We're seeing lots of new students in our classes these days, excited about starting a yoga practice. While there are usually lots of articles out this time of year about "How to start a Yoga Practice," they are geared towards the student. As teachers, it's helpful to review some tips for working with beginners. You’ll need to be on your toes, positive and ready to help to ensure that their experience is a positive one and they come back for a second class.
1. Go to class a bit earlier than usual. If you’re often running in five minutes before, take the time if possible, to go ahead of time. Make sure the studio and props are in tiptop order. Unless you work in a studio where there are assistants to manage this piece, be sure the studio is clean, props are stacked and ready to go and your mat (if you use one) is out. This will ensure that when you arrive, the room will be ready for your class.
2. If the props are far from the center of the room, take a few and put them near to your mat or center of the room. This will ensure that if you need one for a student, you don’t have to climb over bodies and over to the corner to get what you need. Anticipate you’ll need one because they’ll forget—even though you’ll mention it before class as something to pick up.
3. Help students find their way in the room. It can be intimidating for new students when they first walk in the studio. They are often self-conscious and put their mat down in the first available place just because they’re nervous. Be there to help them find a place and if this is their first time, see if there’s a spot in the middle or back of the room so they have some perspective and can see you clearly.
4. Acknowledge them before you dive into the flow: Especially in true beginner’s classes, say a few words before class. It might just be a “Hello, my name is… How are you doing today?” It’s not so much to get a response, which you most likely will not get, but more to ground you and them into the moment before jumping into the poses. If something inspires you to discuss, like a short overview of what you’ll do, go ahead. But resist the urge to go into great detail as you’ll just overwhelm them.
5. Once you start class, stay present. Speak to what is happening right in front of you, not to the routine in your head. This is a helpful tip for all of us, all the time, but even more so with beginners. It’s easy to go on auto-pilot but you’ll miss the most helpful thing to say, which might be as simple as reminding them to breathe.
6. Resist the urge to be Rescuer: It’s easy to want to be there to assist every student, fully. First of all, it’s impossible. Second of all, recognize that part of the practice for them is to find their own way. Helping them tap into their own intuition by encouraging them to rest when they need to, modify when they need to, or breathe more when they feel challenged will be empowering for them. You’re helping them realize that they can help themselves, even in unfamiliar territory.
7. Offer lots of modifications and Child’s Pose: Know that students either won’t know how to modify certain poses or won’t do it out of fear they’re doing “less than.” Also know they won’t rest unless you ask them to. This is another reason why it’s great to really be present to what is in the room; you’ll see they’re tiring and you’ll know it’s a good time to rest.
8. If someone leaves, keep your eye on them but resist the urge to chase them. For some students, in that first experience, the best way they can care for themselves is to leave. If they stay in the lobby, try to put the class in Child’s Pose, go out and encourage them back in. Ask them how they are feeling. Reserve judgment and don’t make them feel badly. If they choose to leave, ask them to come back another time.
9. Leave time for ample rest. Those first few classes can be emotionally and physically exhausting. For many students, it took a lot of moving huge boulders of resistance to be there. Give them time to rest.
10. Invite them back to the studio. After closing the class, encourage them to come back to any class. Let them know when you will be back. Suggest that they resist the urge to over think their experience and keep an open mind and return as soon as possible. Let them know you are available after class for questions. Stay in the room. Stay friendly and relaxed. Know that if they do approach you, it most likely is with caution but welcome their questions.
One final thought: When working with beginners, it can be helpful to be very essential in your directions. Stick with 3 or 4 instructions per pose; it could be as simple as “Breathe, press your feet down, reach up and do your best!” When working with beginners, the more you go into detail, you will lose their attention.
Working with beginners is a great training for all of us as teachers. It reinforces the importance of bringing compassion to the mat; can remind us of when we were beginners and give us a soft spot for the idea of having the faith to try something new. When we go in with the attitude of helping, not correcting, we’ll lead with a positive energy that will support our students to do their best.