When I first started teaching yoga, one of my greatest fears was that I wouldn’t be able to meet the specific needs of each person who walked into my classes. I was especially worried about pregnant students and those with specific injuries. I was humbled by my lack of knowledge, for a time believing that the only way I could continue teaching was if I went back to school and studied anatomy, physiology, and medicine.
But with more time and my own experience with injuries and pregnancy, I came to realize that I don’t have to be an expert in everything. With a few best practices, any teacher can help make students feel welcome, supported, and safe.
Here are some helpful tips I've picked up along the way.
1. Greet students as they enter and invite them to share with you.
I’m an introvert who is inclined to be shy, both as a teacher and as a student. But with practice and time, I can now comfortably introduce myself to new students and greet those who are returning. It shows people that they are seen and valued. It also gives them an opportunity to tell you about their practice, including whether they are working with a medical condition or restriction.
After introducing yourself to students individually and inviting them to share with you, you can move to a private corner of the room if there is anything else they wish to discuss. When a teacher sits at the front of the room waiting for class to begin or busies themself outside of the room, there is no time for this kind of meaningful discussion. Greeting students individually also creates a level of comfort and security, and it tells them that you are approachable.
2. Set body-positive intentions at the beginning of class.
Whether or not you choose to set a class theme, it’s always important to remind students that they know their bodies best and they are each their own best teacher. You are simply a guide and a facilitator on their personal journey. This reinforces the key ideas that every body is different, that their poses don’t have to look identical, and that yoga isn’t about comparison.
Another vital part of body positivity is helping students feel safe. If you are planning to give any hands-on assists during class, make sure you first have students’ permission. Double-sided consent cards allow students to clearly communicate their preferences, as they may change their minds during the class. Stoplight squares made out of green, yellow, or red felt are another straightforward way to communicate “yes,” “ask first,” or “no” to hands-on assists.
Alternatively, following your class opening, if all eyes are closed, you may ask for those who would like to receive adjustments to raise their hands. When in doubt, err on the side of caution and only touch students you know are comfortable with hands-on assists.
3. Encourage students to listen to themselves.
While you’ve likely already mentioned it in your opening, keep returning to the idea of personal body and mind awareness. Continually remind students to observe and notice their tendencies without judgment. Understanding one’s body and mind on a deeper level is one of the greatest benefits of a yoga practice.
Despite that, many classes are handled in such a way that the teacher becomes a well-intentioned drill sergeant with a crowd eager to please and comply. Use language that invites rather than demands. For example, avoid presenting students with absolutes and instead give encouragement that allows individual variation. Offer multiple options for poses, and refrain from labeling them as alternatives for “tighter” or “more flexible” students. Include some quiet space to allow students to match their breath to their movements and acknowledge that everyone will be moving at a different pace.
Put simply, avoid telling students what they have to do. Give them options, suggestions, and opportunities for exploring how their bodies move, what feels pleasant, and what creates tension. Ask students to notice the sensations in their bodies and to observe trends and patterns, both in how their physical bodies move and how their minds react.
Let them know that yoga class is a safe space to experiment.
4. Be honest about what you know (or don’t).
We all have limitations, both in skill and in knowledge, and the human body is infinitely complex. If you don’t have experience working with the injury or condition of a particular student, feel confident telling them. Let them know that you are happy to have them in class and that you hope they’ll follow their own inner teacher, moving in ways that feel safe for them.
You can also let students know ahead of time that you’ll offer modifications and alternative postures throughout class that they can try as needed, and that they can call you over if they need support. Offer them props that may assist them. Then, to the extent possible, be vigilant in observing their needs as they arise. Ask questions to guide your recommendations. When in doubt, if a student is having difficulty with a pose, encourage them to take another posture they can identify as feeling safe for them.
Most importantly: If a student has a specific medical question, advise them to speak to a medical professional. This will encourage the student to take the initiative to learn more about their particular situation, which helps to take the burden off of you.
5. Use extreme caution when giving verbal correction.
If you choose to correct a student, use discretion. The last thing you want to do is embarrass a student in front of others, especially if they are taking a modification that feels right in their body. Instead, stand next to them and quietly offer a way for them to adjust the posture. Or wait until the end of class and ask the student(s) how the pose felt. Then, after listening, give suggestions based on their own observations and your knowledge.
6. Show you care.
There are numerous ways to affirm each individual and create a sense of inclusion in the room. Arrive early in order to set up the room thoughtfully, center yourself, and offer your undivided presence to everyone who walks in. Remember that the energy you bring into the room will set the tone for your class. If possible, before class begins help students gather whatever props they may need.
Taking the time to learn and use your students’ names is one of the easiest ways to say, “You matter.” So does asking simple, open-ended questions before or after class, such as, “How’s your week been going?” It allows you to get to know them better.
Gentle hands-on assists, again with student permission, can also show students that you care. And savasana gives plenty of time and space for helping students deepen into relaxation. You might, for example, give students an opportunity to opt-in to receive gentle downward pressure on their shoulders in this pose.
7. Offer opportunities for relationship-building.
This can help create a supportive environment and build community off the mat. As the teacher, you can make yourself available to hold space for people to naturally convene, either before or after class. You may have students share their names with everyone before class begins, or introduce themselves to the people sitting next to them. Or perhaps you offer specialized monthly workshops or plan an occasional coffee gathering, discussion group, or potluck after class.
Creating a Culture of Support
With the continued growth and popularity of yoga, people with a range of experiences and injuries are becoming interested in finding a practice that’s right for them. By following a few best practices, such as these, you can create a classroom culture that helps all students feel welcome, accepted, and at ease.
The more positive the experience we give our students, the more likely they are to build confidence in themselves and find a regular practice that serves them. In this way, we will be supporting one another and fostering ever more mindful communities.