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How to Teach Beginners in Mixed-Level Classes

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 episode 139 of Yogaland podcast if you want to hear Andrea and I talk about it in more detail.

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How to Teach Yoga Philosophy to Beginners

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 our Yogaland episode, Yoga Philosophy for Beginners.

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Tips for Teaching Yoga to Beginners

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.

If you want to hear more on this topic, you can listen to Andrea and I talk about Teaching Asana to Beginners on Yogaland podcast.


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Three meditation studies that inspire me to practice

When Jason and I recorded the second podcast for this program (which, btw, you can still sign up for!), I told him that I often read  yoga and meditation research — for fun. He somewhat incredulously blurted out, “Nerd!” because he had no idea that I love poring over Harvard Health’s recent round-up or that I visit Richard Davidson’s site on the regular just to see if there’s anything new…

But it’s true – I do. In part, it comes from my years of writing short health pieces. But it’s also because the research inspires me. We all get bored in our practice from time to time. Reading the research is part of how I bargain with myself to sit down and do the practice. Even after all these years, I still need need reminders about why this practice is so valuable. Plus, I genuinely love seeing how science is starting to measure the things we inherently know when we engage with these practices over long periods of time – that they make us more empathic, that happiness is a skill, that somehow we aren’t as triggered by stress anymore.

With that in mind, here are three of my favorite meditation studies (I include lots more in the program):

Jason Crandell Meditating | Yoga Meditation | Jason Crandell Yoga

Compassion Meditation Changes the Brain

More than 10 years ago, Richard Davidson’s team published a study in PLOS One indicating that “positive emotions such as loving-kindness and compassion can be learned in the same way as playing a musical instrument or being proficient in a sport.” Brain scans of 16 monks who were exposed to distressing human sounds showed increased activity in regions of the brain associated with emotion sharing and empathy compared to a control group. Access the study here >>

Mindfulness Increases Grey Matter

This study, led by Harvard neuroscientist Sara Lazar, showed that after just 8 weeks of Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), participants demonstrated increases in areas of the brain associated with compassion and empathy, memory, and concentration. In addition, the participants’ amygdala got smaller! The amygdala is associated with fear and the fight or flight response.  Access the study here >>

Meditation May Protect the Aging Brain

When researchers at UCLA compared the brains of meditators to non-meditators they found that meditator’s brains were almost a decade younger by the time people reach their mid 50s. Research is still ongoing, but the hope is that meditation may help protect against age-related decline. Access the study here >>

I hope these studies inspire your practice! For more inspiration, consider joining You Can Sit With Us, which includes self-compassion meditations, mindfulness meditation, and self-inquiry practices.

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What Self Care Means to Me — and Why It Matters

Andrea Ferretti

Self care is a buzz word these days. And there’s a reason for it – in times of cultural and political strife, people’s interest in self care increases.

Buzz words tend to make me cringe, or at the very least, they make me suspicious. But last year, as I was prepping for an interview with Jill Miller, I read her words, “self care is healthcare,” and they stopped me in my tracks with a big, resounding, inner YES.

Yes, because I went through clinical depression and panic disorder in my twenties, and a big part of my healing was learning self care (the other big part was and still is anti-depressants). When I became a mother 6 years ago and ended up with an unplanned, super-medicated C-section and my baby couldn’t latch properly for close to a month, I was forced to slow down and practice self care. And when I went through cancer treatment four years ago, I was reminded yet again that ongoing self care was part of my post-treatment plan to help prevent recurrence.

So, a big YES to the idea self care is part of what keeps me healthy – and when I lose touch with that, I am less healthy, resilient, and strong. I’m also less able to cope well with the primary people in my life – I’m less patient, more brittle, and less of a teacher to my daughter, more of a drill sergeant. The reason for this is so obvious to me now –it really is true that the way you treat others begins with the way you treat yourself. If you’re gracious and spacious with yourself, you’re more able to extend that goodwill to the people around you.

For me, self care is a constant process of self-reflection and then making choices that contribute to my overall well being from moment to moment.

The actual doing of self care is different for everyone. And until I read Jill’s quote, I put it in the category of – go get a mani with my bff or treat myself to something. I like to treat my self – just ask my husband. And, occasionally, a pedi feels like self care. But overall, I think of it differently now. For me, self care is a constant process of self-reflection and then making choices that contribute to my overall well being from moment to moment. Sometimes it takes the form of using some essential oils to reset my mood. Other times it’s scheduling in coffee time with friends who I truly love connecting with. Many, many times it’s allowing myself more silence, less screen time.

Whatever the self care choice is, there are three underpinnings to this approach to self care:

– First, I acknowledge that self care has value. It’s not a treat; it’s a necessity for me to function at my very best in a consistent way.
– Second, it requires the ability to tune in to what I need, which requires self-awareness.
– Third (and I learned this one from Caitlin Hildebrand on my recent podcast, Yoga as a Form of Radical Self Care) – when it’s tied to your overall sense of purpose, it’s more meaningful and easier to stick to.

And that’s why yoga and meditation are at the very root of all my self care practices. These two foundational practices that accomplish two things at once – they hone your self-awareness so that you can better identify and respond to your own needs while being amazing forms of self care in their own right. Simply stepping on the mat or sitting in silence on a regular basis will help you understand your energy levels, your physical pains, your responses to stress. These practices will help you hear the voice in your head that is planning the future or is stuck ruminating on the past. They can illuminate the mean girl on your shoulder who tells you you’re not working hard enough, and it also open you up to a compassionate voice who knows the truth of how inherently worthy you are.

Self care is not always easy – it’s not all running through daisy fields taking selfies. It also doesn’t have to be expensive. But it does require committing to its value and carving out practices that you can regularly incorporate into your life.

I have so much more to say about this topic and I’d love to share it with you. If you’d like to learn more about self care and create a meditation habit that sticks, join me in May 13th, 2019 for my three-week program, You Can Sit With Us. Each week, you’ll receive four meditations, a video podcast, and a journal with self-inquiry questions to help you scope out develop a self care and meditation habit that support you in all aspects of your life.

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