There are probably as many answers to this as there are teachers – this is mine!
I ask myself this all the time, not just in my community classes but in public classes that tend to draw people with very mixed abilities and ages. Obviously it’s my goal to create a class that has something for everyone. In some settings I teach in – gyms and studios – there is at least a general format and “level” to follow.
Obviously if I know in advance that someone has a particular health issue, I may be able to discuss modifications in advance … not everyone will be forthcoming, and even if they are, they may not want the attention of specific modifications called out just to them. As a new student to yoga who struggled with body image issues, I wouldn’t have wanted attention for this. Modifications given in advance that may seem easy to remember to a yoga teacher (open your arms for twists) may be a lot harder to recall / recognize to someone new to yoga (recognizing that they are in a twist, then remembering to open the arms, and open them forward and back rather than up and down).
Most importantly, I like to be explicit that students should listen to their bodies and feel free to skip poses.
I give lots of options, and each class I mention it’s alright to skip poses if they don’t feel right. I try to use language that avoids assigning value to poses (advanced/beginner, easy/difficult, level 1/level 3). I mention that people in the group may be doing different expressions of poses at the same time, and that is ok.
Giving people responsibility for their own well-being is important too… the reality is that a yoga teacher does not know how your body is feeling in any given pose, only you do. There are a number of modifications for any pose, and in a private session with props available, even more options – but in a group setting, each individual needs to look out for his or her own body. Any movement is made up of different parts of the body working together – this should be obvious, but I just cannot know how someone’s hips / shoulders / elbows / spine are all working together or not. Modifications that might be helpful to a college student who is new to yoga taking a power yoga class (release your knee to the ground in revolved crescent) would probably be unhelpful at best and painful at worst to an elderly person with arthritis in the knees. (A much gentler twist, moved into more slowly, from a standing position would likely be better).
I try to set people’s expectations in advance – most feasible in classes where I develop the promotional materials myself.
I like to preface any promotional materials for my community classes (which are already very gentle) with something like “Participants should be comfortable starting class seated on the floor, rising up to standing, and lowering down to the ground to end class again. Chairs are also available.” Everyone is welcome, and anyone can use a chair and/or skip poses, but I don’t think I have the ability to teach a full and effective class to people whose current abilities prevent them from sitting on the ground and rising up to standing. Anyone can join, but there may be poses they chose not to do, they just might not be active for the full class time. Previous experience makes me inclined to say “we’ll start in a comfortable seat on the ground – if you’d rather not sit on the ground please feel free to sit on a chair” rather than “are you comfortable sitting on the ground?”
I try to be creative and forgive myself when I feel like I haven’t done as well as I would have liked.
For some classes, there is a fairly set template or even sequence to teach, and students tend to be of a similar experience level. Props are available. It is much more challenging to teach a group with very diverse experience levels and physical abilities, and I’m not perfect. Even when I do my best and try to plan for things not going to plan … something comes up and surprises me. I am getting better at thinking on my feet.
I try to remind myself that I am offering something of value that may not be perfect, but that might not be available at all if I were not teaching it. It’s not always apparent with people you are meeting for the first time, but once you come to know people in a class – people can tell that you care, even if you make mistakes, and they like you! Most people in my classes seem to forgive me if I make a mistake, don’t always have a modification, teach something weird.
And while I obviously use my own experience to inform how I teach, I try to let go of the idea that what I teach needs to be the same class I would want to take. What engages me as a yoga teacher with years of experience practicing now is not what would have engaged me as a newer yoga student.
More coming on specific poses I modify or avoid.
In trauma informed classes, it is sometimes recommended to avoid offering hands-on assists (as well as circulating the room to check alignment and potentially check in with students, and using props such as straps). Individual teachers make different decisions on this, and that decision definitely has an impact on how and which modifications are offered.