What Do Beginning Yoga Students Need?

What do New Yoga Teachers Need to Remember About Teaching Beginner’s Yoga ?

This has been a common discussion in my yoga teacher training programs for years now – what can the general public comfortably do in a yoga class?  Are they binding their toes in a seated forward fold?  Are they flowing into Upward Facing Dog from Chaturanga? Are they keen to perfect their handstand?  With the exception of a few outliers (often former gymnasts or dancers), the answer to these questions is usually no.

For the most part, our beginner’s classes are populated by people who spend much of their working life either at a desk, or behind the wheel, or up a ladder, or standing behind a counter.  Their ability to tuck their legs behind their head in their first yoga class is unlikely.  And, their goals for class are usually not centred around performing tricky moves – more like getting a little bit more flexible, a little stronger, a little less pain, a little more relaxed.

Now, it’s important to remember that ‘beginner’ doesn’t mean ‘unfit’. It simply means inexperienced.  For a new student the language, poses, pace, transitions, and environment are all new and challenging to the body and mind.  Even very fit beginners will be challenged by the movements, pace, and the ‘call and response’ of the class if it’s unfamiliar to them.

Most yoga teachers will spend the majority of their time teaching to beginners or advancing beginners, and being able to conduct a safe and accessible class that meets their needs is key.  Unfortunately, in a yoga training intensive we often don’t get much hands-on experience with beginners.  On course, while we certainly study and practice all the regressions, progressions, versions, props and possibilities for each pose, in our guided practices we are mostly practicing to the level of the teacher trainees, which is much more advanced.  For logistical reasons, we spend most of our time practicing teaching to other teacher trainees.  So, it’s important for teachers in training and new graduates to have regular reminders of what a beginner’s class really looks like.

Note: Also key is to remember that people training to be yoga teachers likely have different aims for their practice then someone attending a beginners or all-levels yoga class.   We don’t want to impose our own yoga goals/aspirations onto our students.

On course I’m regularly reminding students that what they see in the classes they participate in is not what they will see in the general public classes.  But if we don’t have regular exposure to beginners, we might forget.

For this reason I’ve recently added a requirement in my own course for teacher trainees to log a minimum of 3 beginners classes (classes designed specifically for those who are new to yoga).  This is helpful in illustrating what beginners’ classes look like in terms of poses, pace, timings, regressions, props, cuing, and expectations of participant’s abilities, body awareness, aims for class etc.

Especially if you have been practicing for a few decades it’s important to go back to the beginning occasionally to be reminded of the fundamentals, and what a beginner’s class looks like.

A few things to consider in your beginners class include:

Meet them where they are at – with your sequence, poses, pace, language, cues, themes, demonstrations, corrections, breathwork, and meditations.  Teach to their level, their needs, their goals.

Demos – demonstrate to the level of your students. It doesn’t matter what your body can do, what demos do they need from you?

Accessible cuing – you might like more esoteric cues in classes you attend, but your beginning students need clear instructive cues on where to place their bodies, how to breath, and where to place their attention.

Educating vs instructing – I remember my first Ashtanga class where the teacher just said ‘okay begin your Ujjayi breath’ and everyone started breathing loud and I didn’t know what to do so I started breathing loud and it really stressed my throat but I kept doing it cause…yoga?  It took months before I actually was taught how to perform this breath.  If you want students to do something, especially something subtle like breath, bandha, etc., then it’s up to you to take the time to educate them.

Speak their language – your first yoga class can be really intimidating, and when a teacher uses language that you don’t understand it can make you feel like you don’t belong.  Use terms that students are familiar with and can easily follow.  If you will use Sanskrit, always pair it with English.

Anatomy – if you want students to engage a certain muscle, or touch a body part, you need to educate them about it.  You know where your sacrum is, but do your students?

Know their goals – your students won’t necessarily have the same aims for their yoga practice as you do for yours.  Ask them why there are there; you can do this in your intake forms, when they first arrive, or you can create some ‘aims and intentions’ cards so people can pick a card and place at the top of their mat.  This informs you of their goals for the class and gives them an intention to work with.  Aims and Intentions cards might include things like strengthen, stretch, balance, relax, focus, self-care, community etc.

Observe, listen, and respond – it so often happens that we put so much thought into planning a class – our theme, our sequence, our transitions, but then in teaching the class we see that we haven’t met students where they are at today.  Keep observing, listening, and responding to the bodies and faces in front of you – teach to their level, not your expectations.

Accessible Language Options – rather than teaching a progressed version first and then offering ‘if you can’t do this’ ‘if this is too hard’ etc., try teaching the regressed version first and then offering options in terms of variations or  versions, ‘if it’s accessible today’, ‘if you want to add more today’, if you are looking for more (strengthening, stretching, balancing) etc.

Finally, some key overall concepts:

Create a welcoming space where everyone is accepted – no dress code, no in-group, no inaccessible language.  Create a culture of acceptance and love where self-care, rather than performance, is the goal.

Remember you are someone’s first introduction to the practice and study of yoga – that’s an honour and a responsibility.  How do you want them to feel about yoga, and about themselves/their abilities, after this first class?

So, if it’s been a long while since you’ve been in a beginner’s class – I’d recommend getting to an in-person class if possible, or there are so many online options for you to explore.

And, if you think a beginner’s class will be easy, think again!  For advanced Vinyasa Flow practitioners who are used to flowing quickly though a sequence, the pauses allowing students to safely get into and out of poses can be a physical and mental challenge – and one that might be really helpful in further developing your practice.

So, regardless of how long you have been practicing, training, or teaching yoga, I recommend getting back to the basics and enjoying a beginner’s yoga practice again.  And, if a face-to-face class isn’t feasible, these days there are so many online options available, it’s easy to find a great introduction to yoga class online that can give you great insight into the beginning yoga experience.


ps  Want to learn more about Trinity Yoga Teacher Training?  Read more here….

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