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for teachers: how to create a more accessible vinyasa class

Updated: Apr 1

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.