by Terry Littlefield
Several months ago, I had to get a sub for a level 1 class. In the yoga world, level 1 often means different things to different teachers. This particular class is labeled “fundamentals/level 1.” People show up to this class having never taken a yoga class. People also show up who have been practicing for years to remind themselves to slow down and remember the fundamentals of the practice. It’s been such an awesome journey figuring out how to teach a weekly yoga class in a way that encourages people to come back to class and develop a yoga practice from solid fundamentals. I want them to work on being present, breathing, and finding peace, of course. I also want them to work on yoga poses because it is a yoga class and I’m a yoga teacher. Poses like warrior, crescent, triangle. Poses like sukhasana (easy sitting pose) and savasana (final resting pose).
In my level 1 classes, as a result of becoming an Integrated Yoga Tune Up teacher and completing my 300-hour with Jules Mitchell, there’s a mixture of anatomy and biomechanics. There’s both stretching AND strengthening. And lots of traditional asana, which I’ve been practicing and studying for about 15 years. I’m always learning. I love to learn and I love to share what I learn in my yoga classes.
Back to needing a sub. I certainly don’t expect a sub to show up and teach the way I teach. That would be ridiculous. We all teach what we like to teach. However, I think it would also be ridiculous for a sub to show up and teach a vinyasa flow class to a class that is called yoga fundamentals. Unfortunately, that’s what happened in this situation.
I’m not here to slam the teacher, but rather to ask that as teachers, we recognize and honor the variety of styles of yoga and the different bodies and abilities of the students who show up to practice. Ultimately, we’re teaching people, not poses or classes where “one size fits all.” Because it doesn’t.
I’ll refer to the instructor as Teacher V (V is for Vinyasa). Teacher V probably teaches an amazing vinyasa flow class. However, if you only teach vinyasa flow, and don’t know what to do with a yoga fundamentals class, just say no. No, thank you. Vinyasa no, not vinyasa flow.
I’ll venture to say that Teacher V was overwhelmed and/or underprepared for a fundamentals class. Although the class is listed on the schedule, complete with a description, Teacher V showed up and asked the students for a description of the class. They said words like: gentle, therapeutic, basic, beginner, level 1, fundamentals. All great words to clearly express the level of the class. The teacher responded by saying, “Oh, so you don’t do any poses?”
Yes, they do yoga poses. It’s a yoga class. They don’t flow. That’s what they explained to Teacher V.
So the class started with static stretches for 10 minutes and then a vinyasa flow class was taught. Teacher V apparently couldn’t figure out what the heck to teach other than an abundance of chaturangas and down dogs and plank and one breath per movement and flow and move and reach and jump back and breathe and flow and plank and chaturanga and up dog and down dog and…Whew! I’m exhausted writing this.
An elderly woman that comes every single week chose to take care of herself and leave. I’m proud of her. She said it was so fast she couldn’t keep up. I’m grateful that she left, and I’m sad she had to leave. Who else was there that day? Maybe someone came for the first time ever to attend a yoga class. Maybe they’ll never return. Many of the regulars to that class said the class was like a race, not a yoga class. But Teacher V’s students would probably love the class.
A few thoughts:
Teach what you can.
Teach what you know.
But don’t ignore the students in front of you and teach vinyasa flow.
So what can you do if you are interested in teaching a level 1, non-vinyasa class? First and foremost, go take and/or observe level 1 classes. See and experience them in your body. Take notes. If you’re not willing to do that, perhaps it means you’re not interested in teaching level 1. And that’s okay.
The following is a list of points to consider when teaching a fundamentals class:
- Make a plan ahead of time. Plan out a level 1 class on paper and bring it with you to class. I make plans for my classes all the time. A plan will help you stay focused and calm. You don’t have to be glued to the plan, but have a plan. It’s helpful. One of the best teachers I studied with, writes out every sequence and brings it with her to class. After 30 years. Plans are for winners.
- Learn some modifications for the poses you love to teach. You must provide options to students so you can meet them where they are. Use props. Lots of props. They most likely won’t palm the floor in forward fold so give them blocks. Maybe crescent pose with the back knee down. Or crescent pose with full crescent legs but hand on blocks the whole time or hands on the thigh.
- Spend some time at the beginning of the class getting centered with breath work. This allows students to actually arrive on their mat and feel safe. Remind them that the work of yoga is actually so much about the breathing and that the poses are secondary.
- Do some dynamic warmups. The body, muscles, joints, tissues, even cells love dynamic movement. Don’t know what dynamic movement is? Learn. Things like bridge lifts, cat/cow, sufi rolls, shoulder flossing or shoulder rolls.
- Teach them child’s pose or a resting position and give them permission to go there at any time for as long as they’d like.
- Start standing poses standing. Stand in the center of the mat and then step feet wide apart to create warrior 2 legs or triangle legs or extended side angle. The possibilities are endless. Do one side. Then do the other side. Then bring the legs back to the center of the mat and rest in tadasana.
- Modify. Think thread the needle instead of pigeon. Think supported bridge pose instead of shoulderstand. Think legs up the wall instead of handstand or headstand. Think cobra instead of wheel. Practice stepping the legs forward from downward dog instead of jumping forward.
- Remember rest. It’s so important to remind all students, but especially new students, that slowing down and being still and aware is practicing yoga. Try the less is more approach. The worst that can happen is they will be bored. Bored is okay. Bored is information that stillness is challenging for them. That means yoga might be a wonderful addition to their life.
- Know that every single person in that room showed up and is being vulnerable and courageous enough to try yoga, maybe for the first time. Give them support where they need it. Let them explore in their own time. They don’t need to learn it all in that one hour.
- Give them a nice long savasana. As teachers we know it’s the most important pose. It’s where all the magic happens. Yet many teachers give a two minute savasana. People need to rest. Even in a one-hour class, give them at least a 5-minute savasana. At least.
I think it would be extremely beneficial if teachers got together and shared more. Share your sequencing, share your music playlists, share your education and skills. We are all at different levels on our teaching journey. Hopefully, we are all students, continually learning. The more we know, the more we share, the better we will be, the more we will have to offer the students in the room. So who wants to get together and have a play date?
Terry Littlefield, RYT-500, Integrated Yoga Tune Up teacher, and long-time practitioner, is a passionate educator with a big sense of humor and an even bigger heart. Her classes are a blend of science and spirit, breath work and ball work, movement and meditation. If you want to have fun and experience safe, functional movement within your yoga practice, she’s your yogi. Learn more about Terry at her website: TerryLittlefield.com.