≡ Menu

YD Goes to Yoga School Week 3: Teaching Beginners, Where the Action Is!

in YD Goes to Yoga School

And the beat goes on! It’s the third straight and full weekend in a row of teacher training action – which, mind you, is different from movement. More on that later. It’s been a whirlwind trip on YD express lately so it felt fantastic to go back to basics for this week’s YTT theme “teaching beginners”. Yes! Let’s break it on down. But of course, as all yogadorks can tell you, ‘beginner’ doesn’t necessarily mean ‘easy’. The week kicked off with my first mentor in-class assisting, which was a level 1/2 and involved a lot more seeing than anything else, with some light adjustments. Rudimentary? Maybe. Easy? Absolutely not. Observing students is like watching a toddler striving to walk – there are so many things you want to say to help! Straighten that knee! Spread your toes! Relax your face! But there’s only so much you can do before they learn how to take those steps on their own. Not that yoga students are identical to 2-year-olds, but they have their uncanny similarities! More on that later, too. As I mentioned before, this apprenticeship is one of the most valuable aspects of the training, and the first assisting duty didn’t let me down.  If we don’t SEE how can we know? Can’t wait to go again.

Moving on. Wednesday was teacher practicum #2: modifications vs. variations and instructions for beginners vs. intermediate students. As it so happens, beginners need much more explicit directions, but for the sake of their poor newbie yoga minds and bodies, no one said more verbose. Keep it simple, skippy! After some more posture lab work, we also had an opportunity to share with the group our own thoughts on the qualities we think make a good yoga teacher. Clue: no one said dull and self-absorbed. While this seems like a simple exercise, yet again we’re left with the complexity of folding those special je ne sais quoi touches into our own version of Super WonderYogi batter (for the Super WonderYogi machine, of course! which, unfortunately, is not part of the YTT tuition, but can be considered a lifelong DIY project). Another thing to be mindful of in teaching beginners? The difference between movement and ACTION. Everyone can move! But instructing specific actions in poses, like externally rotate your upper arms in utthita hastasana, creates a deeper sense of bodily awareness and conscious connections, an especially important and very new concept for most beginners. And, it’s hard! Try teaching that to a 2-year-old! We mature adults have our advantages.

On to the weekend. Saturday was fully focused on teaching beginner how-tos. Want to serve the class? Think like a waitress! Hey Sam’s never practiced yoga before and he’s hunching in sukhasana – get him some blankets to sit on! Frida has super tight hamstrings – get her some blocks! Tommy is working extra hard but just doesn’t quite get the instruction to relax his jaw and breathe no matter how many times you repeat it – say it again! Maybe in a different way. All the while keep the sequence running through your brain like a an order you just took from a party of 15, and they’ve got lots of ‘hold the onions’… ‘I ordered decaf!’ … ‘can I have hash browns instead of toast?’ substitutions to adjust to. It’s called thinking on your feet. And by the time Sunday rolled around that’s exactly what we had to do – with real live specimen! We were blessed with 18 brave and daring yogi-hopefuls who showed up with open minds and a willingness to let us hone those Super WonderYogi skills. Two and a half hours, 17 at-once-panicked with nerves and eager to learn teacher trainees, 1 very warm and discerning senior teacher, and approximately 20-something poses later, we had 18 sweaty and savasana’d yogis. Satisfied customers. huzzah! Each one of us trainees had made some sort of goof in our bit of teaching, but that was the beauty of this practice, and we all learned more from the mistakes and/or reactions from the students than we’d ever anticipated. Indeed, we saw teaching make that vital step from movements, something a 2-year-old can do, to conscious actions, allowing us to SEE the consequences. We’re all beginners at something at one time or another, and the more we can return to that beginner’s mind the more opportunities there are to learn and grow.

There are so many questions to be answered. As for the Super WonderYogi? We have the rest of our lives for that.

Question: We also shared our first yoga experience and what we remembered about the teacher. Would love to hear about your own experiences, and what you learned about the teacher, what you liked and maybe what you didn’t.


