March 25, 2013

Tips for Teaching Beginner Yoga Students.

I’ve been taking some beginner yoga classes these days.

Even though I’ve been practicing for over 10 years and could handle the more difficult sessions, being a mom of two little ones means you take what class is offered in the time you’re able to find a babysitter.

I’ve actually been enjoying it. Having taken some time off after becoming a new mom, I’m not necessarily in prime shape these days. Plus, motherhood gives you monkey mind. You’ve got to be ‘on’ most hours of the day, so it’s difficult to shut off the hamster on the wheel.

Sometimes taking a slower-paced class is exactly what my busy mind needs.

Being in a class full of new yoga students has me recalling my early days of teaching. I remember my teachers stressing the importance of teaching beginners—that it’s more difficult to teach to those new to the practice than it is an advanced practitioner.

Seasoned students know the postures, their alignment is usually correct—requiring just simple tweaks—and they’re not intimidated by the unfamiliar surroundings and verbiage.

Beginner students remind me of kids on their first day of kindergarten—they’re giddy with anticipation but also unsure of what to expect. They’re not quite sure where to set up their mat—unrolling the mat itself often becomes a process—and they have a certain look of bewilderment in their eyes as they fidget with how to sit while they wait for class to start.

In my opinion, first-time students are not only the most fun to teach, but they provide the best opportunities for new teachers to improve their teaching skills.

New students will rely on you…a lot. They are often the most focused of students and will hang on your every instruction. Their limitations will challenge you as a teacher and will be some of the best learning experiences you will receive in your career.

Learning to modify poses is an important skill. Most beginners are not able to bend easily and many require modifications. Being proficient in anatomy and knowing how to adjust those with limitations will become your greatest asset as a teacher. Sure, assisting a handstand or twisting your students into astavakrasana, or eight-angle pose, is fun, but nothing is more rewarding than having a newcomer tell you their back pain has been relieved from taking your gentle yoga class.

Here are some tips for teaching these amazing practitioners:

1. Arrive to class early and be available to show them the practice space.

Introduce yourself and help them get settled. You’ll be amazed how this simple gesture will help relieve their anxieties. I’ll never forget when an 82-year-old woman walked into my yoga class, eyes wide, examining the room as she shuffled toward me. She arrived quite early, 25 minutes in fact, but a gap in my schedule had me show up for my session 30 minutes ahead of time. It was her first yoga class, she said. She had heard great things about it and wanted to see what all the fuss was about. I loved her immediately.

2. Keep your sequencing in mind when designing a class plan for beginners.

Flexibility does not come naturally for first-time students. That is why they are in your class, after all. Sun salutations and constant movements up and down from the floor are difficult for them. It’s best to start low, move high and stay there, then make your way back to the floor for the cool-down portion. In the case of my awesome 82-year-old, she could hardly bend, and her ‘old bones,’ as she called them, didn’t take well to swift movements. Getting up and down from the floor was work for her and she appreciated only having to do it twice during my class.

3. Try not to jump from topic to topic, instead stick to one theme for the class.

As I said earlier, first-timers try hard to follow your lead. If you’re jumping from pranayama, to asana, to chakras, to bandhas, to yamas, and then back to pranayama, I guarantee you, you lost them at prana. Choose to focus on one thing. Maybe create a class centered around the anahata, or heart, chakra? Choose poses that activate or support the heart center and weave brief explanations throughout the class about its meaning. Of course, breathing and postures are part of every class, but if you choose to introduce the ujjayi breath to the group, maybe hold off on the other yoga limbs until they get the breath down.

4. Try not to use unfamiliar anatomical terms.

Stick with terms people know, like belly, chest, head, ribs, upper back, lower back or side body. If you tell the group that ardha chandrasana I, or standing side stretch, helps to lengthen the fascia between their intercostals, they will likely be confused. It’s better to say the pose will increase flexibility in the side body. The simpler, the better.

5. Learn to make accommodations without props.

Blankets, blocks and straps are great, but not always available. If you teach in a gym setting, it’s likely they will be non-existent. Learn to modify by lightening up on the pose or adjusting the shape so it’s comfortable for the student, but the alignment is not compromised. For example, many beginners struggle to move into eka pada rajakapotasana, or pigeon pose, and it can be a difficult posture to adjust without comprising discomfort in the knee or hip. Thread-the-needle pose on the back is a great alternative and will provide a similar stretch without the discomfort.

6. Don’t stand at your mat, walk around the room as you teach.

With new students focused on your lead, make it easier for them and move about the room as you demonstrate the poses. If you’re taking them into trikonasana, then step to the side of the room to show the correct posture so they don’t have to crane their necks to see you. Moving around the room also enables you to spot alignment concerns and gives you greater ability to offer verbal cues or adjustments.

7. State the importance of letting go of expectations.

I was in a great class the other day where the teacher discussed self-awareness and keeping the focus on your own mat. Newer students sometimes have difficulty with proprioception, or body awareness, and struggle with finding correct body positioning. To compensate for this, they often scan the room and attempt to imitate those around them. It’s a natural reaction and there’s nothing wrong with looking around the room for inspiration, but doing so also removes the student from their own inward focus. Demonstrate variations of each pose and encourage them to stop at whatever point suits them that day. Remind them there is no perfect pose.

8. Share your love of the practice.

There’s nothing better than taking a class from a teacher who enjoys the time they are spending with you. Let that which brought you to the practice shine out as you teach. Before you know it, you’ll be inspiring new students to catch the yoga bug too.

Teaching a student on their first day on the mat can be challenging, but it’s exhilarating too. For me, it brings back that excitement I felt when I started on my own journey, just as jittery and just as unbendable.

It helps you reconnect with that fire that brought you to your own practice and, just maybe, you’ll ignite that spark in them too.

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Ed: Brianna Bemel

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