Tips for Teachers: Balancing Your Yoga Student’s Wants and Needs in Class
Many yoga teachers wish to teach their students new material but are afraid of alienating them by offering things they think they don’t want. Some yoga students want their stretching or workouts without “the spiritual stuff,” and others want the spiritual stuff without the physical challenge that might be good for them.
Knowing that students grow attached to their preferred flavor of yoga, in a competitive yoga market teachers often fear losing their student base. This is a real problem, as teaching from a place of fear can negatively influence the calm and clarity needed to determine what and how we teach.
Some yoga students want their stretching or workouts without “the spiritual stuff,” and others want the spiritual stuff without the physical challenge that might be good for them.
The modern yoga landscape demands that teachers host those who are new to yoga alongside seasoned practitioners, so in many classes there is rarely a clearly defined and cumulative curriculum.
This challenge of student diversity—in physical abilities, expectations, and preferences—requires creativity in approach and a willingness to let go of expectations as to the outcome.
Owning our responsibility as yoga teachers requires us to see ourselves as educators. This means being willing to adjust our approach even while we safeguard the method.
Know the yoga community in which you teach, and understand the difference between balancing and wooing.
If you teach in a studio where students exhibit a lot of psychological and physical “heat”—where they’re assertive, high-achieving, organized, and athletic—you are unlikely to persuade them of the benefits of cooling pranayama or restorative poses if you open your class with them.
These students have what the yoga tradition describes as intense, upward-moving rajasic energy. Starting class too slowly, with a grounded and downward moving tamasic energy, is likely to further aggravate their rajasic tendencies. Instead, you can woo rajasic students with a practice that harnesses and pacifies their restlessness.
If you teach a sequence that is strong and clear, you can simultaneously encourage the release of mental heat. To keep students focused in the moment, try teaching variations on your usual sequences so that they can’t anticipate and jump ahead of you. And eliminate sequences like sun salutations altogether if they will not practice them with a slow-and-steady approach.
Ultimately, ensure that you leave enough time in your overall sequence to wind students down with cooling, introverted postures. Then you can add in some calming pranayama before savasana.
In other classes or studios, the situation may be quite the opposite: Yoga students who are looking for ease in their bodies and minds may be more open to the esoteric practices, but perhaps intimidated by, and critical of, the exercise-like aspects of asana. With such students, it’s a good idea to work in functional movement exercises that are strengthening toward the beginning and middle of class.
Since transitions are often the most difficult part of a sequence for students, add active movements to stable foundations—such as squeezing a block between your hands while slowly raising and lowering the arms in a foundation of warrior I, or repeating a back-strengthening cobra several times before moving on.
I call this the “it was all a dream” approach to sequencing—put the challenging, neurologically demanding work toward the beginning of class, allowing any tension that gathered during the activity to dissipate long before savasana.
Share the benefits and point out what students may not know, and include what is likely to appeal to them.
When I teach forward folding pigeon, I have everyone place a block underneath their forehead. Without that prop, the neck juts forward and the shoulders round—a habit exacerbated by texting and computer work.
The block is part of the pose, rather than offered as an option. Still, some students eschew the block, and the tension in their hunched shoulders is visible. So once they’re in the posture, I share the rationale with the entire group—if someone still resists using a block, I resist my own urge to change their mind and I focus my energy elsewhere.
Be creative with class time.
If the thought of interrupting the flow of a class with explanation and technique demonstration is stressful for you, move your demonstrations to the beginning of class. Many teachers open and close with philosophy and readings, so why not open your class with wisdom on a breathing technique, alignment principle, or movement method that you can demonstrate easily with all eyes on you?
I recently wanted to persuade students of the value of closing their eyes during practice (so long as they felt safe to do so).
I opened classes by explaining to them how our senses sometimes impede the effort to turn inward, because the senses continue to consume information when stimulated. That gave me the opportunity to explain pratyahara (sensory withdrawal) as a technique for digesting our experiences so as not to accrue mental ama, or toxicity (it also created an opening for a joke about the intensity of the drishti, or gaze, I saw in some of them in long posture holds).
Weaving together the subtle philosophy with the pragmatic practice technique of drishti opened class on a relatable and fresh note that was easily referenced throughout the asana.
Change happens over time, little by little.
If you’ve ever manually adjusted a student and encouraged a hip down or a shoulder over, and then watched more joints swing out of alignment to accommodate the movement, you’ve asked for more than that person’s body awareness and mobility could execute that day.
Some of your students may practice only once a week as a means to preserve their range of movement, cultivate calm, and reduce stress. That means that as a teacher, you have to ensure that you have a thorough understanding of new practices before you gradually introduce them into your classes. What you offer your students should be in line with their experience and goals. We have to accept that our desires for our students are not always theirs.
It takes time, sometimes even years, for students to create an appetite for what a teacher has to offer. Your goals for integration should be long-term.
Balance personal anecdotes with scientific evidence, and allow the experience to unfold.
Teachers have different techniques for delivering information to students. Sometimes a personal anecdote works: “This pranayama became an integral part of my personal healing after my divorce, as it calmed my emotional swings.” At other times, the cachet of science does the trick: “A Harvard-conducted study has shown that meditation generally improves emotional regulation.”
Both approaches are useful, but ultimately the student has to be ripe and ready. So it’s important to help them find a way into the practice, and then create space for them to have their own experience.
Resist the urge to integrate advanced techniques just to keep your class content fresh.
Remember that the container has to be ready to hold the prana, or vital energy, of the practice. There are so many different ways to approach familiar themes—philosophy, ayurveda, anatomy, peak poses, meditation techniques—that there’s no need to push the envelope by introducing techniques that students aren’t equipped for.
Injury to mind and body are very real possibilities when the physical and mental container is insufficiently prepared to withstand the stirring up and cleansing of prana. This can be easily roused with abrupt introductions to advanced techniques.
Embrace the role of educator with compassion and thoughtful creativity.
If you handed someone a bunch of kale and only told them that it was good for them, it would not be a very educational moment. Also, you may very well turn them off of kale entirely, preventing them from ever discovering how delicious kale chips can be. Much is asked of an educator—far more than simply delivering information.
All the more so with a yoga educator. With the body of yoga knowledge and techniques so vast, you will ultimately need to choose what to offer, and over what period of time. Your students will benefit from both what you teach them, as well as how and when you offer it to them.