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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.8 comments Add Your Own
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People often ask if they should do a 200-hour yoga teacher training even if they don’t plan to become a yoga teacher. I always answer with a resounding, ‘Yes!’ A foundational yoga teacher training is a wonderful opportunity to experience the vastness of yoga that is difficult to experience in a 60 or 90-minute class. But it’s important that you choose a high quality program.
Whether you want to become a yoga teacher or have no plans to teach, there are fundamental, universal yoga truths that need to be taught in order to create a solid foundation.
The following are seven vital things to look for in a 200-hour yoga teacher training. (And, by the way, Jason and I will be offering a 200-hour yoga teacher training starting this September, 2018, in San Francisco. You can find all the details here.)
200-Hour Yoga Teacher Training: 7 Things to Look For
1). Safe, Up-to-Date Asana Practice
Yoga is a wonderful, beneficial practice when done safely. And yet, it’s no secret that yoga injuries have been on the rise in recent years. (I even spoke about my own experiences with injury on a Yogaland podcast with Andrea recently.)
As a result, Jason and I have both made changes to the way we sequence vinyasa yoga classes (read: we’ve changed things up to reduce repetitive stress) and we don’t teach asana alignment in a “traditional way” just because it’s traditional. We both believe that there are instances where traditional asana alignment should be re-examined to help facilitate a safer practice.
Finally, we don’t subscribe to the idea that “deeper is better.” For students like myself who come to yoga with a flexible body, going deeper into flexibility doesn’t create balance. Focusing on strength does.
Bottom line: A topnotch 200-hour yoga teacher training will teach safe alignment, balanced sequencing that reduces repetitive stress, and perhaps most importantly, the idea that yoga postures are not one-size-fits-all.
As an added bonus, a good yoga teacher training will guide you toward a personal practice so that you can learn more about your own body and teach from a place of deep knowledge.
2). Essential Yoga Anatomy
A sound 200-hour yoga teacher training will help you become an active participant in your asana practice. You’ll increase the richness of the practice when you understand why you come into particular asana shapes and how the positions and actions affect your anatomy.
You’ll also learn the functions of your muscular and skeletal structure, both in your everyday life and in your yoga practice. And you’ll learn which muscles and bones are at risk in particular postures and how to protect those areas.
3). Philosophy and History
In an everyday yoga class, it can be hard to grasp the philosophical underpinnings of the practice. Look for a foundational yoga teacher training that covers the foundational texts: The Bhagavad Gita, Upanishads, Hatha Yoga Pradipika, Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra and more. (You can find the reading list for our 200-hour yoga teacher training here.)
Ideally, you’ll gain insight as to where the practice originated from, and why we continue to do asana, meditation, and the other eight limbs of yoga. These teachings can bring purpose and meaning to your practice, your teaching, and your life.
4). Skillful, Intelligent Hands-On Adjustments
As with safe alignment, thoughtful teachers have re-examined how to offer safe manual adjustments to students. Jason and I do not do deepening adjustments. Instead, we offer stabilizing adjustments. In a high quality 200-hour yoga teacher training, the days of laying our bodies over our students to get them to go deeper should be long gone.
5). The Importance of Community
One of my favorite things about teacher trainings is the community that develops. A special bond forms when you learn and spend so much time with others. One of my best friends is from my first 200-hour teacher training! Its nice to having fellow teacher friends to rise up with when building a yoga career. Growing with others and getting supporting from one another makes the journey much more enjoyable!
Many of us are unsure if we are “doing it right” when we come to our yoga practice. A high-quality yoga teacher training will help you build confidence in your own practice and give you tools to share your yoga knowledge and help others.
7). Life Coping Skills
We live in stressful times and many of use don’t know how to deal with the pressures and demands being put on us by society and our personal life. A good yoga teacher training will give you the tools to observe your patterns and tendencies, and why you suffer and react the way you do. The training will give you the life skills to show up and handle the same situations in a healthier, less stress inducing way.9 comments Add Your Own
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“I don’t meditate.”
“I don’t do yoga.”
“Meditation and yoga are for New Age, magical thinkers who are out of touch with reality and have too much time on their hands.”
These might have been some of my own personal excuses I made to the person that was dragging me to my first yoga class more than 20 years ago. She didn’t listen to me. And, really, why should she have listened? I was wrong on all counts. At the time, it was unclear just how profoundly wrong I was. Time would tell a different story.
So, what was my deal? Well, it was simple: I didn’t understand anything about meditation or yoga. So, my mind made up an incorrect story based on very little information. If this sounds familiar, it’s because we all do it from time to time. One of the many problems with this hard-headed tendency is that we cut ourselves off from experiences that can be incredibly valuable to us—like yoga and meditation.
