How To Teach a Yoga Class For Beginners
This one is inspired by a conversation I had recently with a friend and fellow teacher. And one of the things that I see often, is that new yoga teachers feel that since they are ‘new’ to teaching yoga, they should teach beginners. The irony of the situation is that teaching beginners is the hardest class to teach. If I ran a studio, I would have my most seasoned teacher offering the “Basics” or “Beginner” classes. Why so? Because as a new yoga teacher, you’re just getting acclimated to giving accurate verbal cues, teaching a balanced class, and staying on schedule. Seriously…teaching a good yoga class is no joke. And it’s just easier to teach a class to people that already sort of know what they are doing. Try and teach to a bunch of nubes off the street and you’ve got your hands full. True story.
So, the advice I give to my teachers in training and to anyone who asks …
“Keep it simple. Keep it light. Keep it real. You want the experience to be positive. You want them to feel good, and you want them to come back. End of story.”
Pick just one philosophical aspect to share per class. The majority of beginners are there for the physical aspect of the practice and may not want, or be ready to hear the philosophy. Pique the interest of those not so ready, and satisfy the curiosoty of those interested by just giving a solid nugget. It will be enough. Spend just a few minutes on one single point and move on to the movement and awareness of movement. If possible refer back to the nugget of wisdom later in the practice or in savasana. Less is more, and can often be more profound. Keep it light.
Teach them how to breathe. Remind them at other appropriate times throughout the class. Don’t over complicate, just get them in the groove of yogic breathing throughout their practice. Simple.
Stick to a short 60 minute class. Beginners can only handle so much before it becomes overwhelming. They are taking in so much new information in a physical level that its possible to lose their interest. Try to keep them engaged and focused for the whole class, and you’ve done your job well. It’s also a mindset – our culture is geared toward the 1-hour classes, 1-hour lunch breaks, etc. More than 60 can seem intimidating or like a waste of time…especially if you spend 5 of it just laying there on the floor.
Demonstrate as little as possible to cultivate that inner awareness from the beginning. Beginners will be looking around the room and looking at you, and you will have to demonstrate quite a bit, but if you can take the training wheels off once in a while, you’ll be setting them up well for their next class and another teacher.
Keep the savasana short and guided. It’s been my experience, after teaching nearly 5,000 hours of yoga, that beginners are often challenged by savasana. In fact, I dare say that it’s the most difficult part of the class for some students. Help them out by guiding them through their savasana. Eventually, your verbal cues wont be needed and they’ll enjoy them unguided. And, I should address the topic of the savasana escape artists. It doesn’t matter what you tell them in the beginning about all of the benefits of yoga, about resting the body, integrating the practice, balancing the nervous system…they’ll justify it in their minds no matter what and leave anyway. Let them go. Smile and nod, send them good vibes for even being there, and let them go. Keep trying, and maybe someday they’ll stay. Don’t take it personally, they just can’t be there. Try to find creative ways of getting them in a supine position on the floor and making it more physically active, then move into something more mentally active, then into breathing, and back up again, and close the class. Easy peasy guided savasana. Someday they’ll be able to just lay there and do it themselves. Try to remember back when you were asked to lay on the floor for the first time and close your eyes in room full of people laying on the floor pretending to be corpses. It’s weird until you get used to it. Don’t expect Jim the pharmacist who has been practicing with some random part-time YouTube teacher to show up and feel comfortable feeling the yoga vibe with your tribe in savasana. It’s a whole new experience and it’s your job to keep it real and accessible.
Teach the staple yoga poses that you will find in almost every hatha or vinyasa yoga classes. My favorite way of teaching the modifications, is to teach the modification first as a stage of getting into the pose, and then offer the option of moving into the full pose. This way, everyone is moving together, and then some move on while others stay. If you teach the pose first and the offer modifications for those who can’t…it can seem defeating if you’re new and you constantly are told “if you can’t do this, then do this”. Of course, yoga teachers are taught to use kinder language, but the message is the same mentally. Avoid that by teaching the modification first, and moving on into the pose as an option.
Here is a list of beginner yoga poses for a class to get you started (this is too many for just one 60 minute class):
Surya Namaskar (whatever version is appropriate for the style you teach)
Extended side angle
Wide legged forward bend
Hand to big toe pose
Revolved side angle
Side plank (modified)
Crow pose (preparation)
Camel pose (modified)
Head to knee pose
Wide leg forward fold
Seated forward fold
Final thoughts…whether you’re teaching an ongoing weekly class or a special introductory course…my advice is to teach the same class every week for a few weeks in a row and gradually change out a few poses here and there. People like familiarity. They like the sense of mastery. And they like being able to measure progress. Give them the opportunity to do this. Even if your own practice is creative and always changing…recognize that your students are not in the same place you are. You can also think of these repetitive classes as the foundation of their future yoga practice. Set them up for a lifetime of success and teach them the foundational poses and concepts of yoga. Keep it simple, keep it light, and keep it real.