It could be that the hardest class you'll teach will be based on the simplest poses.
Teaching yoga to beginners—students who are not familiar with yoga's eclectic language—takes so much skill, thoughtfulness, and patience, it may seem like the wrong job for a brand-new teacher.
But even though it can be challenging, introducing a newcomer to the world of yoga is often a deeply rewarding experience, giving teachers a chance to hone their language skills and master the subtleties that can bring their teaching to a whole new level.
A classroom of beginners presents teachers with a complex set of variables, according to beginners-yoga expert Jason Crandell. "You have more things to navigate and manage when working with people without a baseline understanding," he explains.
At the same time, it's essential that new yogis receive clear and knowledgeable instruction. "They will pick up the habits and essence of what's taught to them," Crandell says, "so it's important that there's a deep quality to what's being taught."
Teaching beginner's yoga is challenging, says Cyndi Lee, founder of Om Yoga in New York City, because beginners may not know what to expect. Many people, for example, come to yoga believing that it’s simply a physical exercise.
"But don't get confused and think that because people are beginners in yoga, they are stupid." she warns. "They either don't know this vocabulary, or they don't know how to relate to their bodies in this way."
Before you teach a beginners' class, Lee advises creating a thorough class plan, and then spending time mindfully making your way through your sequence—so you can understand it in your own body. "This doesn't just mean going slower," she says, "it means finding variations and deconstructing the asanas."
If you can feel the pose from the inside, rather than solely relying on what you've learned a pose is supposed to look like, you'll amplify your ability to reach students effectively.
Teaching as Conversation
Lee emphasizes using clear, accessible language. But even if your language is precise, she warns, your new students may not understand.
"Watch your students," Lee says. "Give them a chance to respond to the information that you offer them, so it's a conversation."
For beginner's expert Natasha Rizopolous, the conversation between teacher and student is one of the reasons that working with beginners can be so rewarding. "They come with such openness and enthusiasm. They are so appreciative," she says, adding that it's also satisfying because so much growth is evident with beginning students. With them, she says, "you are really teaching—as opposed to just calling poses."
It's All about Balance
As you teach, it's important to balance the information you give to new students. You'll want to give instructions on proper alignment—but it's also important not to overwhelm them.
"Your first responsibility is to keep them safe," says San Francisco yoga teacher Les Leventhal. Your next charge, he adds, is to let them begin to feel the effects of the yoga for themselves.
That may mean that you allow your students to remain in a less-than-perfect pose for a few breaths.
"Of course," as Lee points out, "if there are disasters happening, you have to take care of them." But, she adds, you can address alignment issues without singling out individual students. "Make up an exercise on the spot to help them, and everyone else will benefit, too," she says.
At moments like this, some students still won't understand what you're trying to convey. When that happens, reconnect to yourself.
"Look at your motivation for why you are a yoga teacher," says Lee. "If your motivation is to be helpful, then keep changing your tools." Continue your efforts until they understand you.
Simpler Is Better
Of course, there are certain poses to avoid in beginner's classes. Lee warns against full inversions, arm balances, and Chaturanga Dandasana (Four-Limbed Staff Pose). Instead of fancy moves, focus on the basics, such as connecting to the legs and the ground in standing poses. You can also develop short vinyasas, or flowing sequences that teach how to align breath with movement.
Depending on the yoga tradition you are working from, you may or may not choose to introduce new students to Pranayama. To keep it simple, stick with teaching Ujjayi Pranayama (Victorious Breath), or Sama Vritti (Equal Breathing), in which students learn to balance their inhalations with their exhalations. Focusing on breath in this way can offer a tremendous learning experience.
Similarly, including yoga philosophy in your classes is fundamental—but it's best if it's delivered in an accessible package.
"Your proportions of simple mechanics—simple down-to-earth instruction—versus the more esoteric stuff is a really delicate proportion," says Crandell.
And although it might seem unusual to students at first, there's no need to shy away from introducing your students to Sanskrit.
"You're ushering people into a new world," says Rizopolous. A good usher, she says, will introduce the language of that world.
Teach Your Beliefs
Ultimately, your teaching will be its best when you tap into what you deeply believe and value. If it's chanting in Sanskrit that moves you, teach it with the passion that you have for that element of the practice. If that doesn't inspire you, perhaps it's the wrong thing to focus on.
When introducing philosophy, it's very important for a teacher to be open about his or her philosophical background, insists Crandell. "I don't think it has to be the Yoga Sutra that you introduce; I think it has to be your own teaching philosophy."
Crandell's focus tends to be about balancing effort and relaxation, with an emphasis on moderation and mindful awareness. So, without citing specific sutras, he says, you can still "imprint the philosophical concepts."
Even without spending lots of class time teaching Sanskrit asana names or Hindu chants, you can reach students with some of yoga's deepest spirituality.
As Lee puts it, "There are principles of yoga that are super-beneficial that have nothing to do with culture or religion. They have to do with the individual's own mind, body, and breath. Yoga is right there in the asana practice."
Rachel Brahinsky is a writer and yoga teacher in San Francisco.