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How to Teach Beginners in Mixed-Level Classes

First a shameless plug: If you’re interested in learning more, check out my online course, The Art of Teaching Beginners. This course provides a complete blueprint for teaching new students and includes the ultimate four-week beginners’ series that you can teach in your local community.

How to teach beginning yogis in mixed level classes

On episode 139 of Yogaland podcast, Andrea and I talked about the challenges to go along with teaching beginners is balancing in mixed-level classes. (You can listen here.) In an ideal world,  new students would come to an introduction to yoga series before attending mixed-level classes, but this is often not the case. So, teachers have to be prepared to balance the needs of students with varying degrees of skill and experience.

In this post, I share my best tips for nurturing the beginning students in your classes, making them feel welcome, and challenging your other, more experienced, students, too.

Top 3 Challenges of Working with Beginning Students in Mixed-Level Yoga Classes and How to Address Them

Challenge: Meeting Everyone’s Needs

As teachers, we strive to include and support every student in our class. However, there are significant limitations to our ability to take care of disparate needs, especially when beginners come to mixed-level or experienced-level classes.

Tip for Meeting Different Needs:

My best advice is to be kind, do your best to provide variations, and to surrender the idea that you’ll be able to make everyone’s experience perfect.

Teaching Beginners in Mixed Level Yoga Classes

Challenge: Keeping Beginners Safe in a Mixed-Level Yoga Class

Maintaining safety is paramount in all yoga classes. There are several things that you can do to promote safety for all your students in your classes.

Tips for Keeping Beginners Safe in Mixed-Level Yoga Classes:

Create a culture of safety.

First, you can promote safety through culture that you shape in your classes. This means that aren’t telling your students to “push it” or that they can “handle anything as long as they are breathing deeply.” Instead, encourage the process of students listening to their bodies and taking care of themselves. Regularly communicate to your class that yoga can be challenging and, at times uncomfortable, but it should never hurt. If something hurts, stop doing the pose and ask for the teacher’s feedback about the posture when the class is over.

Emphasize awareness.

The second key to promoting safety is to make it clear to beginners that they are responsible for paying attention to the comfort of their bodies. Let students know that you will let them know if you see any obvious misalignments. But, ultimately, students know their own body best and should come out of poses that don’t feel appropriate.

Address safety concerns first.

The third and fourth keys to promoting safety may overlap. The third key is that if you see a misalignment that may be injurious—or a beginner doing a variation that is clearly inappropriate for their level—communicate this to them. The fourth key is to not allow beginners to do inversions unless they are closely supervised. If you see a beginner doing an inversion—even Shoulderstand—and it looks precarious, make sure to have them come out of the posture and provide them with something else to practice.

Challenge: Keeping Beginners Engaged in a Mixed-Level Class

This may be the most significant challenge for working with beginners in a mixed-level class.

Tips for Keeping Beginners Engaged:

Manage expectations.

First, help manage new students expectations in a mixed-level class. I like to tell new students in this scenario that their goals should be to learn a couple of things and have a good time. I always let them know that learning takes repetition and consistency over time. I also remind them that no one is watching them and there is nobody to impress or disappoint. Finally, I try to convince them that learning takes years and that the yoga room is good place to get lost and confused at times.

Start simple.

Second, I always include the simplest way to do every posture throughout the class.

Then, I amplify intensity as the class proceeds. For example, everyone starts with Locust and Cobra before Chaturanga and Up Dog. This way, new students see the value of the simpler options. When new students see the value of simple options, they are more likely to take them instead of jumping forward to the hardest option that may not be appropriate for them.

Leave room for exploration.

Lastly, I try to let students experiment and make mistakes without correcting every single alignment issue they’re having—unless there is a clear probability of injury.

Don’t forget to check out my newest online course, The Art of Teaching Beginners, if you want to learn more.

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How to Teach Yoga Philosophy to Beginners

First a shameless plug: If you’re interested in learning more, check out my online course, The Art of Teaching Beginners. This course provides a complete blueprint for teaching new students and includes the ultimate four-week beginners’ series that you can teach in your local community.

Jason Crandell teaching yoga philosophy.

The yoga tradition is steeped in philosophy. However, teaching philosophy in an impactful, engaging, and concise way is incredibly challenging–especially when you’re working with beginning students.

