Now that we're in the middle of January, yoga teachers are seeing beginners regularly showing up in class. This is a great time for them, as they gain a little traction in terms of regular attendance, start to feel more solid in their feet and remember more of the sequence from class to class.
I wrote an article a few weeks ago, titled “10 Tips for Working with Yoga Beginners,” and I wanted to follow up on that article with some additional tips that focus on the beginning student that is in the first few weeks or months of a new practice. While focused on beginning students, these tips apply to all of your classes. The basics around yoga practice apply to everyone; it’s the more challenging and artistic poses that might be more focused on some of your students and not others.
1. Keep your language essential and focused on the desired actions you want to see in their bodies. Say exactly what you want them to do, with as little additional explanation as possible. Use action words like “press,” “lift” and “stretch” (see also my prior article titled, “Effective Language for Yoga Teaching”) and only occasionally use the more artistic, creative descriptions that might be used in a class with more experienced students. Even then, this kind of description can be confusing for students to understand.
2. Keep your sequencing consistent from class to class. This is especially true if you teach a “Beginner’s” class. Students will learn from repetition and their bodies and minds will remember more from class to class if you continue to reinforce the same sequence. This consistent presentation will also help them, over time, to start to shift from thinking about each movement to connecting more to a meditative feeling. As more experienced practitioners, we know that this is possible, but it’s much harder when you don’t know how to do each pose and you’ll only make it harder for them if you switch up the sequence each week.
3. Ask them questions about their experience. I like to open my Beginner’s Classes with a breakdown of a pose or asking students before class, “What pose really challenges you?” or any other specific question to get them talking (I have found that if you simply say, “Do you have any questions?” students will rarely ask, so be prepared with a question to ask them). Yesterday, a student brought up a question regarding Downward Dog and in explaining, I found that most students in class didn’t understand the instruction to “lift your tailbone.” This was a great opportunity to have a short anatomy discussion and to break down that pose further.
4. Anticipate what some of them may be experiencing and add instruction specific to it. As an experienced yoga teacher, you’ll know the common challenges that newer students may face. Many may be feeling wrist sensitivity in Downward Dog, hamstring tightness in a forward fold, tight hips in Half Pigeon. Speak to these dynamics as you teach and offer suggestions to remedy the situation. Offer hands on assists as well. Watch their bodies for signs they are uncomfortable; newer students will shake out their wrists; you’ll see their thighs shaking in Downward dog and you’ll see their chest lift far away from their thighs in a forward fold. As always, teach to what you see; don’t just offer these suggestions if no one in the room appear to be having the issue.
5. Help them with their props. New students won’t understand what props to take and how to use them. In some classes, I begin with a quick explanation of how to use blocks, straps and blankets. If you’re in a studio that has different block types, it’s helpful to show them the difference. Also, if a student comes with a brand new mat that curling up at the edges or a gym or other kind of exercise mat, get them a mat from the studio. Using the mat they came with will only be frustrating. For the students that have trouble getting into half-pigeon, help them prop their body up with blocks and a blanket. It will be hard for them to get into the pose, let alone manage their props as well.
6. Encourage them to come to any of your classes, even those that are not for Beginners. I often get the question, “Do you think I’m ready to take an All levels class?” from a beginning yoga student. I always encourage students to come to class, any class, and only suggest that they come with an open mind and a willingness to practice in a non-competitive, healthy fashion and to rest if they reach a point where they start to feel stressed. Your beginning students will look for your confirmation that they’re ready but you want to encourage them and support the idea that they’re ready now; they just need to bring a mindful attitude to class.
7. Acknowledge them for continuing to show up. When you start to see the same new faces from class to class, say something to acknowledge the student. “ It’s great to see you again. I can see you’re developing a regular practice!” is a nice way to recognize them. This can be done in a professional and mindful way, so it’s not to exclude anyone else or single one student out, but a friendly comment can let the student know that you notice the new healthy habit they’re developing. For many students, it took a lot to show up once and now that they’re in a new groove, it can be powerful for them if you notice.
Working with beginners is a great way to improve your teaching skills. Through your commitment to looking closely at your students, offering specific instruction and asking for feedback and questions, you will fine-tune your skills around teaching as well. This is one of the many instances where the line between teacher and student is very blurred; the student is the teacher and as always, the teacher is also the student! Namaste.