6 Tips For Teaching Yoga To Beginners
Teaching a yoga sequence for beginners might initially sound simple (I know, I know, this is where all of you who actually have taught and do teach beginning yoga classes chime in with “ha!” or “yeah, right!” Don’t worry, I’m getting to that.) It’s for this reason that new yoga teachers are often given beginner-level classes. Because beginner = “easy,” right? Not so much if you’re the teacher.
The truth is, beginner classes can be some of the most challenging classes to teach.
The truth is, beginner classes can be some of the most challenging classes to teach. They can also be some of the most fun and rewarding classes to teach (don’t worry, I’ll get to that too). Sure, the poses you’ll offer in beginner classes will probably be fairly simple, but teaching a downdog from scratch is a lot trickier than simply cueing “downdog” and then offering a few alignment cues and refinements the way you might in a mixed-level or level 1, 2, or 3 class. And making that selfsame downdog interesting, accessible, and sufficiently challenging for all of your students? It’s harder than it looks. Breaking down poses step by step without relying on yoga-jargon, answering questions on the spot, and offering optimal pose variations for brand new students with a variety of body types, abilities, and reasons for coming to class for the first time requires a teacher to be really comfortable with and knowledgeable about the asanas they’re teaching. These are skills that generally take some time and experience to develop!
Despite having a bit of experience teaching mixed-level asana, when I first started teaching yoga for beginners (almost certainly way sooner than I should have!), it felt somewhat akin to learning how to swim by being stripped of my water wings, tossed off a dock, and told to “go for it!” I vaguely remember standing at the top of my mat and rattling off some yoga-speak, which was met with blank stares and confused glances. I demoed poses (which helped); I spouted off everything I’d ever heard about tadasana (which did not help); and I tried REALLY hard to sound like I knew what I was talking about. Eventually, one student raised her hand and said, “Excuse me, but I don’t think we understand what you’re talking about.” By then my nerves were rattled, my confidence was shot, and I felt like I wanted to cry. However, since I seem to be genetically predisposed to laughing at inappropriate moments, I started laughing instead (I think it may have had something to do with realizing how ridiculous my instructions to “puff the kidneys” or “breath into your right hip crease” actually were).
I figured I had totally bombed the class, and was sure I’d be forever blacklisted from teaching in this space again. But nonetheless, I really wanted to show the three students standing in front of me that yoga didn’t completely suck (even if my cueing did in that moment). My ego slightly bruised, I responded with something like “You’re right, that was ridiculous,” and resolved to teach the poses the way I would if I were explaining them to my sister or my best friend—simply, casually, and in the common vernacular. Years later, in a teacher training, I would learn that this is called “street language,” important even if it meant ditching most of the alignment cues that I thought I “should” be teaching.
And you know what? I didn’t suck so much after that. Aside from the awkward start, I’m pretty sure it ended up being a not-terrible class. The students stuck around, smiled, and continued to return for weeks after. And I learned a lot. For example, I learned that teaching yoga sequences to beginners wasn’t about saying everything “right,” or demonstrating how much I knew about any given pose; it was about giving the students who were present a fun, safe, and accessible yoga experience. In short, it was about them, not me.
And I also saw that in order to really teach an effective beginner class, I’d need to get to know the poses in a whole new way so that I could explain them clearly and confidently without memorizing a script or just repeating cues that I’d heard other teachers say. This resulted in more training, more studying, and more practice. Ultimately, it helped me become more confident in both my teaching skills and my own yoga practice.
I’ve come to realize what an amazing privilege it truly is to teach beginning classes.
Over time, I’ve come to realize what an amazing privilege it truly is to teach beginner classes. After all, I get to introduce people to yoga! Something that I’m super-excited about, and absolutely adore. Something that I really and truly believe in. It’s like introducing a friend to a favorite book, movie, or restaurant—only way better. Because unlike critically acclaimed young adult novels, out-of-the-way sandwich shops, and Wes Anderson flicks (wonderful as they may be), yoga has been an incredibly healing and empowering force in my life. To be able to share it with others, in the hope that they might find some sense of healing and empowerment too, is seriously an incredible gift.
I think it may be because of that realization that I’ve become more and more interested in learning more and more about how I can best serve beginning students. And in that same spirit of wanting to shout from the rooftops what has been genuinely helpful and inspiring for me, here are six of the most useful tips that I’ve learned so far for creating a safe and engaging beginner class.
