Remember the first yoga class you attended? You were trying to learn the physical language of yoga, listen and respond to cues, and, oh yeah, remember to breathe differently than usual. Maybe your experience was unspeakably life-changing. Or it’s possible that it was more discouraging than you could have ever imagined.
Your initial experience with asana may have been affected by several things, but chances are the most influential element was the teacher and the manner in which they introduced you and others to the practice.
As a yoga teacher, it’s your responsibility to approach a class with beginners in a way that, to the best of your ability, anticipates and addresses their needs. Not everyone is going to resonate with your unique style of teaching—and that’s to be expected. But the following insights can guide your approach and help you better support beginners in their initiation to yoga.
15 tips for teaching yoga to beginners
1. Explain what to expect
One of the primary sources of anxiety when someone is trying something new is the unknown. Newcomers to your class might be wondering what the heck they’ve gotten themselves into by trying yoga. You can alleviate some of this tension simply by explaining what they can expect.
At the start of class, introduce yourself as students get settled on their mats. You might want to explain the trajectory of class. For example, tell them they’ll start in a seated position and warm up with some stretches, then move into standing poses, come back down to the mat for a cool down, and end with a relaxing rest.
As you bring students into Savasana, let them know that they’ll be in the pose for several minutes and that you’ll let them know when it’s time to come out of it. This keeps them from wondering how long they need to remain still and looking around to see if everyone else is still lying down.
2. Help them understand they belong here
Perhaps the most crucial teaching that you can impress upon nervous students is that yoga is for everybody.
“I always start with a brief introduction in which I assure them that they can ‘do the yoga,’” says Mishel Wolfe, a yoga teacher and reiki practitioner based in Colorado. However, it’s not enough to reassure students they can do yoga. It’s your responsibility to show students how to do the yoga in their body. You do this by being prepared to offer variations, pacing class in a manner that’s appropriate to your students, and not being at a loss no matter who walks into class, whether a body builder or an 80 year old.
Beginner classes are, curiously, often taught by new yoga teachers with the least experience. Yet these are the classes that benefit most from being led by someone with years of experience and training. Even if you’re not experienced in teaching students with different conditions, you need to be able to figure out how to best accommodate your students’ needs and change what you intended to teach. You can always take beginner classes yourself and observe the approach of other teachers.
3. Use props
Before class, ask all students to grab whatever props you anticipate using, whether a block or two, blanket(s), strap, or bolster. If a student arrives late or ignores your suggestion, gather the necessary items for them and quietly, without drama, place the props alongside the student’s mat.
During class, demonstrate how to use the props in poses rather than rely on verbal cues. Encourage students to explore the difference in how a pose feels with props, although ultimately, if a student resists, you cannot force them.
4. Encourage questions
Beginners have lots of questions. Assure students that they can ask you a question anytime during class. Occasionally pause during class and allow space for someone to summon the gumption to raise a question. You may even anticipate questions they may have and present them as “You may be wondering….” or “Students often ask…”
Keep your responses unrushed and focused on the specific question. You might find yourself tempted to offer an anatomical explanation or expound upon something you recently learned, but stay on point and keep your answers thorough but brief. If you don’t know the answer to a query, don’t be shy about saying that. You could even offer to research it and bring more information to your next class, knowing that what you learn will benefit both of you.
5. Teach students how to breathe
One of the most essential lessons anyone can take away from yoga is an awareness of the breath. Talk about the capacity to return to an awareness of the breath in any moment and explain its relevance to the practice. Guide them to focus on their breath and shift from shallow breathing to belly breathing. Continue to remind students how to breathe throughout class.
This might seem too basic. It’s not. Your new students will be acclimating to new postures and coordinating a lot of different movements at once, and that tension can cause them to revert back to shallow breathing. That doesn’t mean you need to cue each inhalation and exhalation. Simply bring their awareness back to the qualities of the breath that are desirable in yoga—a slow and steady pace, inhalations that deepen beyond the chest, and perhaps even a slight pause at the top and bottom of each breath.
Remind students that breathwork is a part of their practice that they can take with them outside of the studio and into every moment in life.
6. Go slow
Allow ample time for students to explore the poses and your cues in their body. If you act rushed and talk in a hurried fashion, your students will pick up on that and the tension will be part of their practice. Slow your pace—both your talking and your thoughts. (Number 9 can also be a helpful reminder for the teacher.)
7. Assume nothing
You have little to no insight into the abilities, injuries, or past experiences of a student who is new to your class. Never assume someone can or cannot do a pose.
Also, postures or transitions that seem commonplace for you can be incredibly challenging for others.Be prepared with alternative cues and variations for every pose you intend to teach and let your students know it’s OK to opt out of any pose or rest at any time. “Of course, there is always the reminder to not push,” says Wolfe. “Whomever said ‘no pain, no gain’ was full of it. No pain in yoga, ever!”
