One of the most challenging things about being a yoga teacher is teaching the dreaded “mixed-level class.” It might look like this– In the front row, you’ve got Holly Handstand. Holly has brought her boyfriend, Harry Hamstrings with her to class (he is a hardcore Olympic deadlifter, can’t touch his toes). Behind them is your neighbor, Nancy Newbie, who has never done yoga but thinks it might help her sciatica. Your class description says “All levels welcome!”– but how are you going to make this work?
In an ideal world, class descriptions might have levels, or labels, that make it clear whether or not this class is appropriate for each of these students. In a small community, however, or in a small space with limited time slot offerings, teachers often have to do the best they can to accommodate whoever shows up. This can be really, really hard, especially in a vinyasa format!
Is there such a thing as an all-levels vinyasa class, or a truly accessible/inclusive vinyasa class? I don’t think there can be. Students with limited mobility or who are chair-bound will not be able to do many of the transitions. I do think it is possible to do a more accessible vinyasa yoga class while still keeping stronger students engaged and interested. Here are a few of the ways in which we can try to do just that:
Slow it Down. I’ve been to many vinyasa classes that are sweaty because they are fast. I think this can be fine (and fun) if the student understands the poses and is able to move their body well, but it is not my preference for the majority of students. I save the cardio for the gym, and give students time to get into their yoga poses at a reasonable pace. If you want to challenge your students even more, slow down the transitions, too– it takes a lot of skill and engagement to move mindfully and slowly from one pose to the next. There will be ample sweat.
Repetition and progression. I used to feel pressured to create a new sequence each week. I thought my students would be bored if I didn’t offer them a continually-shifting array of options. I am grateful to Jason Crandell for teaching me that students can benefit from repetition in their practice. By repeating similar sequences for several weeks in a row, I can watch my consistent students progress as they learn new skills in their bodies. Each class is still different– I mix it up depending on the students or my mood– but I’m working from a template that will remain the same for several weeks at a time. This also gives students a certain amount of confidence in a consistent experience, which creates trust in their teacher and in their own body. Win/win all around!
Vinyasa Alternatives. I once woke myself up repeating “Chaturanga, Up Dog, Down Dog” in my sleep. I was saying it more than 100 times a week, I’m sure! The “vinyasa” we use so often to transition throughout our classes is just one of many potential ways to move the human body. I now teach and encourage a variety of options for transitions, including cat and cow, forearm plank, side plank variations, locust, cobra, and more. Teach your students the benefits of each and how to discern for themselves what they might need, and then let them choose how (or if) they want to move. Please note that these alternatives aren’t necessarily easier– in fact, some of them are much, much more challenging– but they may be more accessible.
80% of the class should be doable by 80% of the students. Have you ever been to a class where only a handful of students can complete the “peak pose,” or there was no instruction to get you there? Yeah, me too, and it wasn’t a really good time. With repetition (see above) you may be able to get more students to understand and practice complex poses, but (REAL TALK) many yoga poses require an amount of flexibility that the average person doesn’t have. Offer challenging poses that are accessible, or teach (in parallel) a pose that is less accessible along with a pose that is more accessible. For example, if I teach Bird of Paradise, I might also teach Half Moon (Ardha Chandrasana) with the bottom hand floating off of the floor. Everyone has something to work on, and nobody is left out.
Create a Culture of Inclusivity and Empowerment.. As teachers, we need to be sure we’re walking the talk when it comes to our teaching. If you want students to know that props are okay, use the props yourself. Teach poses progressively, with the most accessible option first.
Language is huge, too. Rather than saying, “If you can’t touch the floor, go get a block,” have blocks by their mats and say, “Bring your hand to a block or the floor.” Remind students that we have different bodies with different needs and that these are constantly changing. Praise your students for finding variations to suit their bodies– and please call them variations rather than modifications!
Rather than enforcing external alignment on them, we can empower our students to learn their own best alignment, cultivating their skills of proprioception and interoception. And, for real inclusivity: please, please ask before you touch a student, even if you have touched them before. Remember that anything less than an enthusiastic “yes!” is a “no” and find other ways to “assist or adjust” them.
Over time, your class culture will take care of itself. You’ll find students lifting each other up, encouraging and supporting each other. Students will come to you because this is a place where they know they aren’t pressured, but that they can get stronger and more mobile in their bodies as they are now.
One final note– I am not saying this is the only way to teach, or that this is the way every vinyasa class should be. Of course not! Different kinds of classes are awesome. My suggestion is that if you are calling your class accessible, you’ll want to make sure it really is– or maybe it’s time to re-write the class description so that you are attracting the students you want for the class you’re teaching.