1. Keep Your Cues Simple
While it’s important to set the foundation for safe, healthy alignment, you don’t want to give new students so many cues and refinements that you overwhelm or confuse them. After all, our working memory is limited ; when you’re learning a new skill, there’s only so much that you can process at once. Information overload can be stressful, frustrating, and confusing. If you bombard them with too much at the same time, your students may feel that they’re just “not getting” or “not good at” yoga, when really they’re just overwhelmed.
Keep your cues simple.
When you’re teaching beginners, it’s a good idea to stick with the “basic form of the pose.” This simply means safely guiding them into the general pose shape (or variation on that shape). From here, you might find it useful to offer one or two additional alignment cues. Or you might not.
Here are some basic guidelines to follow when teaching a pose to brand new yogis:
Set up the pose
This means explaining which way the students should face, how wide their stance should be, which props they should use and how they should use them, where their hands and/or feet go, how to actually get into the pose, and whether they should enter on an inhale or an exhale (if it matters).
For example, when introducing virabhadrasana II (warrior II) you might say:
- Turn to face the long edge of your mat, and step your feet wide apart (giving some general guidelines for determining “wide.” I usually ask students to extend their arms out to a “T” and to take a stance that’s wide enough so that their wrists are directly above their ankles).
- Turn your back foot in slightly.
- Pivot on your front heel so that your front toes point toward the short edge of your mat.
- On an exhale, bend your front knee so that it stacks over your front heel.
- On an inhale, float your arms out to your sides to make a “T” shape.
- On your next exhale, turn your head to look toward your front hand—only as much as feels comfortable for your neck.
You’re setting up the pose here, focusing on cultivating a stable foundation, and making the shape itself by stacking the bones on top of each other. That’s it.
And from here?
Remind students of their breath, and teach to what you see, offering an alignment tip or two only as needed.
Look at what’s actually happening for your students in the pose. Is there something you could suggest that would make it safer or more comfortable for them? For example, in warrior II, it’s common for the front knee to drop in toward the big-toe side of the foot (especially when the inner thighs are weak and the outer hips are tight!), which can put knee ligaments at risk for injury. You don’t have to get into all of the anatomy (unless you happen to have a group of beginners who truly love to geek out on that stuff), but a simple “draw your front knee toward the pinky-toe side of your foot” can be super-helpful here. Or, if you notice that a student is having a hard time with balance, suggest that they widen their stance, walking the front foot a little more to that side, or demonstrate options for practicing with a chair or at a wall.
And then? Is everyone safe? Are they breathing? Fabulous! There’s no need to be super-critical about alignment. The aim in a beginner class is to provide your students with a positive experience of yoga, not to pick at them so much that they feel like they can’t do anything “right.”
There’s no need to be super-critical about alignment.
2. Make Transitions Uncomplicated and Accessible
Transitions can be tricky. While stepping forward from downward facing dog, or jumping through to a seat are fairly common in yoga classes, that doesn’t mean they’re easy! In fact, they can be quite frustrating for lots of students (beginners or not). To build confidence and avoid unnecessary vexation, when you first introduce poses to new students, keep your transitions simple.
When teaching warrior I, or parshvottonasana (pyramid pose), for example, stepping back from tadasana is generally a more accessible way to set up the pose than trying to step forward from downdog. Ditto for stepping back into a lunge from uttanasana (standing forward bend) instead of stepping forward from dog pose, or walking the hands back to the feet from downdog (instead of feet to hands) to come into uttanasana.
And when you’re transitioning to seated or prone? It’s really, really okay to ditch the complex choreography and simply ask students to “sit down” or “lie on your bellies.” Keep it simple.
3. Go Easy On (and explain!) the Yoga Jargon
Don’t assume that students will automatically know what “energy lines,” "hug the midline," "engage mula bandha,” or “anjali mudra” mean. Use terminology that non-yogis will understand, and when you present some new vocab, define it! (“Resist your outer forearms toward each other—this is called 'hugging the midline,' because we’re resisting in toward the center of the body.”) Same goes for asana names. If you choose to call poses by their Sanskrit names, explain what you’re saying (“'adho mukha shvanasana' means 'downward facing dog' in Sanskrit.”)
Use terminology that non-yogis will understand.
And how much “yoga-talk” should you include (and explain!)? Depends on the interest level of your students (and what you as the teacher are able, comfortable, and interested in sharing). Which brings us to the next helpful hint...
