Yoga for the Rest of Us: Modifications for Balancing Poses from Peggy Cappy

by Portland Helmich

You wouldn’t think that Peggy Cappy, longtime yoga teacher, creator of the PBS series, Yoga for the Rest of Us, and my latest Kripalu Perspectives podcast guest, would have much in common with former president Teddy Roosevelt, but when it comes to the practice of yoga, his motto is one she’s been touting to students in one form or another for more than 45 years.

“Do what you can, with what you have, where you are,” she says, quoting Roosevelt. “Instead of focusing on what they can’t do, I urge students to focus on what they can do.” Several students in Peggy’s longtime Gentle Stretch Yoga class are senior citizens whose mobility and flexibility isn’t what it used to be, but Peggy doesn’t believe that means they can’t benefit from yoga.

“It’s imperative to make yoga accessible to everyone,” she says, “regardless of age or physical condition, because yoga’s benefits reach every level: physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual.”

Recognizing that physical restrictions can prevent people from fully executing poses, Peggy modifies them—often with the use of a chair—to avoid strain, further injury, or misalignments that defeat the benefits of poses and possibly cause harm.

“As we age, nearly everybody acquires one limitation or another,” she notes. “Isn’t it better to have compassion for those limitations and accommodate them rather than impose positions that cause pain or strain?”

Here are Peggy’s favorite modifications for three common balancing postures.

Tree Pose (Vriksana)

This is great for people who don’t have much flexibility in the hips and can’t do the full pose. “This is a safe pose for those whose balance is compromised and might fall over when practicing,” Peggy says.

Benefits: Strengthens ankles, increases flexibility in the hips, promotes concentration and balance.

  1. Stand in Mountain Pose (Tadasana) behind a chair so you can use the back of the chair for support if you lose your balance.
  2. Shift the weight to the left leg and rotate the right knee to the side.
  3. Place the ball of the right foot on the floor and the heel of the right foot above the left inner ankle.
  4. Test your balance to see if you can add an arm variation, by bringing the palms to the heart or lifting them overhead so they’re parallel and touching if possible. If necessary, keep one hand on the back of the chair and take the arm position with the other.
  5. Repeat on the opposite side.

Balancing Warrior, Balancing Stick, or Warrior III (Virabhadrasana III)

This variation is great for anyone who would like a bit more support and safety when moving into this posture.

Benefits: Improves balance and coordination, strengthens the pelvis and the hip of the standing leg.

  1. Stand in Mountain Pose (Tadasana), facing the back of a chair, two steps away.
  2. Shift your weight to the left leg and extend your right leg straight back.
  3. Take your arms overhead, interlacing the fingers and extending the index fingers.
  4. Bend your torso slightly forward to make a straight line with the extended back (right) leg, from the toe to the top of the head.
  5. Keep that straight line as you lift your right leg while bending forward with the torso. You don’t have to lift the back leg and incline the torso forward more than a few inches to work on balance. Make sure the right hip rotates downward.
  6. Hold onto the chair with one hand for balance if need be. As balance and flexibility improve, come closer and closer to the full posture, where torso and extended leg are parallel to the floor. “It’s easier to risk balance,” Peggy says, “when a safety is in place.”
  7. Repeat on the opposite side.

Dancer (Natarajasana)

This is particularly helpful for people who lack flexibility, or those with knee replacements, as they see only about a 90-degree range of movement for the affected knee joint. Peggy says the modification makes the pose possible and stretches the thigh without creating a sharp angle with the knee.

Benefits: Stretches the front of the thighs; improves balance, strength, and flexibility.

  1. While standing beside a chair for balance, shift your weight to the left leg.
  2. Bend the right knee and place a strap around the right foot. Lift the right leg from behind as the torso inclines forward. Hold onto the chair if you need it for balance.
  3. When steady, test your balance by lifting your fingers from the supporting chair, knowing you can replace your hand on the chair for balance anytime.

Another variation for those with knee replacements:

  1. Try standing at least one foot in front of the chair, with a wall or another chair to your right, to hold onto for balance.
  2. Place the top of the right foot behind you, resting it on the seat of the chair.
  3. Extend your left arm overhead for a modified Dancer Pose.

“As your flexibility increases,” Peggy notes, “you can begin farther in front of the chair, up to three feet. That gives more of a stretch to the front thigh muscles.”

Simple modifications can go a long way in helping people make transformative changes, and that’s Peggy’s mission. “I love empowering others to free themselves from limitations and restrictions,” she says, “so they can lead the kind of life they dream of.”

Find out about upcoming programs with Peggy Cappy at Kripalu.

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