Getting from Um to Om

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Laughter yoga, class in malasana

There is no greater compliment for a yoga teacher than to know a student feels at home in your class and is progressing. But with so many yoga styles available, including some new hybrid versions, how do students know what they're getting into is right for them? You can help. As an instructor, you can be a matchmaker, marrying students to the style, level, teacher, and studio that meets their needs. Yoga has something to offer everyone, but students need to find out what they want to get from yoga—under the guidance of an instructor who can help them achieve it.

Spot the Signs

There are obvious signs that a class style or level isn't the right fit for someone, says Julie Kleinman, an Ashtanga Yoga teacher at Yoga Works in Los Angeles. "It's easy to spot: If they're shaking, struggling, or sweating profusely, it's beyond their ability. Or if you notice students stopping a lot, doing variations, extra push-ups, or looking bored, it could be too easy for them."

Either way, Kleinman says it's important to take the student aside after class and discuss what other classes might suit him or her better.

Learn Your Students' Needs

For each aspiring yoga student that walks across the threshold, yoga teachers need to focus on delivering a positive experience that's safe and rewarding, suggests Dr. Larry Payne, author of Yoga for Dummies. "The first thing is to have the interest of students first and foremost in [your] mind," says Payne. Find out what the student is looking for: flexibility, strength, cross-training, spiritual awakening? Teachers need to remember this advice even if that means directing a student to a different class and teacher.

Desire may sometimes trump practical reasons for signing up for a particular yoga class. What students may not realize is that what they want to do may differ from what they actually can or need to do. Payne says that there are different, more suitable forms of yoga across the lifespan, and he identifies three groups: the young and restless, prime of life or mid-lifers, and real seniors. "Each group and stage of life needs something different, and by age 40 or 45, yoga needs to be done a little differently," says Payne.

Payne generally recommends Ashtanga for the young, which he says is intended for the "first stage" of life; then intermediate or what he calls "cookie-cutter" styles, such as Sivinanda, Bikram, Integral Yoga, or Kripalu for mid-lifers; and finally gentle classes, such as Iyengar and Viniyoga, for individuals healing an injury or for older students.

Start at the Beginning

It's also important to assess student needs according to their current levels of fitness and ability. "Teachers should observe the principle of ahimsa," says Payne. "In the Yoga Sutra, the first step of the eight-path of yoga is the principle of 'nonharming.'" It helps to take notes, suggests Payne, who asks students to fill out a form before they start a class with him, listing any injuries or health conditions.

Spend time acknowledging each person, and watch each student closely to assess his or her challenges and progress. For anyone who needs extra coaching, Payne says he doesn't think that large classes are ideal. "It makes it difficult to watch people when classes are large," he explains. "When you get past 24 students, it's a good idea to add an assistant."

Instructors should also keep an eye out for anyone trying yoga for the first time and encourage them to take a beginner's class first, and stick to smaller classes for awhile. This strategy, Payne says, will provide the student with a good introduction to yoga and help set appropriate expectations about what the activity can offer.

It's just a good idea for safety's sake, too, adds Kleinman. "No matter how athletic they are, [students] still need the basic building blocks of yoga. Another advantage is that a level-one class helps new students feel more successful. It makes them feel that the practice is within their abilities."

Encourage Style Sampling

There are so many yoga styles that students often need to test-drive a few kinds to find what really feels right. For studios, offering drop-in classes or a sample of styles can help students determine their best fit. "Students should be able to go to a studio and try some different classes," suggests Kleinman. "You want to encourage them to become yoga connoisseurs, tasting a bunch of classes."

Obviously, if a student is risking injury, is obviously unhappy, or demands more one-to-one attention than your class can afford, then it makes sense to redirect him to another class, or sometimes even to another studio. However, it's a touchy subject if you teach in a studio but you're not the owner. "You don't want to send this student away, especially behind the owner's back, but you do want to make sure that the student is served," says Kleinman. "It would make sense to involve the owner, who, if it's someone ethical, will agree to suggest that the student try somewhere else. The owner might even say to the student, 'Hey, we'd love you to come back once you've taken a few classes or your practice is stronger.'" It may even make the owner think about expanding her class offerings.

Learn When the Time is Right

Once students find a studio and style they enjoy, another thing to figure out is what time of day they should practice to get the most out of yoga. It really depends on what works for the individual, Kleinman says. "Some prefer doing yoga in the morning, maybe to take advantage of practicing on an empty stomach or to fit the class in before they get caught up in other things—or maybe they just find it a nice way to start the day. Others may want to do yoga at the end of the day to clear their minds of stress, or because it helps them sleep better."

"Choosing the right class is about coordinating a student's natural inclination with time, style, and the desired effect they want from yoga," Kleinman explains.

If a class is right for a student, that's easy to ascertain too, adds Kleinman: "They're looking radiant after a class, and you're getting compliments."

Help Students Determine the Essentials

The right fit comes down to understanding what students need and helping them understand what yoga offers. For example:

Find out: Why yoga? Take the time to talk with each student about her goals and desires in trying yoga.

Spot problems early. By identifying possible injuries or other physical limitations right away, you can help students modify their poses so they can practice yoga safely.

Guide students toward awareness. They should scan their bodies to see if what they're doing feels good during and after a class, or if they're experiencing pain or discomfort.

Explain different yoga styles. Let students know early on about the yoga style they've joined by spelling out its focus, including the philosophy and pace.

Angela Pirisi is a freelance health writer who has covered holistic health, fitness, nutrition, and herbal remedies. Her work has appeared in Yoga Journal as well as in Natural Health, Fitness, Cooking Light, Let's Live, and Better Nutrition.