4. Teach to Who’s in the Room
A “beginner” simply means someone who is new to yoga. “Beginner” does NOT automatically mean “unfit,” or “out of shape," or any other preconceived notion that we might consciously or unconsciously subscribe to. Like any yoga student, beginning students show up with a diverse variety of fitness levels, personal interests/reasons for practicing yoga, preferred learning styles, abilities/limitations, and body proportions. This means that there’s no “one size fits all” way to teach new students, and that (while it’s always a good idea to show up prepared) you may have to adjust your lesson plans and expectations in order to serve the students who are actually in the room practicing with you.
5. Be Kind with Your Corrections, and Help Your Students Feel Successful
This really applies to ALL students, beginners or not; however, it’s something that’s especially important for newer students.
Instead of trying to “fix” what’s “wrong” with your students, shift your focus to genuinely celebrating their strengths.
First impressions count for a lot, and as my mother always reminded me, you only get to make one. So what can we do to help our students walk away with a positive first impression of yoga? Part of it comes down to simply practicing kindness. Honor the individual awesomeness of each and every student who shows up to class. Instead of trying to “fix” what’s “wrong” with your students, shift your focus to genuinely celebrating their strengths (offering specific positive feedback, for example); using neutral language (refraining from terms like “wrong,” “right,” “more/less advanced,” “more/less flexible/strong,” “good alignment,” and “bad alignment”); and avoiding critical tones when offering corrections or suggestions.
Also remember that based on our unique body proporations, each and every one of us has some poses that come more easily, and others that are more challenging. Someone isn’t necessarily a “better” student because they can touch their hands to the floor in uttanasana or grab their ankles in bridge pose. For example: I have a long torso and shorter arms. This means that when practicing dandasana (staff pose), in order to bring my palms flat to the floor beside my hips (as the pose is commonly taught), I have to slump forward. This kind of defeats the purpose of the pose; therefore, I practice on fingertips or with blocks under my hands. But despite the fact that these adaptations allow me to reap the benefits of staff pose without compromising my spine, I’ve still had teachers come up to me and push my palms flat to the floor (causing the aforementioned slumping), or, upon sighting my fingertip variation, assure me that I’ll be able to bring my palms to the floor when I “get more flexible.” Both of which (even as a fairly experienced practitioner who is generally aware of my proportions) made me feel like a bit of an outcast, or even a “bad yogi” in the moment.
As teachers, the more we can learn about adapting poses for different bodies, the more we can provide everyone who comes to class with an empowering experience. Because ultimately, it’s far more important for students to feel safe, successful, and accepted in yoga class than it is for them to practice poses that look like they belong on the cover of a magazine (which really isn’t important at all!)
6. Provide Space for Questions
When you first start learning a new skill, it’s natural to have questions. In a yoga context, these might range from “Do my feet stay on the floor in cobra pose?” to “Where is the bathroom?”
If you’re cool with students piping in to ask questions during class, let them know that questions are welcome. (After introducing something new, I’ll often ask “Does that make sense? Does anybody have questions?” as a reminder).
And if at all possible, arrive a little early—especially for the first class of a beginner session or series, or if you teach a beginning drop-in class—so that you can answer any pre-class queries, and plan to stay a couple of minutes late in case someone has a question they’d prefer to ask privately.
And if you don’t know the answer? Remember that “I don’t know, but I’ll do my best to find out” or “I don’t know, but let me direct you toward someone who might” are perfectly acceptable responses (and generally far more helpful than a “good guess” or esoteric, yoga-speak-laden non-answers).
When teaching yoga sequences to beginners, you have the privilege of introducing your fellow humans to a practice that has the potential to be incredibly healing and transformative, and you have the chance to learn some marvelous new things in the process. In the yoga world, we often hear references to the importance of cultivating “beginner’s mind,” but this doesn’t just apply to the “student” role. As a teacher, every class you offer is ripe with the opportunity to make new and fascinating discoveries (about yoga, about your students, and about yourself).
As a teacher, every class you offer is ripe with the opportunity to make new and fascinating discoveries.
And perhaps most important of all, each class brings with it a new beginning, and a new chance to offer kindness, acceptance, encouragement and support to everyone who shows up to practice.
Kat Heagberg is the editor of Yoga International and has been teaching yoga since 2005. She loves to write about ways to make challenging poses more accessible, the power of language in yoga culture, and to offer encouragement and advice to new yoga teachers. Though she initially trained in alignment-based styles of yoga (which continue to inform her practice and teaching), Kat likes teaching vinyasa flow best of all. Read her work and take her classes here on Yoga International!