8. Keep your classes and cues simple
There’s an overwhelming amount of information and coordination to learn during the first several months–if not years–of yoga. Stick to basic poses and transitions and use a minimum of words. If you use a Sanskrit term, always follow it with the English translation.
Mary Clare Sweet, a studio owner and teacher in Nebraska, encourages instructors to say the same cues, shapes, and alignment tips repeatedly to help reinforce learning. “Many yoga teachers are afraid to repeat the same cue over and over,” she explains. “But it’s actually super important that you choose one to three cues that you could repeat in most asanas. The students will only hear about 10% of what you say, so the more simple and repetitive the cue, the greater likelihood that they can integrate it.”
Don’t forget that silence is also a teacher. Allow space in between talking so your students can take in and explore the cues that you do share.
9. Demonstrate the poses
Be prepared to demo everything that you teach in a beginners’ class. There’s no replacement for seeing someone demonstrate a pose, no matter how carefully you phrase your verbal cues.
If you’re hesitant to model a pose for fear of not being “perfect,” don’t be. When you wobble or fall, this doesn’t discredit you as a teacher. It makes you more relatable as a human, reinforces for students that there is no place for “perfection” in yoga, and reminds them that yoga is for everyone.
10. Be flexible
Maybe you spent hours planning a class that you thought would be ideal for beginners…but you only got through half of it because you took time to answer questions. Or perhaps you were prepared to focus on shoulders but you noticed that several students struggled with tight hamstrings.
Remain flexible in what you teach. The most essential aspect of your role as a teacher is to address the needs of the students in front of you and not the ones you imagined showing up to class.
11. Don’t overcorrect your students
Your role is to help beginner students learn to move and coordinate their actions in ways they’ve never experienced. Allow for the natural learning curve and the time that takes. You want to help students find the basic shape of a pose but without demanding precise alignment or even setting that up to be the ideal.
12. Rethink hands-on adjustments
If physical adjustments are part of your teaching style, reconsider that when you’re instructing beginner students. Yes, you want to help them experience the feeling in their bodies of “proper” alignment. But that doesn’t mean an adjustment is actually helpful for the student.
Beginners are so busy concentrating on the basic shape of the pose that they may not understand the nuance of your well-intended tweaks. Also, you don’t have any information about that student’s physical or psychological story. Even though you have the best intentions, the student might be startled or offended when you touch them.
Many teachers have a personal policy to not place hands on someone until that student has attended several classes with them. This allows the student to gain trust in the teacher and it offers you the necessary time to observe how their body moves so you can better understand how not to over-adjust them.
Instead of placing hands on the student, work on being even more instructional with your verbal cues. You can also stand near a student whose alignment you would like to support as you demonstrate the pose or gesture how to adjust their body.
13. Don’t call out anyone individually
The last thing anyone wants when they’re trying something new is to be called out–certainly not for doing it “wrong” but also for doing a pose “correctly.”
Don’t single anyone out, whether by name or description (i.e. “the person in the flowered leggings”). If you want to “correct” someone, try a general reminder directed toward the entire class. If that doesn’t work, you could walk near a student and say it again.
Similarly, when someone loses their balance or takes some time to find alignment in a posture, don’t call undo attention to it by asking loudly if the student is OK. If you have reason to be concerned, walk over to their mat and quietly check in. You could choose to casually reinforce to the entire class that yoga is called “a practice” for a reason or mention that “Some poses may be challenging” or “It’s interesting to observe how your practice of this pose changes with time.” You might also resist the urge to say anything and remain quiet when this happens.
Wolfe prefers to keep class lighthearted at all times, including these moments. “Humor can disarm just about anyone,” she explains.
14. Listen to your students
Beginners often want to seek you out after class to share their experience or seek validation. Try to build a little time into your schedule to accommodate this. Move the conversation to the lobby, a hallway, or another location out of earshot of other classes.
However, spending time talking to students after class can quickly become a space where you need to practice your boundaries—both in terms of the time you spend and the topics you discuss. It is not your role to be a personal coach, therapist, physician, or friend. Politely but firmly draw the line where needed.
15. Keep a beginner’s mind
Each time you lead others through their yoga practice, it’s a chance to learn—and it’s as instructional as anything you’ll find in a YTT manual.
Observe how students respond to your cues. Notice where they hesitate or become confused. You may need to alter your wording, demo more slowly, or rethink a transition. You won’t always get it right—and that’s part of the experience for both you and your class. Teaching is a continual process of observing your students and refining your approach. Try to bring a beginner’s mind to each experience so that even as a teacher, you remain a student.