Tips for Teaching Yoga Philosophy to Beginners

Here are a few tips — and if you’d like to hear me talk about this at length, you can listen to Yogaland podcast, episode 136, Yoga Philosophy for Beginners.

Keep themes relatable.

There are countless philosophical, spiritual, and humanistic themes that you may choose to teach your students. Whichever you choose, focus on keeping these themes easy to relate to. Use clear language and, when possible, relate these themes to the physicality of the practice.

Keep it brief.

Unless you are a seasoned at giving Dharma Talks – and, Dharma Talks are part of your teaching style – be brief when you discuss the philosophical, spiritual, and humanistic themes that you’re incorporating. It’s easy to become a little too tangential and lose track of time when you’re engaging in these conversations.

Use good timing.

I have found that the most effective time to incorporate these dimensions into the practice are towards the end of class. Most students will be arriving to class after they’ve just woken up or after a long day of sitting at work. As such, most students want to get into their body through movement as soon as possible. Students are typically more receptive to contemplative work toward the end of class since they have satisfied their healthy desire to move.

Be respectful of all belief systems.

Be mindful that students may have belief systems that are contrary to yours. It’s good to be an advocate for the philosophical dimensions that you want to teach, but take care that you’re respectful to other belief systems.

Yoga Philosophy for Beginners: Key Concepts

The most important philosophical concepts to teach your students include:

  • The asana practice is part of a massive, all-encompassing tradition that seeks to liberate practitioners from their limited notions of self. As such, there are several philosophical and existential elements that we want to introduce to our students.
  • Without compassion, students will be unable to look within. They will become too frustrated with the practice of Yoga and they will get in their own way. There is nothing more important than helping new students develop compassion for themselves and others.
  • The practice of yoga is meant to be a lifelong process. This is very different than what we’ve become used to in our modern world of quick fixes. Since yoga is a lifelong process and learning can go through peaks and valleys, it’s important to help your students be patient with themselves.
  • Perhaps, there is nothing more important in the pursuit of yoga than perseverance. As a student, you know how yoga has required–and, developed–your perseverance. Helping your students be steady in the midst of difficulty is one of the most rewarding aspects of being a teacher.
  • Satya, or honesty, is an essential element of the yoga practice. One of the most obvious ways this will play out as a new student, is when new students are confronted with their limitations. When confronted with limitations, students often get frustrated and either 1) pull back from their practice and have a negative self-image, or 2) push forward through discomfort instead of being patient and respecting their body. Teaching students to honor their limitations without retreating or pushing too far forward is one of the most valuable lessons you will ever teach.

For more on this topic, check out my newest online course, The Art of Teaching Beginners.

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Tips for Teaching Yoga to Beginners

First a shameless plug: If you’re interested in learning more, check out my online course, The Art of Teaching Beginners. This course provides a complete blueprint for teaching new students and includes the ultimate four-week beginners’ series that you can teach in your local community.

Tips for Teaching Yoga for Beginners

Think back to when you were a beginning yoga student. You may have felt awkward or overwhelmed at least part of the time. And confused by some (or most!) of the instructions you heard.

For beginners, there’s a fine line between getting thorough instructions and getting way too much information. For teachers, striking the right balance can mean the difference between fostering a student’s long-time yoga practice and sending her home feeling like she just doesn’t belong. (We talked about this on episode 138 of Yogaland Podcast — you can click here to give it a listen.)

That’s why it’s so important for yoga teachers to take the time to learn some best practices for how to introduce this complex practice in a way that will set the foundation for a lifetime of practice.

Here are a few guiding principles I use when I teach beginners.

Choose your focus wisely.

You can’t teach everyone everything about every pose in every class. So, don’t try to do this. You’re not trying to teach your beginners everything, you’re just giving them solid, effective fundamentals to build on over the years.

Trust in the power of consistency.

It’s normal to feel like you need to entertain new students with new poses each class. And, yes, it’s important to be engaging and vary your content slightly. However, it’s essential to trust in the power of consistency and repetition. Your students are learning new skills and the only way to build depth and proficiency is through consistency and repetition.

Have a lesson plan and syllabus.