If we fast-forward two decades to the present moment, I do meditate and I do practice yoga. Both are inextricable elements of my life. If you’re familiar with my classes or online content, you already know that I practice yoga. It’s possible, however, that you don’t know that I meditate. I do. Here’s why.
Why I Meditate
There are countless modern articles that extol the physical, mental, and emotional benefits of meditation. Arguably the entire tradition of yoga would not exist without meditation. Personally, I meditate for three reasons—any other positive side effects of my sitting practice are an added bonus:
1) Sometimes my life feels like a run-on sentence and my meditation practice gives me much needed punctuation. Like everyone else I know, I jump from one thing to another thing in a seemingly endless series of minor events. My meditation practice helps me press the pause button in my life. It helps curb my neurotic impulse to plow through every moment of my life without registering any of them.
2) My meditation practice helps me bear witness to the sensations of my body, the thoughts of my mind, and the feeling of my breath. All of these things are genuinely interesting to me. I’ve always been curious about the human condition and my meditation practice gives me a live glimpse into the phenomenon.
3) My meditation practice balances my active practice by providing me with a complementary physical experience. I like to work intensely in my body. But, I also like the sensory experience of being still. Working intensely and being still both provide physical feedback loops that I use to focus my attention. For me, they’re an inseparable pair.
5 Common Excuses for not Meditating—and why MOST of them are weak
Excuse #1, “My mind isn’t still.”
Counterpoint: Your mind is never going to be still. Never. And, whoever gave you that impression didn’t meditate either. Instead, when you meditate, you’re going to simply observe the activity of your mind so that you can witness your thoughts with greater objectivity. Your mind will still be active because you’re still alive. But, when you meditate consistently, your mind’s activity (usually) settles just enough that there is a lessening of pressure around your thoughts.
Excuse #2, “I don’t have time.”
Counterpoint: You actually do have time, you’re just in the habit of doing other things with your time. And, honestly, you may not be able to make time for meditation every day of your life. Life can get away from us once in a while. However, sitting for 10 minutes a few times a week is plausible for nearly everyone.
Excuse #3, “Meditation is for New Age, magical thinkers who are out of touch with reality and have too much time on their hands.”
Counterpoint: What kind of a person would think this?!?!
Excuse #4, “I can’t sit still.”
Counterpoint: Honestly, this is someone of sound and able body saying, “I can’t move.” Yes, you can. You can sit still. You might be lousy at sitting still. Sitting still might drive you crazy. But, you can sit still. In fact, this makes me think that you might need some practice sitting still. But, wait, how can one practice sitting still??? Oh, that’s right.
Excuse #5, “I don’t know how to meditate.”
Counterpoint: This is NOT lame. This is legitimate. Like so many other things in life, it’s helpful to have some guidance when you’re starting something new—or, trying to stay consistent. If this is your excuse, you’re in luck. I have answers for you below.
How to Start Meditating: Yoga and Meditation Tips for People Who Don’t Meditate
There are countless resources on meditation online, in books, and in local communities. Here are a few resources that you may find helpful.
#1. I’ve released a program on Yogaglo.com called, “I Don’t Meditate.” Clearly, this program was the inspiration for the title of this blog and my recent podcast on Yogaland with Andrea Ferretti. The program consists of 6, 10-minute meditations. You can learn more about the Yogaglo program, here. And, if you haven’t listed to the podcast, please check it out here. Yogaglo has additional meditation classes from exceptional teachers like Sally Kempton, Harshada Wagner, and more.
#2. Jack Kornfield and other meditation teachers at Spirit Rock in Woodacre, CA and the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, MA, are exceptional resources. Jack—and many of the other teachers at Spirit Rock—offer podcasts, guided meditation, and dharma talks that will provide you with endless guidance along the path of meditation.
#3. Local dharma teachers or groups in your area can provide you with guidance and community. Not everyone will have access to a local community of meditators. However, many do. You may even consider driving to a meditation center or sitting group once a month if you live further away. These communities provide support and inspiration that can be invaluable.
I hope that these resources will get you sitting, taking inventory of yourself, and making sure that you don’t make the mistake that I made of saying that you “don’t meditate.”10 comments Add Your Own
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Nearly six years ago, my daughter Sofia-Rose was born. She brought me happiness I could have never imagined. She also obliterated my home practice beyond all recognition for more than a year.
Before she was born, I was so hopped-up on adrenaline, oxytocin, and optimism (not always my strength) that I didn’t think her birth would change my practice. In fact, I was delusional enough to think that her birth would inspire even greater dedication to my practice. I thought her presence would be my shot at a complete renewal, a total overhaul in which nothing could get between my mat and me.
