What to focus on when modifying asanas – in your own practice and when teaching

I practice and teach based on the Ashtanga Vinyasa System.  I am not entirely sure how other styles of Yoga approach the idea of defining the final or “textbook”-ideal state of each asana (e.g. hold your ankles in kapotasana, binding in marichyasana d) and how they deal with modifying asanas if the practitioner cannot do the “final” version of an asana. But I know that a lot of Ashtanga practitioners do not feel at ease with the idea of modifying, thinking we should always go for the full expression of the asana.

This approach obviously has pros and cons. Reaching for the full expression may encourage us to explore our potential, taking us further into transforming our body, mind and spirit. On the other hand pushing our bodies into a certain shape just to match the “ideal” of an asana might eventually lead to injury.

Many young teacher trainees ask me whether it’s ok to modify certain asanas or what to tell students that cannot do a certain asana.

Let’s start with this question:

What does it mean to modify an asana?

What is a modification, anyway? Isn’t every asana we do a modified version of it? Aren’t we modifying each asana every time we do it?

There is no asana, until YOU do it.  The asana doesn’t exist until you attempt to shape your body into it. And your body, mind and spirit are different than they were yesterday, and different to tomorrow as well.

On some days you feel great and might be able to go deep into an asana. On other days you don’t feel as great and can only reach half way. – Is that then less ideal or less perfect?

Can we even compare our capabilities on different days, let alone compare our version of an asana with somebody else’s version?

Where do we even get our idea of a certain asana in the first place. Oftentimes we reference pictures in a book. But even that book shows somebody doing a certain pose on a certain day, knowing they will be photographed. We don’t know if the model on the picture was pushing herself into the pose or easily went into it. There is no breathing to observe in a book as well.

And even on a DVD that we watch the model is „performing“ asanas to look decent on camera, to demonstrate the asana in a special way, to show how it’s done.

I am not saying we cannot learn anything from a book or DVD, but we shouldn’t translate what we see to how it HAS TO or should be done.

Everybody is modifying asanas to meet their own needs, or expressing their approach to life in that moment

What do I mean with that? Everybody is approaching an asana in a way, or pattern, that they are used to, a default program, often unconsciously running.

Person A is modifying an asana to a degree that there is no sensation, no stretch, no opening, no enhanced energy flow. They might be afraid, unsure or just lazy, but by running that program they are missing anything that the asana might teach them. And if they are quite flexible, they might even look like they are doing the full asana, yet they are avoiding any challenge.

Person B might push themselves beyond pain and limits to get to what they believe to be the “right” or “final” expression of that asana, possibly injuring themselves (at least in the long run).

Person C might be working on all the challenges an asana can offer – opening, lengthening, creating space, breathing deep, finding the balance of strength and flexibility.  If this person is doing all of these things, does it really matter how the asana looks? Wouldn’t that be the perfect way of doing it, even though Person C might not be shaped like the final version of the asana.

So, how to approach modification then?

I would like to think of modification as an exploration, exploring the asana in that moment, feeling our body in space, finding balance between effort, relaxation and expansion, breathing deeply, creating space throughout the whole body.

Most people run on autopilot. Yoga can help them become aware of their pattern, on and off the Yoga mat. That’s where the benefit of following a teacher that knows your daily practice comes in, as they can catch your unconscious patterns and help you become aware of them.

Person A might be served best by pointing out the challenges in the pose, to safely experience them and develop the trust to dive deeper into the asana.

Person B might be served best by exploring a deeper breath, by first creating all the space and strength needed to practice the asana fully, pointing out the missing parts that have to be developed to avoid injury and allow for growth.

Person C might be best served by leaving them alone in their exploration as they are already working towards the expression of the asana instead of forcing their body into a shape.

The question is not if modifying is right, but which modification benefits our growth in this moment

In your own practice, check how you feel and how deep you are breathing. Always create space in each asana before attempting to bend into the desired shape. Let the breath guide you into the pose and explore how to expand into the pose, modifying yourself deeper into the pose on some days and keeping it simple on other days, always according to your momentary state.

Follow a teacher who knows you and can guide you and give you the support to explore areas you feel afraid to go to by yourself.

As a teacher notice tendencies of your students towards being a person A or B.

Challenge those being lazy, encourage students to explore and meet their fears. Stop students trying too hard and pushing themselves and remind them to breath and be aware. Leave students alone if they seem to be present, breathing deeply and working on exploring their boundaries.

photocredit: sandra db

Tom Richter
Tom Richter

𝒾𝓂𝓅𝓇𝑜𝓋𝑒 𝓎𝑜𝓊𝓇 𝒷𝓇𝑒𝒶𝓉𝒽, 𝒾𝓂𝓅𝓇𝑜𝓋𝑒 𝓎𝑜𝓊𝓇 𝓁𝒾𝒻𝑒 Breathing & Movement Teacher ︴Ashtanga Therapy ︴Pranayama