Does All-Levels Yoga Really Exist?

all levels yoga class
Photo by meisler4

All levels yoga classes exist on yoga studio’s schedules across the country, but the real question is this: Can all-levels yoga classes really deliver what is promised in their title? A class that is appropriate/safe/challenging/interesting/fun for … that’s right … everyone?

Before answering that, it might be worthwhile to acknowledge that the modern-day yoga class is a far cry from how yoga was taught traditionally in India. Today, students troupe in with their mats, water bottles and stretchy pants to set up alongside fellow students in class sizes that can range from less than 10 to upwards of 50 students. Traditionally, however, yoga was taught one-on-one, so that the student would only progress according to their ability and what the teacher deemed the student was ready for. With that one-on-one attention, you wouldn’t find a student attempting a handstand who had not yet mastered simple breathing techniques, or the supposedly basic but often-confounding downward dog. In Mysore-style teaching, for example, which is taught at some Ashtanga studios in the U.S. (though it typically doesn’t enjoy the same popularity as the crowded vinyasa class) students are instructed one-on-one within the group setting, and asanas are given to each student in sequential order. Some might say that this style of teaching hews more closely to the “all levels” label.

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But let’s get back to the original question. Are the all-levels classes you find on the schedules of most yoga studios really for everyone? I think the answer depends on a few different things. To begin with, an all-levels class is not a great place for a true beginner. The best place for a brand new beginner is a beginners yoga class. That’s because in a medium to large size all levels class, a teacher is not likely going to have the time to break down some of the most common postures in the same way that they are going to be explained in a beginner’s yoga class. Simple as that.

But even though a beginners class is the best place for a beginner, that isn’t always where you will find the yoga newbies. I don’t know what the numbers are, but I’m willing to bet that there are lots of people who skip the beginners yoga class (I did!) and go straight to the all-levels. So can the beginner who skipped the beginners-only class, the 75-year-old retiree with a bad lower back, the 23-year-old female gymnast and the 30-year-old desk jockey really all come together to practice yoga in perfect harmony?

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I think, potentially, yes. But there are some caveats. The key is that teachers—as well as students—need to take responsibility here. A good all-levels teacher will give lots of modifications and options for each pose, for example, in an all-levels flow or vinyasa class, a teacher may suggest that some students put their knees down when transitioning from Plank Pose into Chaturanga (Four Limbs Pose)—or they may even suggest that some students skip vinyasas altogether. It’s the teacher’s responsibility to offer those options and pose variations. Without multiple levels of instruction, it’s not going to be an “all levels” class.

It’s the student’s responsibility however, to choose the modification that is right for them—and this can be really challenging for people. Imagine the beginner practicing next to a gymnast doing a cool-looking arm balance, and thinks, “Hey, maybe I should give that a try!” This is often how injuries happen—and can also result in beginners getting discouraged and turned off from yoga altogether. Neither outcome is good.

But when teachers instruct with care, and when students practice honestly with respect for their current limitations (while remembering those limitations are always changing!), and take the level of instruction that is appropriate for them, then, maybe, just maybe, an all-levels class can be safe and successful.

Still, those are a lot of factors to consider. What do you think? Do all-levels classes really work?

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