Teachers of nearly every subject matter use syllabi–except yoga teachers. As a community, it’s time to shift our mindset and become more methodical, consistent teachers that are grounded in a syllabus. (The second half of my new online program, The Art of Teaching Beginners clearly defines our syllabus of postures and techniques for every postural category.)

Share your teaching objectives before each class.

It’s much easier to learn something if you know what you’re trying to learn. Unfortunately, teachers rarely lay out their learning objectives for their students. Let’s turn this around. At the beginning of class, take a moment to briefly tell your students what they are focusing on in class today. You can say something like, “Hi everyone, we’re going to have a balanced practice today; and, we’re going to focus on creating strength in our glutes by making sure to engage them effectively in backbends.” Briefly telling your students the highlights of class will help them hone in on the most important details of class.

Use plain, easy-to-understand language.

Sometimes we get lost in our own clutter. And, sometimes we’re afraid of being direct with our students. Other times, we don’t trust simple language, so we mask it in unnecessary jargon. Let’s let these challenges go and always teach in the simplest, clearest, most direct language possible.

When you teach, use the English and Sanskrit names for postures when possible. Don’t stress about this. But, seek to keep things simple for your students while educating them about the yoga tradition.

Don’t dumb things down.

We’re teachers. And, teachers need to believe that our students can learn. This means that we can challenge them by talking up to them instead of down to them. Feel free to teach them details and nuances. Help them grow their Yoga IQ as early as possible.

To learn more or to sign up for my newest online course visit glo.com: The Art of Teaching Beginners.

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Yoga Pose Notebook: Astavakrasana

Astavakrasana | Eight Angle Pose | Jason Crandell Yoga Method

Long before photos of Handstand ruled the social media kingdom, Astavakrasana was king of the hill. Teachers would get one or two photos of themselves every few years to adorn their bios and show aptitude in their flyers.

There were 3 distinctly different looks that teachers would cast while being photographed in the pose: 1) a joyous smile that gave the look and feel of a yogi’s Senior Picture, 2) a far-off gaze that implied the teacher was being caught in their natural habitat, and 3) the somewhat surly (my favorite) mug that proved the teacher was not being photographed for their Senior Picture.

Astavakrasana is no longer as ubiquitous, but it’s still a great pose. It strengthens the upper body as well as the rotational muscles of the core. If you do it correctly, the pose also strengthens the adductors and outer hips. Plus, it still looks great on flyers.

See also Yoga Podcast: A Strategic Approach to Arm Balances and Inversions

Like all the postures I breakdown on my blog, Astavakrasana has many layers. Many of the cues I use for the pose are featured in the illustration. But, there are three quick tips that I want to give you.

These are the most common elements of the posture I’ve found myself troubleshooting for my students over the last 20 years.

3 Tips for Astavakrasana

1. Placement of the hands

The most common error that students make when they practice Astavakrasana is placing their hands too close to their hips when setting up for the pose. I’m not talking about the width of the hands from each other. I’m talking about the proximity of the hands to the hips. You need to be able to lean forward into your hands in order to bend your elbows and lift your hips. This is not possible if your hands are too close to your hips.

When you set up for the pose, set your hands about a foot forward of your hips. This way, you can lean forward into your hands. This will make bending your elbows and lifting your hips much more accessible.

2. The Outside Elbow

Get. It. In. The outside elbow likes to drift outward. But, this often leads to the outside shoulder dropping too low. When the outside shoulder drops low, it can easily put excess stress on the socket.

In order to help avoid this—and, provide your body with greater stability from your arms—hug your top elbow towards the ribs. It’s okay to set your hand a little wider than your shoulders, but be sure to hug your outside elbow in rather than allowing it to bow out.

3. The Often Overlooked Twist

When we practice arm balances, it’s easy to overlook their subtleties. In Astavakrasana, it’s common for students to forget that one of the posture’s defining element’s is spinal rotation. We get so focused on the hand-balancing element, that we omit the action of twisting. So, don’t drop the ball next time you practice Astavakrasana. Remember to use the squeeze of your legs, press of your hands, and action of your core to maximize your twist.

