If you’re unsure which modifications are best for you, ask one of the Blessed Yoga teachers – we have men, women, the super flexible and less so, young and… a little less young, injured, uninjured, mental health specialists, and more. Whoever you are and whatever your goals, someone at Blessed will be able to guide you to the healthiest, safest and most fun modification.
Modifications do not have to mean ‘if you can’t do this’. All too often we push our mind and body too far, when we should be listening. This doesn’t mean we should just hang out in the most comfortable poses – it means we should be kind to ourselves and give our body what it asks for and what it needs. Remember, the perfect pose is just a sliver of yoga. Grounding, setting an intention, focusing on yourself all provide ample benefits, even if you can’t quite touch your toes… yet.