YD yoga school updates should come pretty regularly on Sundays, at the wrap of each week. Disclosure: Training is with YogaWorks, NYC (I am not being paid to say that, Paula Lynch rocks).

Thanks to everyone who’s donated any amount. I could still really use the support. If you appreciate YD please consider a donation. Thank you!

EarlierYD Yoga School Week 2: Subtle Bodilicious, There’s a Place…

10 comments… add one
  • Christina

    I am so thankful for this post! I am a new yoga teacher and just added a linear 6 week beginner’s class on Monday nights. I am in my second week and I HATE IT. It has nothing to do with the students, they are wonderful. Its me! There is so much I want to teach them and say and correct that it ends up just being frustrating for me in the end. Then I worry about their experience and if I could have done more for them.

    Not to the mention the all of the explanation of poses and anatomy….its exhausting.


  • I’m a 2-year-old teacher (haha) and I love teaching beginners. It’s a challenge to get into beginner’s mind. It’s also a challenge, indeed, to not get overwhelmed by how much new students could be hearing for the first time.

    A few things I’ve done to address feeling scared and inadequate when teaching beginners (or even not-beginners who I’m unfamiliar with):

    1. Focus on helping them feel safe.
    Most injuries happen when coming out of a pose. I explain and confirm they understand mula bandha, the core, potential vulnerabilities in some postures (including from personal pulled-muscle experience!)

    2. Use foundation cues over and over
    The most important: remember to breathe. But less is really more, actually. Let them listen to their bodies. Let them feel the posture however it is for them, as long as they look like they aren’t injuring themselves. They aren’t going to turn into bendy straws overnight.

    2a. Include the mind in your cues.
    Usually beginning students are all anamayakosha. They usually have to be reminded of the breath. But hey, we gotta know their minds are all scared and monkeying around, checking out their neighbours and sometimes straining in a pose because their fussy ego wants to do better. Bring awareness to this. I like to ask, “Is it your ego trying to touch your toes right now? Instead find a long straight spine and an open heart”

    3. Don’t stuff so much in!
    Maybe those easy experienced practitioners can move gracefully from one pose to another to another, falling into it magically, with you only needing to reinforce a few cues. Not so with beginners. So, teach fewer postures! Spend longer on each posture. When doing a posture with two sides, offer up some new cues on the second side.

    New students won’t be bored with a simple class of foundation postures. Maybe it’s partly because I’m autistic, but I *revel* in the tiny details, the simple ones usually, and I can lead 2 minutes of tadasana and it doesn’t get old – for me or the students.

    I’m not sure why some people go looking for the most technically complicated instructions they can find. There is a place for that, and sometimes that stuff can work like ‘magic’ to get us into postures we never thought we could pretzel into. It’s why I love anusara.

    But I also love the messy, breathful, meditative, heart-centered opening of bodies moving in tiny ways within their own energy. Providing a space for beginning students to experience that — rather than a plethora of poses they maybe can’t do — is my own meditation.


  • Having been a waitress before & a person who is naturally inclined towards organization, the thought of teaching a yoga class is still a bit nerve wracking. It sounds like the program that you are enrolled in is giving you many great opportunities to practice what you learn in real-life situations – you can’t beat that!

  • L

    Great article! I also agree with everything that Karen said.

    I liken my method of teaching beginners to drawing a picture. I first start out quite broad and rough, getting down the outline and mapping things out for my drawing, and then I slowly start to fill in the details. My instructions begin very basic and broad- to get the body to physically move towards the shape of trikonasa for example (while always reminding to breathe). And after a while I start filling in my instructions in more and more- adding in actions and layers- when I feel that my students are comfortable enough, and when they seem physically and mentally ready.

    I have found repetition to also be very key. There is so much going on inside a beginner’s mind, sometimes they just flat out didn’t hear what you said because they were busy trying not to fall over! Repetition is good, and re-wording is also good, as I’m sure we’ve all experienced a teacher explaining something we’ve heard 1000 times in a different way, and it just changes everything.

