Over the past few days, I’ve taught yoga to quite a few beginners. This is common as we head into the New Year. Today is New Year’s day and studios around the country will be filled with newbies looking to add yoga to their fitness routine. Some are there because they know people who swear by yoga and they want to see what it’s all about, others may be there because they have aches and pains in their body and they’ve heard yoga is a great way to combat those problems. Others may be there looking for a way to decrease stress. Whatever the motivation (which is a great topic of conversation as you check them in or chat with them as they’re setting up) as the teacher, you’ve got to have a game plan for managing a class with beginners.
So, with that in mind, here are some tips for working with beginners:
NOTE: There’s an applicable free download at the end of this blog post, so don’t miss it
1. Keep it simple. It sounds obvious but I can’t tell you how many times I’ve taken a yoga class and the teacher starts to throw in lots of variations and as I look around me, I see the beginners struggling to understand what to do. Classes filled with beginners is not the time to try out your cool new sequence from the last training you did. It’s the time to stick to essentials and give students a good understanding of the fundamentals of the practice.
2. “But what if my class isn’t all beginners?” you might be asking? This is a common concern and it will indeed be something you’ll face in your classes in January and February especially. As a teacher, you’re always assessing the room and looking at how your students are doing. If the majority of the students are beginners, it makes sense to focus the practice on the majority of students in class. However, keep in mind that yoga is yoga, meaning that any practiced yogi appreciates the fundamentals as well as the more complex and there is just as much value to sticking to the basics as there is to doing more advanced versions of poses. Also, more practiced students will know how to take a variation or two on their own and will be able to work more independently than a beginner.
3. Make sure everyone has two blocks and a strap. Mention it at the beginning and integrate the use of props into your teaching. Make it a general guideline so the beginners don’t feel like props are “just for beginners” ( because they’re not). By “integrating the use of props into your teaching, ” I mean literally cue to use them. So, let’s say you’re teaching Triangle. You could say:
“From Downward Dog, step your right foot forward and come up into Warrior Two. Straighten your front leg. Lower your right arm to a block set behind your front shin. If you can’t reach the block, use two stacked one on top of the other. Press off the block and reach your left arm high.”
In this way, the block is just part of the pose, part of the instruction. There’s no need to say, “If you need a block, use one.” Just default to the idea that everyone needs one.
4. Keep students moving rather than holding them in poses for too long. You’ll have to use your judgment, but as you move through the first few postures, you’ll get a sense of the students’ overall level of conditioning, coordination and level of practice. If they’re raw beginners, you’ll notice poses like Down Dog can be pretty stressful as they’re stiff and unfamiliar with the pose. Your cues here will be key to help them out of this situation (more on that below) but if you keep them moving, you’ll prevent tension, stress and will give them that valuable cardiovascular aspect of yoga that can be very beneficial for their overall fitness.
5. Watch students set up in the room, greet new students, be available to answer questions and be sure they set up their mats on the markers so it’s easy for late comers to set up right away. This is a general tip more focused on room management but it bears discussing especially in January. When classes get busy, it’s important to make sure mats are placed on their markers so that as a new student enters, it’s clear where their mat should go. If you can be in the room, even better to help place their mat. If you know the student is brand new, put them in the middle versus the front or way in the back (which is where they will want to go). Make sure they have props, as mentioned above.
6. Keep your cues to a minimum and stick with action words. This is my approach to teaching all the time but it is critical in working with beginners. Speak in English versus Sanskrit. Refrain from esoteric or spiritual language. Of course, if your style is to focus on the spiritual over the actionable, go for it, but try to keep a balance so that students have a clear understanding of the actions they are to take on the mat. Keep your instructions to a minimum, as they’ll get overwhelmed easily. Stay away from things like “feel” and stick with action words. Some examples of helpful action words are:
Here are a few scenarios so you can get a sense of this idea of using essential language:
(From Downward Dog)
“Step your right foot forward. Root your back heel. Reach up for Warrior 1. Set your gaze forward. Take a few breaths.”
(From Downward Dog)
“Bring your feet together. Jump forward. Reach up to stand. Bring your hands together at your heart. Sit low for Chair Pose and reach high. Bring your hands back to your heart and twist to the right for Prayer Twist.”
7. Try to avoid too many adjustments, getting overly obsessive about having them “get it right,” or giving too many anatomical based cues. This is an important one for me because I love to teach anatomy. The thing to keep in mind is that as you know, a yoga practice is a life-long thing. New students are going to need time to build a practice and as teachers we need to give them room to be beginners. “Beginner’s mind” is a wonderful thing and the last thing we want to do is circle round them, adjusting their every posture. Of course you’ll look for obvious things that are quick fixes (like using a block, lifting a heel, stacking a joint over another) but leave them be in these first few sessions so they have space to learn.
8. Even though you love yoga and know many of the benefits it can bring, try to refrain from gushing in an over the top way about “how transformational this will be” for them. This occasionally happens when a new student arrives and they’re greeted with, “This class is going to change your life!” Oftentimes it comes from the heart and from an authentic place but keep in mind, for most people, just getting to the studio was a huge effort. To potentially overwhelm them and set huge expectations can be a bit misleading (not intentionally so). I like to encourage people to keep an open mind, take breaks as they need to and remember that this is their first experience and they deserve props for showing up! Beyond that, who knows how their experience will be and I’d rather leave that open for them to experience.
If you’d like to download a free presentation focused on how to offer effective anatomy based cues to your students, click the link below. When I email you the presentation, which I’ve done before in live webinars, I’m going to offer you another way to build your knowledge of anatomy based cues for yoga… this time, through one of my online courses. So, look for that in the email.