Years ago, I taught yoga at a high school in Brooklyn, New York. At the end of the school year, I asked students to share what they felt had been the most valuable lesson they’d learned. A quiet, shy student who spoke little English at the start of the year, said: “I learned I have to practice to stay neutral.”
This has been a guiding principle of my own yoga practice ever since, reminding me to cultivate equanimity, both on and off my mat. In particular, taking the opportunity to connect with myself before I teach teenagers ensures that my classes remain focused on my students’ needs.
Sharing yoga with young people is a consistent reminder that we get to practice who we want to be in the world each day. The practice of yoga offers adolescents a discipline for discovering who they truly are. Beginning that process at a young age can shape who a teen becomes.
If you have experience teaching yoga to adults and are interested in learning how to teach teens, I would encourage you to let go of what you think you know. Yoga for teens is quite a different experience. And it will be most rewarding, for both students and teacher, if you come with an open mind and a full heart, and practice being wildly transparent in your words and actions.
Below are a handful of tips from my own teaching in schools all over New York City.
Young people—as with all people, really—thrive when they know where the edges are. They do best when they have a structured understanding of what a yoga class will contain, and when they feel they have a say in creating and defining that structure. When you begin, ask your students why they came to your yoga class in the first place. Get to know where they could use extra support in their lives. Where do they feel most capable? What is most challenging for them right now? What does success look like to them? From there, you can structure the yoga practice in a way that’s relevant and relatable, so that students cultivate tools they can use in their daily lives.
With structured consistency, they are able to measure their own successes (however they define that for themselves) and feel proud of their practice.
Make every effort to meet students where they are. Once you have assessed your students’ needs and adjusted your class plan into a framework that speaks to them, design each class with regular touchstones your students can count on. For instance, the same beginning and ending can bookend your students’ experiences, providing a familiar structure that facilitates consistent expectations. Perhaps you include the same breathwork as a lead-in for savasana each class. Or maybe you love sun salutations (like me!), and that becomes a ritual your students can look forward to. Many teachers feel an internal pressure to constantly generate something new and different, but students often don’t care about that. With structured consistency, they are able to measure their own successes (however they define that for themselves) and feel proud of their practice.
If you find yourself teaching anywhere that is not a yoga studio, creating the right environment may take some creativity. But there are many simple tricks you can use to quickly transform any space into a yoga space. To begin, check out what’s noisy in the room. Many students struggle to sustain attention in learning environments that are overloaded with stimuli. Take a few minutes to create a space that feels as neutral as possible. A classroom that is neutral to the senses will help soothe your students’ nervous systems and help them to see yoga as a tool for self-care. Whether that means toning down auditory stimuli from the school hallway or visual stimuli on the walls, find ways to create more blank space. If the walls are covered with distractions, hang a white sheet over them before each class. Check out the floor—could it use an extra sweep? Ask a custodian to borrow the broom briefly. Are there lunchroom smells wafting in? You could douse a few cotton balls with essential oils and leave them around the edges of your space. If possible, I like to dim the lights to create a more tranquil environment.
Consider also how you want to set up yoga mats. I prefer to create a circle whenever possible (though with everyone moving to the perimeter of the room, it sometimes looks more like a rectangle). I position myself such that I can always see the door (and track everything happening in our room), and I make sure anyone who wants to can see the door as well. Students can see me watching who comes and goes, and this can also help to put them at ease. One goal is to offer students safety. Many students will be uncomfortable with the idea of having someone behind them, and some will not feel at ease unless they can see the door at all times. You don’t often know your students’ histories. This is a small way of showing your concern for their comfort as well as your commitment to making each student feel welcome and included. Once students feel safe, you can then foster a feeling of community. A circle invites this by allowing everyone to see each other’s faces during discussions.
Saying yes is empowering—particularly as many young people are told no all day long. You get to be a different kind of teacher in their lives. I spent years with Little Flower Yoga leading national trainings on teaching yoga to young people, and I coached school-based yoga teachers in their New York City classrooms. From my observation of dozens of school-based yoga teachers, I’ve seen that many of them—particularly newer teachers not yet comfortable in their role—tend to say no too swiftly. I know this too because that used to be me.
Here’s a flashback to a typical scenario from my early years teaching yoga to young people. I felt the class was getting too boisterous, so I told students to be quiet, to stop talking, and to lower their voices. Worried we wouldn’t finish the day’s lesson plan, I hurried them along and forced them through the movements, without opportunities for slow inquiry. I didn’t think they were really paying attention, so I told them to pay attention in a way that I recognized—one that demanded their silence, rapt attention, and complete stillness—and likely stifled their best learning style. None of this felt very good, and I knew even then that there must be a better way.
As I began to better understand how to manage the classroom with more ease, this is a practice I turned to: When teaching young people, before I open my mouth to say anything, I ask myself: Is what I’m about to say for me, or is it for them? Are my words and actions serving me, or are they serving my students? I quickly discovered that the overwhelming majority of what I said was for me. So I began to practice silence during those moments. If I couldn’t say something to uplift my students, to provide information that would lead to their own positive decision-making and course correction, I simply choose to stay quiet—for a beat, a breath, a moment.
Don’t be in the business of telling your students what not to do—instead, tell them what to do. An unexpected plus to such a practice is that when I do have to say no (mostly out of a safety concern), my words have weight. My students rarely hear me say no. So when I do, they know something is really going on. Bottom line: When you pause to check in with yourself before speaking or acting, you gift yourself with an opportunity to elevate your students’ needs.
Take a moment to reconnect with your purpose for teaching. Oftentimes, you can create more space by inviting more time for your own quiet presence. This will allow you to meet students right where they are, to be awake to their needs, and to say yes—over and over and over again.
Yoga has the power to remind all of us that there are choices we get to make in everyday situations, moment to moment. Many young people feel they don’t have a lot of choice in their lives, which is why it’s so important to give them choices in your classroom. Giving them tools to listen to their own bodies’ needs is a perfect way to do this, and everyone is more inclined to participate when they feel they choose to opt in.
Teach them that a deep yoga practice is being able to tune into the messages of their body and mind, and to act in a way that honors the best version of who they are.
From the very first class, show your students poses they can rest in and practice until they feel comfortable in their bodies. A few examples: lying down supine or prone, child’s pose, legs up the wall, or a seated position. Remind your students that they can return to these shapes at any point during class to just take a rest. Teach them that a deep yoga practice is being able to tune into the messages of their body and mind, and to act in a way that honors the best version of who they are.
When I walk into any class with young people, my first thought is: How are we going to get to savasana? I assess where my students are energetically, and I figure out how I can meet them there and deliver them to a place of rest. If they are revved up, I might begin high intensity, and then slowly wind them down. If they seem really beat, I might begin gently and end gently, with just a bit of higher energy in the middle.
Many students, particularly those who live in smaller homes and/or share a room (or a bed) with someone else, don’t often associate sleeping at night as a time of rest. You may be offering them a radical idea that rest is something they can create on their own, in the most unlikely of places. Young people are exhausted, and with the right conditions, they’ll come back to yoga wanting more and more time for savasana. I often offer a few different postures for students’ resting pose at the end of class—for example, reclined on their back, seated comfortably, or lying prone on their bellies. This way, I invite them to make a choice about how rest will feel best for them in that moment.
Remember that young people are figuring out who they want to be. By being a steady, reliable, confident presence in their lives, they get to see an example of someone (you!) practicing being your best self.
And in the same way you bring gentleness and compassion to your students, make sure you do the same for yourself. Self-care is crucial for the world we live in. Give to yourself generously, and your teaching will thrive.