Given yoga’s popularity, it’s very common for classes to have a “mixed experience” group, in terms of their exposure to yoga. While many studios have classes that are labeled, “Beginner’s Classes” the majority of classes are “Open Level” and as a result, when you teach, you’ll be teaching to a group of people with mixed levels of experience. This often presents a unique challenge, especially to the newer yoga teacher.
In my ten years of teaching, I’ve had a variety of comments mentioned to me after my classes that touch on this idea. One woman came up to me after class and said, “that was nice but it wasn’t hard enough.” Another person came up to me and said, “that was too fast.” Another student wanted to know if I could practice yoga while teaching because she was a “visual learner.” Another student asked if we could use the mirrors because she liked to use mirrors when she practiced.
Here are some tips to get you thinking about how to teach to a group of people with different levels of experience:
1. Stick to your basic sequence. Yes, I know this sounds crazy. Why would you want to stick to a basic sequence if you see that there are people with varying degrees of yoga experience in your class? Because this is going to help you keep it simple for those that are new as well as make it challenging for those that are more experienced. Keep modifications in mind in both directions; actions to make the pose more challenging as well as actions to dilute the posture. Just about every pose has an approach to go in either direction. However, chances are you’ll forget to suggest them if you’re thinking about what comes next in your sequence.
2. Open your eyes and speak to what you see. In classes with mixed levels of experience, it’s critical to be there for the newer students and give them alignment suggestions that are specific to what’s happening in that moment. Avoid going on auto-pilot and rattling off your standard script. Don’t worry if what you’re going to say is focused on a few people; those basic tips are helpful for everyone to remember.
3. Don’t make assumptions about the experience level of people in your class. We can make assumptions about a student’s experience level based on how they look, what they’re doing before class (such as practicing handstands) and the questions they ask before class (like, “can we do Scorpion?”) Resist the urge to let these assumptions take you off track, change your plan and make you nervous. Number one, there are many students that may appear experienced but have very little training. Many students learn from watching others and who knows if those people know what they’re doing? Also, students that often ask for specific poses believe that the only challenge in yoga lies in the tough postures. If your plan or experience as a teacher does not support offering up a particular pose or you decide it’s not safe for the whole class, leave it out. Don’t let one student’s interests dictate what you’re going to offer the whole class.
4. Have props ready to offer. Depending on the studio you’re in, props may or may not be nearby. Even though you’ve asked people to grab them before class, there are people that will forget or will take the wrong kind of block. When you see someone newer struggling to balance in a pose, silently put a block under their hand. It doesn’t need to be a big deal and no words need to be said. If by chance, they push it away, so be it.
5. Throw in a few challenging poses and see what happens. Just because you see a number of beginners, does not mean that you avoid all poses that might be considered more challenging (this is a tough one, because some of the basic poses can be pretty tough if you hold them). Things like Crow, Half Moon and Dancer’s Pose are challenging but not so far out of the box that most students can’t give them a shot.
6. Speak to the essential tools of yoga. Even though you believe the more experienced people know about ujjayi, uddiyana bandha, drishti and the basics of alignment, don’t be afraid to mention these techniques. On the one hand, it’s great to remind everyone of these tools. Secondly, reminding people of these tools keeps them anchored in the present. Third, you have no idea if these more experienced students have learned these techniques properly. If you have a high level of confidence that you can explain them well, share what you know. These tools are what can make the class challenging from a mindfulness perspective versus a purely “pose” point of view.
7. Take any feedback you get with a grain of salt. Feedback is usually influenced by the person’s point of view and unless you hear it and it really hits home, let it go (especially negative feedback). There are times, though, that you’ll get a comment and it’ll resonate with you. If that’s the case, consider it a bit of a confirmation of what you thought in the first place.
8. Give people space to be beginners. Some of the best teachers in the country are able to teach to a large group of practitioners with mixed levels of experience and stay calm, despite what might look like chaos all around them. Part of this comes from the ability to let people be where they are, resisting the urge to fix or correct them. Newer teachers sometimes feel badly for new students as they watch them in class. Never pity your students. You will never know what they are feeling and how they are interpreting their experience. Stay neutral and teach with the approach of “how can I help?” not “how can I fix you?”
9. Don’t listen to the voices in your head. In all my conversations with newer teachers around this topic, I usually hear the comment, “I’m so worried that the more experienced student is hating my class because it’s too basic!” Stop listening to the voices in your head. Feel your feet, hear your breath and see what’s in front of you. You will never know what your students are thinking and even if they tell you after class, it’s colored by their perspective, they way they see the world and how they feel about their bodies. Stick to the plan and move forward. Many times, you’ll have students that you thought hated the class (based on their facial expressions) come up after class and tell you how much they loved it.
10. Acknowledge the class but resist the urge to commend them for every little thing. It’s great to acknowledge the class for a job well done, either during or after class. However, resist the urge to commend them non-stop. Things like finishing a challenging section of the sequence or staying focused during a longer hold make sense, but sometimes you’ll hear teachers say, “Great job” when students come up from Child’s pose or take a few breaths. This usually comes from a need to say something. Remember, if it doesn’t make sense to say it, don’t. Also, it may come across as somewhat patronizing to the class if you’re giving them an enthusiastic, “Good Job!” after every little thing. Make it count.
Teaching to a larger group of people with varied levels of experience is one of the things that will help you grow as a teacher. It’s a challenge, yes, but like many of these teaching tools, it will help you gain confidence, increase your skill level and your ability to teach in many different settings.