See also The Expert’s Guide to Chaturanga, Part I

{illustration by MCKIBILLO}

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Yoga Pose Notebook: Natarajasana (King Dancer Pose)

Natarajasana | King Dancer Pose | Jason Crandell Vinyasa Yoga Method

Before we get to the post, a quick, shameless plug for my upcoming trainings. You can join me live at my 500-Hour Yoga Teacher Training in 2020 in San Francisco or London. I also have three separate online teacher trainings, focusing on arm balances & inversions, sequencing, or anatomy.

If you’ve spent time practicing with me, you know that I like to organize postures into categories. Sorry, I’m a Virgo. I’m also from the Midwest which is why I’m apologizing for something I don’t need to apologize for. In my defense, Patanjali was an organizer and list maker. So was the Buddha. I’m in good company.

Naturajasana falls into the backbending category in which the arms are reaching overhead and holding the foot/feet. Notable members of this family include the One-Legged King of Pigeon postures (Eka Pada Rajakapotasana postures), the ridiculously difficult arm balance named Kapinjalasana, and Hand-to-Foot Boat Pose (Padangusthasana Dhanurasana). So, yeah, this pose group is difficult.

Writing as someone with a mortal’s body who can’t directly hold my foot in ANY of these postures, I am thankful that they’re all highly accessible with a strap. In fact, these are my favorite backbends to practice, and I’m convinced that I feel every bit as good in these postures as someone who can hold their foot without a strap (or, at least, that’s what I tell myself while I cry myself to sleep).

See also Backbends: When and Why to Engage Your Glutes

One Thing to Know About Natarajasana

This entire family is challenging, but Natarajasana’s difficultly stands out. In fact, a highly skilled and capable student in my recent workshop in Copenhagen asked me why she wasn’t able to do Natarajasana, even though she had deep backbends. This is how the conversation went (with a few embellishments here for your entertainment):

Student: Why can’t I hold my foot in Natarajasana, when I can hold my foot in similar postures like Pigeon Pose?

Me: You’re not spirituality pure enough and the only way to burn the necessary samskaras is to provide your teacher with significant cash donations.

Student: No.

Me: OK. There’s another reason, and it’s simple. If you have the flexibility to hold your foot in Pigeon Pose, you probably have the flexibility to hold your foot in Natarajasana. The challenge is that it’s much more difficult to access your flexibility in Natarajasana than Pigeon.

Student: OK.

Me: Let’s quickly break this down. In Pigeon Pose, you have a lot of contact with the floor. Your front shin, your front knee, your front hip, and your back knee are in contact with the ground (or props). This means you’re stable and you have good leverage. When you’re stable and you have good leverage, you can generate more motion in your body to do your backbend. Plus, in Pigeon Pose, your center of gravity is close to the floor.

Therefore, in Pigeon Pose you have: More stability + more leverage + lower center of gravity = more range of motion.

Compare this to Natarajasana. In Natarajasana, your entire base consists of your standing foot. That’s all. In addition, you’re standing upright so your center of gravity is much higher. Pigeon is short and squat, Natarajasana is long and narrow.. This means that you have much less stability in Natarajasana than you do in Pigeon Pose.

When you have less stability, your body creates greater tension to stabilize your shape. This leads to less mobility—or, more accurately, less access to your mobility. You’re still just as flexible, but you can’t access it under the current conditions.

Get the difference? Yes? Good, come to my yoga teacher trainings. No? Good, come to one of my teacher trainings. Sorry, for the shameless plug, but if you’ve made it this far in this tedious article, we share common ground.

Therefore, in Natarajasana you have: Less stability + less leverage + higher center of gravity = less range of motion.

Student: You’re still not getting a cash donation.

That’s how the story goes.

To prove that she was able to do Natarajasana, I supported her raised knee properly and she easily reached back and took hold of her foot. When I provided her with additional base and stability, she was able to access her flexibility—just like she does in the other postures in this family.

When you don’t have a friend or a teacher to help create stability for you, you can do so by rooting through the base of the big toe, grounding the inner heel, and engaging quadriceps. You could also stand parallel to a wall (on the standing leg side) and place you hand against the wall so that you can feel the activation in your standing leg.

What’s the simple take-away that goes beyond Natarajasana? Sadly, you don’t need to give your teachers cash donations to do more difficult postures. Instead, you have to focus on producing greater stability and activity in your base, so your body is able to move more freely.

{illustration by MCKIBILLO}

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