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Progressive Yoga: Practice Tailored to the Individual.

by Yvonne Campkin(more info)

listed in yoga, originally published in issue 157 - April 2009

Have you ever come across a book which is truly a beginner's manual? I have looked on the shelves of many bookstores and have found none. There are books which are described as useful for beginners. On closer inspection, I have discovered that they offer detailed advice on how to perform complete asanas. This type of book is not only difficult for beginners, but also other people who look to them for guidance, such as older people, disabled people and those who lack strength, flexibility and confidence.

Progressive Yoga, book cover

After many years of teaching yoga in the community and working as a college lecturer in the department for Special Needs, I have produced a book of directions for a number of asanas. In order to present these asanas in an easier form, I have worked out a series of stages for them. Stage one is the simplest possible exercise which will lead to achieving the final asana. Stage two describes a slight progression of difficulty and so on, until the complete asana is reached. Some asanas have as few as three stages; some have many more. Depending on how complicated the asana is. These stages are intended to prepare the body by gradually improving strength and flexibility so that the complete asana can be performed with greater ease.

Case Study 1

To illustrate the use of this technique, I will tell you about Fiona, whom I taught when she was a student attending College. She experienced some difficulty with walking due to a slight neurological problem. As a result, she found balancing on one foot tricky. Vrkasana or the Tree Pose requires such a skill. In order to simplify the practice, but also to enable her to take part, she began with stage one, lying on her back. One leg bent, that foot resting against the opposite ankle, and that knee dropping down to the floor. She relaxed the rest of her body and the bent knee was supported by a cushion. This gave Fiona the opportunity to stretch inner thighs, which is required for this posture. However, she could do it without the anxiety of finding her balance. In that position, she released her leg and repeated the practice with the other leg.

Stage two could then be attempted after some practice on stage one. This stage requires support either from a wall or a firm chair. With one hand placed on the support, she bent one leg resting toes on floor, heel against the ankle of the standing leg, again stretching that knee open sideways. If she felt steady, she could release her hand and try free standing with no help from the support. Having the wall or chair within reach gives the student a lot of confidence. When she had replaced her foot on the floor, Fiona would turn round and do the same with the opposite leg. Stage 3 is the complete posture with the raised foot much higher to the knee of the standing leg. This approach gives the Student an opportunity to try this asana. Even if she continues to need a support, she is taking the pose to the best level of her ability. Whereas, if she were to try the complete asana with no preparation and no support, she would be likely to fail completely. You may feel there is little or no balance achieved, and that the student has therefore not completed the asana, but she has begun to experience how it feels.

I have found from many years of teaching yoga that lots of people have difficulty with balance. Beginning with a support works. It takes the anxiety out of the practice and leads to a calmer, more relaxed attitude which is very conducive to success.

Case Study 2

Marjory was a middle-aged woman in her forties when she first started yoga. She had no experience of any exercise in her life. Over the years, her lower back and the long hamstring muscles at the back of her legs had tightened and shortened. In a seated position she had great difficulty bending forward and keeping her legs straight. This is the stretch required for Paschimottanasana or the Seated Forward Bend. Reaching forward to touch your toes is not the aim of this posture. To perform it correctly, the chest should be resting on the legs. In order that Marjory could get the feel for this asana, since her stiffness did not allow her to reach anywhere near this position, in Stage 1 she began sitting on the floor with knees bent and feet flat on the floor. After raising her arms up above her head on an in-breath, she lowered her whole body forward to rest her chest down on her legs, arms relaxed forward.

After a moment or two of holding in this position, breathing normally, she returned to sitting. This exercise can be repeated to give the student a gentle and safe stretch in the lower back and hamstring muscles.

Stage 2 will release this area of the body a little further. The starting position is as for stage 1, seated with legs bent and feet on the floor. In this position, Marjory was asked to walk or slide her hips back on the floor, with her body lowered over her knees, chest in contact with her thighs. The backward movement allows the muscles to stretch more easily. She was advised to stop when her chest began to lift from her legs, as this indicated the extent of a safe stretch for her. After holding for a couple of normal breaths, she then tried a tiny further move back with her hips. When the body is given a message, gently without jerky movement, the muscles will release much more effectively and safely. Safety is paramount in yoga, especially when dealing with vulnerable people.

