Perhaps the hardest yoga class to teach is the one that includes veritable beginners and advanced students all in the same batch. How exactly do we, as teachers, support and instruct all levels of students appropriately?
Recognizing that you can’t win ‘em all and there will indeed be moments when your pace or sequencing is too slow for the fast crew and too fast for the slow crew, we offer this short list of key tips. Teaching a perfect class to every level at once might not be attainable but following these five basic guidelines will help to insure that you lace your instruction with mindfulness, ahimsa, tapas, care, and joy.
1. Teach to the Room
No matter how perfectly you may have plotted or prepared a given sequence, if you walk into class and are faced by an utterly different crowd than the one you imagined, you must adapt. It can be easy to succumb to an internal pressure to perform as a yoga teacher, to wow your students and leave them feeling profoundly touched and awed by your unique style. But those needs, that barrage of feelings, they are all your own. And your job as a teacher is to put aside the story of you and take on the disparate stories and needs of your students. Respond to what they show up with – be it strength or fear or malaise or excitement. When we learn to read the room and feel our way into what is being asked of us as guides and facilitators, we respond and we teach so much better.
2. Speak and Show
Human beings do not all learn through the same avenues. Some of us comprehend best when we read, some need a lesson to be clearly illustrated or explained, and others need to feel understanding in our own selves, our own experience. As yoga teachers, we do everyone in the room an incredible service when we make sure to teach to the visual, auditory, and kinesthetic learners. Some students will need to see you hold a pose to get it, others comprehend best with verbal cues, and still others won’t entirely understand what it means to lift their tailbone unless you help them uncover the sensation in their own body, often through a careful and skillful hands-on assist. As a teacher to students with varying levels of body awareness and yoga experience, we must keep a conscious hold on the fact that people come to yoga with a great diversity of learning styles but with one unifying desire – to access the benefits of the practice.
3. Give Options
The best way to invite your students to organically feel their way into their bodies and their practice is to stage poses from the ground up. Crescent Lunge might start out for some as a low lunge with hands on ergonomic yoga blocks. Perhaps you then offer the option to bring hands softly to one knee and eventually to take the arms overhead. In other words, one pose becomes three – and students are gently encouraged to take the variation that best suits them. Give options, not just with language but with representation. Use props. Show the class how to start at point A, add on mindfully to ramp up to point B and/or point C. Set them up to see, appreciate, and breathe their way into the journey of moving their body into a given pose. What the arrival looks like might be different today than it is tomorrow. When we as teachers embody that message, our students believe it.
4. Present A Safe Zone + A Risk Zone
A huge part of teaching yoga, practicing yoga, and learning from yoga is the cultivation of inner knowing. We create a space in our weekly classes for students to come together and mindfully practice the act of tuning away from the daily noise. We create a space that invites self-inquiry, self-observation, and self-care. And in doing that, we must respect that our students are truly engaged in that process and thus able to guage their own limits. A public asana class represents a safe place where poses are practiced as a physical representation of that inner journey.
We as guides of that journey do well not to try and control a student’s journey, but to mark the limits for the whole class to brush up against. Let your students know how to handle a wave of fatigue or fear should it come for them. Teach them Balasana and invite them to rest there whenever the need arises. Similarly, show them the way forward into more challenging poses. If you plan to work on Adho Mukha Vrksasana, let your students know what’s coming. Identify the risks without conflating them. Yes, you might fall. But you might not. Give them something to shoot for, to try, to want to achieve. In this manner students begin to see and grasp and feel their own boundaries – as we offer them both safety and challenge with no message as to which is right and which is wrong.
5. Reveal Your Own Humanity
It can be terribly easy – unfortunately – for yoga teachers to morph into yoga specimens or sages in the eyes of their students. The reality is that we are all, students and teachers alike, prone to the same waves of content, confusion, awareness, and fog. By holding space for a disparate group of folks to come together and practice yoga, we too need to actively participate in that space – revealing our strengths, weaknesses, questions, and certainties. Don’t be afraid to laugh, tell a joke, fall over, or admit when you don’t know something.
Just as we have to recognize the layers we carry as teachers, we must also recognize all that our students bring to the mat with them. We must be willing to observe the threads of cynicism, idolatry, awe, affection, anger, and distrust that may bounce our way but don’t belong to us. We all come in our own skins to the yoga room, with our own woes and joys, and teachers do the group experience a gigantic service when we are willing to be one of the batch. Students are human, teachers are human, and our collective presence in the yoga room looks different for each of us but it undoubtedly unites us all. And that is to be celebrated.
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Kate Tripp is a yoga teacher, writer, mother, and co-founder of Luma Yoga, an award-winning yoga studio for adults and children in Santa Cruz, CA. She shares her wisdom and experience on the Three Minute Egg blog with weekly, inspirational, yoga-related blog posts. Read Kate's full bio here.