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The Joy—and Challenge—of Teaching Beginners

After several years of teaching only mixed and intermediate/advanced students, I'm starting a basics class. My practice and teaching are all about variety and progression, so I'm having a little mental block about how to keep total beginners challenged but not overwhelmed. Where might I begin?

Read Maty Ezraty's response:

Dear Tanja,

You have made a very wise decision. Teaching beginners is one of the most rewarding of all instruction experiences. There is not a better place to improve your teaching methods than in beginning classes, since it actually takes more skill to teach beginners than intermediates. You will learn the art of patience and come to realize how important your instructions are. Beginning students are like sponges, and the good thing is that they do not arrive with bad asana habits—you get to mold them from the start.

Students who attend beginning classes have shown up to learn, and to learn in the right way. Therefore don't be afraid to teach all aspects of yoga. This is a good place for you to play with aspects of your teaching that may be harder to deliver in flow classes. These students will likely be willing to go more slowly, and they are happy to receive instructions. They tend to have fewer preconceived ideas.

When I teach beginning classes, I use a format that's similar to what I use in my other classes. I like to have a beginning, middle, and an end. I like to build the class to a theme or a pose of the day. The obvious difference is the choice of the poses; you need to stick to basics. (The heart of a good beginning class ought to include standing postures, for example.) Don't get caught up in thinking you need to entertain them by adding fancy postures or creating lots of interesting sequences; the students are more likely to get frustrated by having too many sequences.

Building up confidence is important in beginning classes, so stick with the basic poses and with sequences that are simple to follow. Consider repeating a few basic sequences over several classes. You don't need to teach an original class each time—give your students time to get comfortable with the work and build their confidence. To have variety, consider first teaching the basic form of a pose, then repeating with some further evolution or something more specific about the pose. Keep your instructions simple, and repeat them.

Like all students, beginners like to be challenged appropriately, so don't be afraid to build the class to an arc—just choose a beginning one. This is a good time for you to practice new ways to challenge your students and hone your teaching skills. To practice correct form can be very challenging even in basic postures; take the time to teach the pose properly from the ground up, and to observe whether or not the students have understood and been able to respond.

I find that I demonstrate more in beginning classes. I never hesitate to stop the class so that everyone can watch a demonstration. Keep it simple and clear, and be happy with improving one aspect of the pose. Don't overwhelm them with too much information.

A good beginning class prepares students to move on to higher-level classes. But keep in mind that some students may be older or challenged and may stay in beginner classes for a long time. They are often the most rewarding students.

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