After this effort Marjory came carefully up to the seated starting position.

Stage 3 is designed to release the lower back and legs further. The starting position is as before, this time with legs as straight as possible. With her arms folded across her chest, Marjory was asked to lean back slightly in order to hollow the lumber region of her spine. She breathed in while doing this. Then she was asked to lean forward curling her spine over while breathing out. This can be repeated several times, evenly and smoothly keeping in time with slow breathing.

The above two stages can be practised one after the other. Very often stage 3 will increase the success of stage 2.

Stage 4, which is the full asana, can only be achieved correctly if the student can sit with her legs full extended and her back is upright to the floor, with a slight hollow in the lower back or lumber area. The student stretches her arms above her head then lowers her body and arms slowly, while breathing out. She is aiming to lay her body onto her legs. Leading with the chin often gives one the correct feeling for the posture. Hold in this position for four quiet breaths, then come up to sitting upright while breathing in.

Stages1,2 and 3 encourage a safer approach to this most difficult of postures, which requires a great deal of flexibility round hips and lower back.

The older one is when starting yoga the longer it will take to release tight muscles. I have had some very young and very stiff students who have loosened off remarkably quickly, whereas older people have great difficulty despite huge effort and dedication. Improvements will always occur but supposed perfection takes a little longer.

The point of yoga is to work with one's own body, being aware that you are an individual with different needs from the next person. Everyone has their own strengths and weaknesses in body and mind. To be aware of problems in your own being is the beginning of dealing with them, and to be aware of your strengths increases feelings of confidence and self worth.

I have included, in this article, some of the graphics which you will find in my book. The stages for each asana are described pictorially and verbally with guidance in breathing and directional arrows to clarify movement.

The item described is Navasana or The Boat. This posture requires good balance on the hips, and a strong back and abdominal muscles. Because of the skill required, six stages have been suggested to strengthen the muscles. If these are followed, the practice is less likely to cause students injury and they to are more likely to have success.

Navasna stages
Navasana more stages
Navasana final stages

Modifications of asanas are already being used by some teachers. Many of the stages I have suggested are such modifications and are not new. What I hope to illustrate is that there are progressive stages of exercises which can be practised, gradually increasing the difficulty as strength and flexibility improve. Some people may never achieve the full posture. However, they are reaching something close in essence to the chosen asanas. This gives them a sense of achievement and a chance to gain some of the benefits of that asana.

The book has been used as a self teaching manual. However, I have used these methods in a successfully in a group situation. The whole group were taught every stage, and they were encouraged to stop at the stage which was appropriate for them. So everyone could be working at their own level.

Some of the initial stages can be used as a warm-up for those who are more able.

Or it can be referred to as an aid memoir for personal practice. In the book I have described how to construct a programme. I suggest that a small number of postures be worked on for several weeks, using a range of spinal actions (i.e. forwards, backwards, sideways and twisting) and starting positions. This ensures that the student becomes familiar with a group of postures before new ones are introduced.


  1. Meraz Ahmed said..

    Hi, I liked your article and wondered if I could get a copy of your book?

  2. Natalie Faria-Vare said..

    I would love to buy this book too but cannot find a link that works :(

  3. Natalie Faria-Vare said..

    I contacted Yvonne using the Hotmail account listed and I am getting my book, yay! If anyone else would like one too, write to Yvonne at

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About Yvonne Campkin

Yvonne Campkin DIP Phys Ed SYTA Dip Shiatsu Therapy Bach Foundation is a fully trained teacher of Physical Education and has had experience of teaching all ages in various day schools. She has taught for seventeen years in James Watt College of Further and Higher Education in Greenock as a lecturer in the department for Special Needs, during which time she developed several modules. Yvonne has taught yoga in the community and to students of Special Needs for twenty years. She became a lecturer teaching Shiatsu in the Holistic Department of the College for five years and practised Shiatsu for eight years in the local area. Please contact Yvonne to obtain her book called Progressive Yoga on Tel: 01369 703814;

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