Yes, I love her to the point that it makes me tremble. Yes, parenting has taught me more about patience, breath, and love than the rest of my life combined. No, I wouldn’t trade her for the world. But did my practice stay the same? [email protected]#l no! Not even close. My asana practice crumbled to a shell of its former self and I grew a Dad-bod like you wouldn’t believe. Even more to the point of this post, my teaching temporarily suffered with these changes. Now, it’s better than ever since I have more life experience to draw on (and I’ll share some of the yoga teaching tips I learned below). But, I didn’t see this at the time.
Everyone goes through different chapters in life. Everyone faces curveballs. And, like a good curveball, you usually don’t see them coming. Being a yoga practitioner and yoga teacher doesn’t inoculate you from life. It just provides you with insight and skills that help you manage the complexity of the human condition.
Since we all face unforeseen circumstances from time to time that affect our practice and teaching, it’s important to know how to stay honest and authentic in your teaching when your life gets (even more) complicated.
Here are some practical yoga teaching tips to work with:
1. Don’t Press Too Hard
When baseball players are in a slump, they sometimes perpetuate it further by pressing—or, becoming overly eager to make something happen. This undermines their ability to relax and respond to the game in a skillful way. I’ve noticed the same thing in myself at times. When my teaching becomes stale, I often overcompensate by trying too hard. I get too wordy, too complicated, and too hurried.
If you’re going through a challenging phase in your teaching, try this tip instead: Step back slightly and let the practice shine. Minimize the impulse to overdo and trust that the practice itself will be enough for your students.
2. Be Transparent Without Being Overly-Indulgent
Never make class about you and what you’re going through. After all, the students are paying you—you’re not paying them for group therapy. At the same time, it’s nice to be relatively transparent and to acknowledge what’s happening in your life (at least in limited doses). Students appreciate the reminder that you’re a real, flesh and blood person—and, that yoga is a practical, accessible practice for everyone (at all times). It’s likely that many of your students have experienced what you’re currently going through and this may help them connect to your teaching even more deeply.
3. Don’t Radically Change Your Class or Teaching Style
It’s important to be consistent with your students. When teachers go through a significant transition in their lives, they sometimes make abrupt stylistic changes to their teaching. While it’s important to be relatively transparent, it’s also essential to provide a consistent experience for your students. If you’re a teaching a vinyasa class, don’t randomly teach a Yin or restorative class because you’re tired or overwhelmed. Sure, you can play with the pace, but be responsive to your students and provide them with the class that they came for.
4. Practice – Even If It Looks Very Different Now
My practice was shorter, milder, less frequent, and less focused for 18-months or so after Sofia was born. But I still practiced. I still connected to my breath and did the occasional Sun Salutation. I still did some shoulder and hip openers most evenings. I also made sure to have one slightly more intense practice each week. Instead of being attached to the way you were practicing before the curveball came across your plate, do whatever you can to survive the storm—and do your best to savor it.21 comments Add Your Own
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A conversation about manual yoga adjustments (also called “hands-on assists) in yoga is long overdue. For the past five years in my workshops, trainings, and weekly classes, I’ve been advocating for a paradigm shift: I believe that yoga teachers need to stop acting like stretching machines and exerting leverage on students’ bodies to intensify or “enhance” a stretch.
Why? The answer is simple: This is a mechanically flawed approach to working with bodies and it results in countless avoidable injuries.
I’ve seen plenty of anecdotal evidence of this – and, if you’re a yoga teacher, I’m sure you have, too. During my trainings and workshops I ask students to raise their hand if they’ve been injured during a manual adjustment. There has never been a group where less than forty percent of students have raised their hand. I think you’ll agree that this is too much. As a community, we can drastically lower this number.
I’m not saying that experienced teachers shouldn’t provide appropriate manual feedback. I’m still an advocate for manual yoga adjustments—or, what I usually call them, “manual cues.”(Listen to this week’s Yogaland podcast to hear me talk about this more.) There is nothing better in class than receiving an excellent manual cue. The body falls into place and the nervous system relaxes. Unfortunately, the opposite is also true. There’s nothing worse than receiving a poor or inappropriate adjustment—the body strains, the breath tightens, and the nervous system becomes agitated.
A good yoga adjustment skillfully communicates the actions of the pose to your body so that your body understands the posture more clearly. A bad adjustment is invasive and misguided. During lousy adjustments, the teacher is either working with a lack of experience and information or an abundance of ego.
So what is the paradigm shift I’m talking about here? First, I ask that teachers stop exerting leverage on the part of the student’s body that is moving. Instead, provide increased grounding and stability to the part of the student’s body that is fixed. Let’s take Wide-Legged Seated Forward Bend (UpavisthaKonasana) as an example. In this pose, the pelvis and spine rotate forward over the thighbones—they are the “moving” parts of the pose.The thighbones root down into the ground—they are the “fixed” part of the pose. Do not add leverage to the pelvis and spine. Instead, press down on the thighbones. Grounding the student’s thighs will allow the pelvis and spine to release further into the pose without the vulnerability that comes from adding direct pressure onto the pelvis and spine. This is just one of countless examples.