    Best of luck with your teacher training!!

  • CiaoBella

    I found it helpful when I first started practicing yoga when teachers reminded us to “leave our ego at the door” and move into a pose as it was meant for our own body, even if it meant that my hands couldn’t reach my toes for uttanasana. Beginners all too often want to reach the “final version” of a pose, and it’s nice to be reminded that it’s the journey, not the destination. 🙂

  • So glad you are enjoying your continued learning Jl! Great comments! It’s funny b/c I’ve been thinking a ton about being a teacher of beginners these last couple of weeks. I’ve been teaching regularly for about four months and while my classes are labeled “all levels” there is usually at least one brand new student in each one. I’ve struggled mightily with not being able to teach more shazaamy poses like Vasisthasana and Bakasana to them (for fear that they a.) won’t dig them or more b.) won’t be able to do them or c.) won’t try). I’ve been feeling really challenged with the inability to pump up my classes and to expand into different poses. Was I starting to sound repetitive? Were my classes the same every week? How could I spice it up a bit without over extending and hurting my students?

    I asked around our cyber sangha and specifically got some fantastic advice from my pal Darla (aka @sweatydarla) who asked me “are you bored teaching beginners, or are your students bored?” I realized upon answering this question that my students are great! They keep coming back every week, they love my classes and have even asked for privates and copies of the sequence I’ve done so they can do it again at home. I was reminded of when I was a beginner and how thrilled I was to get help setting up and coming out of poses, and when a poses I finally got came up in a class. Newer more showy poses scared me and also made me feel inadequate and shaky.

    The point in sharing this is to remember that beginners are students just like we all were. I have learned to embrace my skills as a beginning yoga teacher and really hone them to help my students grow. I even taught Bakasana to a class yesterday because the students were so strong after weeks of building up to it. However, if beginners isn’t your niche then that’s groovy too… acknowledge it and foster what is.

    Just had to say that.. and to Karen, thanks! love the tips and think you are right on the mark!

  • wait, there are opportunities for brave yoga newbies to be willing victims for teacher trainers? Where do I sign up??? Loving this series. Although I’m a complete beginner, am loving my “yoga journey”. Something that might be helpful for yoga beginners to remember is that they are the most important person in the room, so that they don’t get shy or distracted by the other people – I know I’m frequently guilty of comparing myself to other people.

  • Yes, it always a conundrum – how much can I teach to a new class in 1 hour. Since its a new audience, its very tough to get them to flow with you – they need constant instruction & corrections. However, they also need fact and info, so that it appeals to their intellectual side – as yoga needs to be accepted totally – Body, Mind & Spirit. So I guess its a question of getting first-timers to experience the right mmix of pain, knowledge and silence!!

  • cyn

    You know, as a new-ish person I would say that what’s really helped me are tips on connecting with myself and being given permission to fail. Strategies for dealing with my busy mind… because as a beginner it is BUSY.

    Being told it’s okay to fall out of a pose, constantly reminded to breathe (I think it’s good to remind if you want students breathing in and out of nose only – sounds basic but I didn’t know that one for ages – no teacher ever really specified).

    And I think also any kind of tips about the bigger picture are really appreciated and are what helped me develop my own curiosity – like, ok so this is way deeper than a workout.. ohhh.. ok, now I am intrigued. Tell me more.

    I also teach myself, but I teach horseback riding lessons to beginners. What I’ve found works there is to have a very kind and patient and curious energy as a teacher. I’m always curious what my students will do next, so I’m very present. Repetition – sooo much repetition of very simple basic instructions. Then on occasion, a little “chat” about why it won’t always be clicking, about how the effort and the journey are where it’s at and about how it’s the times when it isn’t quite clicking that you are actually doing your best work as you patiently sort through the kinks. Acknowledgement that it’s about more than the position – it’s about the attitude and the energy.

Leave a Comment