What is Gentle Yoga?

An effective gentle yoga class provides a safe, effective, compassionate, non-competitive environment that is welcoming to all.

The practice of yoga in America has evolved dramatically over the last thirty years. There has simultaneously been an increase in yoga classes specifically called “gentle yoga”. Although this distinction is still somewhat broadly defined, there are even a few entry-level yoga teacher trainings that designate their trainings as focused on a gentle style.

Gentle yoga can refer to a variety of types of yoga classes taught by teachers from various styles of yoga. Gentle yoga is often intended to be easier, less intense, non-strenuous, minimalistic, quiet, meditative, and somewhat restorative.  In reality, these intentions are vague, relative, imprecise and more subjective even than the teacher may realize.

Who Can Attend Gentle Yoga Classes?

Gentle Yoga Classes Should Be Accessible

If you are shopping around for a satisfying yoga class you will probably be curious if it will be accessible for your body, your degree of flexibility, for any conditions or limitations you may have as well as your overall physical condition. In short, you may wonder if you can do it, if it will feel good afterwards, or if you’ll feel foolish, ashamed, frustrated or worse, injured in some way.

The term “gentle yoga” is in fact a broad, generic term used to indicate that a class is easier than most others particularly of that style. There are gentle yoga and beginner classes in most styles or traditions of yoga. A gentle class in the tradition of Kripalu, Iyengar, Ashtanga, Yin, Shivananda, Integral, Vinyasa Flow, Bikram/Hot Yoga or any other could be vastly different in degree of challenge. In fact a gentle class led by different teachers in the same tradition may also vary significantly in the degree of difficulty.

The situation in the American yoga scene is that a gentle class in some styles and to some teachers’ perspectives may still be inaccessible to many people who are interested in finding a class that will work for them. I’ve heard reported many times that a yoga class titled Gentle Yoga was too fast, too much on the knees, too much standing, the postures were too difficult, held too long and guided with less than adequate alignment detail, modification options, precautions or contraindications. (The same challenges affect adequate descriptions of beginner and intermediate classes).

Gentle Yoga Classes Should Be Inclusive

I had a unique opportunity to study what Gentle Yoga means in my role as an instructor at Kripalu Center, where for over 30 years (1983 – 2020) I taught classes of all three levels, Gentle/Beginner, Moderate/Intermediate (and in my earlier years, Vigorous).

Teaching the Gentle Yoga classes gave me the opportunity to see what worked and what didn’t work for a huge amount of students (3 – 5 classes weekly x 30 years plus = 5000 – 8000 classes approximately). These classes (at the largest yoga retreat center in North America) were attended by different students every day, students that were on vacation, some attending specific educational programs or professional trainings, some were on their own self-guided rest and relaxation retreats. The Gentle Yoga classes ranged in size from 30 – 80 guests. Often it was their first yoga class ever, yet people who had been practicing for decades also chose Gentle instead of moderate/intermediate or vigorous/vinyasa, because that’s what they wanted.

As I determined to hone my classes to be a satisfying experience for our guests, my inquiry was, “How can I create a sequence and guide in a way that works for everyone who enters the room.”
I was informed by the feedback I observed during practice, what they could do, what they couldn’t, when their faces would grimace with pain or discouragement, when they were able to follow easily with their eyes closed, attention turned inward to their experience. I also had many discussions with students after class and would inquire at times about what worked and what didn’t work for them and why.

Being a Yoga Teacher Trainer also helped me deepen my understanding of what students needed. Over the years, I have been in a yoga teacher “incubator”, a steady diet, of observing what works and what doesn’t work. Over time, I learned to guide consistently excellent gentle yoga classes. The next challenge was to empower other yoga teachers to do the same. I had to discern the methods, the phrasing and skills that I was using.

What I’ve discovered is what you experience for yourself in my classes. What I’ve learned I pass on to other teachers in my advanced teacher training program.

In broad strokes, gentle yoga is satisfying, effective and transformational when the following elements are skillfully present:

Slow Pace

  • A relative term to be sure. How slow? As slow as a smooth and easy breath. Many yoga students need to move slower than others and for a variety of reasons.
  • The slow pace can help make the physical movement safer and easier to understand for some. It can also be useful to calm the nervous system and strengthen focus.

Breath Instruction Throughout

  • A deeper quality of breathing (deeper than a resting breath) needs to be instructed and encouraged throughout the practice.
  • To receive the benefits of yoga most of us need to be able to breathe deeper as well as smooth and easy.

Clear Details of Instruction

This means thorough as well as accurate. Repetition and redundancy are welcome by many students for many reasons.

Safety

  • Educate how to practice safely in concrete terms.
  • Many students need education in how to develop body awareness.
  • There are “jargon” terms that yoga teachers use frequently which aren’t readily understandable to all, e.g. “listen to your body,” “adapt the practice for your body,” “make this your practice.” More concrete terms are needed.
  • Educate students about how to avoid going too far.

Empowerment

  • Language and interactions need to be empowering
  • Students can have fragile self-esteem stemming from a variety of issues.
  • Students flourish with support through encouragement and confirmation.
  • Students can become discouraged as they increase awareness.
  • Students can have unrealistic expectations of yoga practice.
  • Yoga teachers are in a role that can be alarmingly more powerful and influential than some teachers may imagine.
  • As someone once said, “The role of a teacher is to plant seeds of hope.”

Challenge

  • One of the pitfalls of an unskillfully lead gentle yoga class is that it can be too easy, and therefore, is not engaging enough to draw the attention inward.
  • The type of challenge does not need to be in the realm of flexibility, strength or balance.
  • One of the main appropriate challenges can be “paying attention.”
    • to the breath cues, the types and qualities of breath.
    • to the alignment cues, specific placement of the skeletal structure, and exploring options.
    • to the internal experience, noticing changes, noticing differences, noticing subtleties.