Another component of this paradigm shift is to view manual cues the same way we view verbal cues. Manual cues—like verbal cues—simply communicate the actions of the pose to the student. The idea is to use your hands to communicate directly to the student’s body so he or she has a better understanding of the pose. The idea is not to use your hands to press a student further into the pose. You are not a stretching machine that is doing the pose to the student.
Here are 10 more ideas for honing our approach to manual yoga adjustments during yoga class:
First, a note about ethical considerations
While this is a huge topic for discussion in a teacher-training program, it’s outside the scope of this article. So, let me just say that teachers should never touch students inappropriately. Period. (To hear my wife, Andrea, talk about ending sexual misconduct in the yoga world, listen to episode 94 of Yogaland.)
1. Observe Before You Adjust
You’ll get pretty busy during class: you’ll be sequencing, verbalizing, adjusting, observing group dynamics, managing the clock, adjusting the tempo, and so on. It can be challenging to simply pause and patiently see a student’s body clearly. Instead, you might notice the most obvious element of a student’s pose and set your sights on giving an adjustment that involves leverage. However, it is important to observe your students before you dive in. This pause will not only help you more accurately assess the room, it will help you become grounded before you attempt to steady someone else.
2. Put Fires Out First
As you assess the room, look for dangerous or uncomfortable postures. Adjust these folks before you walk around and offer a “deepening” adjustment to someone who doesn’t actually need any help. It’s more important that all of your students are working safely than deepening someone’s backbend.
3. Create Steadiness, Not Intensity
Aim to help your students find greater steadiness, ease, and integrity in their postures. Instead of trying to increase range of motion, figure out how you can help them feel more grounded and balanced. Adjustments that increase intensity can be dangerous—especially if the student is not grounded. Unfortunately, many teachers want their students to have “breakthroughs” in their class since these experiences can build an attachment to the teacher. These types of egocentric adjustments often contribute to injuries.
4. Stabilize the Foundation
One of the best ways to adjust your students is by helping them create balanced, stable contact with the floor. If a student’s postural foundation is off, the rest of their body will have to work even harder to maintain equilibrium. Their effort will be inefficiently distributed, creating unnecessary tension throughout the body.
5. Help Them Find their Stride
It is common for students to have a stride that is too long or too short. Helping students size their stride correctly can be one of the most thorough stabilizing adjustments.
6. Know Your Student Before Deepening A Pose
Most students are near their maximum range of motion (at least in the short term) before their teacher adjusts them. This means that your students are already at their edge before you give them any manual cues. Your student is already at a stress point and any additional motion in the posture should be mild. There’s a fine line between deepening the pose and creating an injury. A very fine line.
It’s much safer and more skillful to work with a student that you know well. And, remember our earlier point: You’re not a stretching machine—don’t exert force on the part of the student’s body that is already moving in the posture. Simply use your hands to create more stability and grounding so they can release deeper into the pose on their own.
7. Take Your Time
No one likes a rushed adjustment. Hasty yoga adjustments are unsettling to the mind, body and nervous system. Take your time adjusting your students and surrender to the fact that people aren’t going to get touched 800 times in class. Fewer good adjustments are always preferable to more mediocre adjustments.
8. Observe How Your Students Respond
Sometimes when you adjust a student, you will feel them melt into the new position with comfort and relief. Other times, you will feel the student’s body resist by flinching or tensing. Sometimes a student may not want additional intensity or they’re protecting themselves because they’re nursing an injury. It’s important to observe your student’s breath and physical signals when you give them an adjustment. Sensing and responding to these signals is essential for developing skillful touch.
9. Complement Your Manual Cues with Verbal Cues
In most manual adjustments, you can only guide one or two actions of the posture at a time. To enhance your student’s pose, offer a verbal cue that complements the manual cue. Let’s say you’re adjusting your student in Revolved Triangle by stabilizing their hips while lengthening and rotating their spine in the twist. You can verbally cue them to reach through their back leg and ground their outer foot.
10. Ask the Correct Questions
Don’t ask your students if an adjustment feels good! You won’t always get candid feedback since very few students will feel comfortable telling you that they don’t feel good in the adjustment. Instead, ask your students, “Do you want more intensity, less intensity, or the same intensity?” You don’t have to ask this question every time you make an adjustment. But, if you’re going to ask them if the adjustment is working for them, this is the best way to go about it.15 comments Add Your Own