By Melanie Cooper
Teaching is a special skill and teaching beginners well is probably the hardest of all. Here are some of my suggestions for teaching beginners in a way that is positive and nurturing and compassionate.
Remember what it was like when you were a beginner. After years of practice it’s easy to forget how difficult yoga is. For beginners trying to work out what goes where and which way they are stretching and remember to breathe and and and… it can be pretty overwhelming. If you can get your beginners making roughly the right shape and at the same time remembering to breathe, then that’s a fantastic start – anything else is a bonus. Remember, it definitely doesn’t have to be perfect straight away and if you give too many corrections they may leave the class thinking they got everything wrong.
As a teacher it’s a great idea to go to a dance class or martial arts class, and be that beginner! Remind yourself what it feels like and how hard it is – but also how rewarding it is to get something right.
It can be tempting to try to download all your information to your beginners and teach them how to do everything properly right from the start. But if you give too much information the students are most likely to switch off or get confused… or both. It’s much more effective to stick to 2 or 3 main bits of information at the most that you want to get across in each class. That way they might actually remember something, rather than trying to give a wealth of amazing information that will go in one ear and out the other.
Initially with beginners stick to information they really need to hear, like how to make it safe. The most vulnerable parts of the body are the knees, lower back wrists and neck so focus your attention on using alignment and foundation to protect these areas.
For beginners keep your language really clear. If everyone in the class is doing it wrong it is your responsibility as a teacher to explain it in a way that they understand. For areas such as breath and bandhas and poses like tadasana always use the same language, say the same things in the same order. Then it becomes like an internal script that will stay with them forever.
It’s a good idea to go to beginners classes every now and then and listen to what the teacher is saying and watch the students to see if it’s effective.
If you like to use yogic terms or Sanskrit names for poses or anatomical terms then always explain them to beginners.
Don’t be Too Weird
For us maybe having been to India or at least around yoga people for years, saying ‘Namaste’ or doing Angali mudra as a greeting or chanting the opening chant seems completely normal. But to a beginner it could well look completely weird and have them running away from that strange cultish yoga freak show. Sneak the weirdness up on them gradually.
If you use hands on adjustments with students, it can be very helpful for beginners but make sure you just use gentle corrections rather than full adjustments. This is important. Explain to the students why we use adjustments and clearly give them permission to say if they would rather not be touched or to say if the adjustment is too strong. Focus on adjustments that connect a student to their core strength or alignment, or that soften the shoulders and correct the foundation.
Explain About the Pain
Many students come to yoga with a belief in ‘no pain no gain’. They think it should hurt and they’re not doing it properly or not doing it enough if it doesn’t hurt. It’s important to explain to students about the many sensations they will feel in their body and that it’s important they learn to tell the difference between a safe healthy stretch and imminent damage. There are three main aspects to consider.
- First the location of the sensation. If they feel it right in a joint then they should back off. Sensation in a joint means that either tendons or ligaments or cartilage is being stressed and possibly damaged.
- Second the intensity of the sensation is important. If the sensation is so strong that it makes the student stop breathing or screw up their face or wish they had gone to the Salsa class instead – then they need to back off.
- Third the quality of the sensation. If the sensation is sharp or burning or electrical, they need to back off. So what we’re looking for is a gentle dull ache in the middle of a muscle (we know how to have fun!).
It’s always worth saying that it should feel good and if they’re not sure if it’s good or not then err on the side of caution. A safe guideline is to go the edge of the pain free range of movement and then just focus on the breath. In yoga poses sometimes less is more, beginners often push as hard as they can but this can just make the body tense up more. Sometimes backing off and breathing slow and deep can be far more effective. Teaching this idea that less is more can be one of the most profound instructions you can give.
It’s worth pointing out that there is no such thing as a ‘perfect yoga posture’ what is perfect for one person might be completely wrong for someone else. Each student needs to find what is perfect for him or her, it might be different on each side of the body and different from class to class. So it’s important to approach each pose with an attitude of curiosity – ‘how will it be today?’ Rather than ‘I want to be able to touch my toes so I’ll push and strain until I get there!’
Explain About Noise
It is pretty common for joints to pop and click during a yoga practice. Usually if there is no pain and the noise is a clean sound like clicking your fingers it is probably ok. If there is pain or if the sound is more of a crunch, then it’s probably not ok. Again if you or the student is unsure err on the side of caution.
Explain about the Intensity
While it’s true that a yoga practice should feel ‘good’, it doesn’t necessarily follow that it will always feel easy and nice – sometimes it will be difficult and intense emotionally and physically. Sometimes a yoga practice will bring up difficult emotions that have been ‘stuck’ in the body and sometimes it will just feel very hard and challenging. The best advice to give to beginners is not to give up and try not to react and act out any emotions that are coming up on those who are around us. When they experience difficult emotions such as anger, paranoia or depression, advise them to try to hold the feeling. Really feel it. Feel it in the body, in the breath. Allow it to be there. Then observe the feeling, “Oh! I feel angry/depressed/paranoid! That’s interesting! Lets watch it and see how it develops”. See if any memories come up. Note what they dream about. Are the feelings directed at specific people? At yourself? Are they general? Does the feeling have a colour? A temperature? A texture?
Always in yoga we try not to judge. Try not to label emotions as “bad” or “unacceptable”. We all have a huge range of feelings and reactions. That’s fine. What’s important is what we do with them. Watch and hold with gentleness. Observe. And of course, keep doing your yoga practice. If it all feels too much there are huge ranges of other therapies that can be helpful in dealing with negative emotions. Talking therapy is probably the most direct. Also helpful are massage, reiki, dancing, chanting, rebirth – the list goes on. The key thing is to stay with it. And then – sooner or later – it will pass. This may sound a bit simple and easy, but that is my experience. We will go along for maybe a few weeks or months dealing with these strong emotions (or maybe just feel it a bit every now and then) and then one day it passes and we go back to “normal”. Maybe you will understand what it was all about; maybe you won’t have a clue. It doesn’t matter. And afterwards comes a certain lightness, an awareness and maybe some peace and ease.
When you are demonstrating a pose don’t necessarily do your full version. While it might inspire some students it is far more likely to put others off and make them feel dispirited and inadequate.
Order of Options
When teaching a pose to beginners always give the options starting with the easiest first progressing to the hardest and after you have shown all the options, demonstrate the easiest version yourself.
Use of Language
Always suggest a student presses the heels ‘towards’ the floor rather that ‘to’ the floor so they won’t feel they are doing it wrong if they can’t get their heels all the way down. The same applies to ‘hips are squaring towards the front’ not ‘square to the front’.
Talking too much about the spiritual aspects of yoga could put many beginners off, but explaining a little bit can help. If you explain that although practicing yoga can make you stronger and more flexible and fitter, in yogic terms, we use our physical body in order to influence the quality of mental activities, the idea is to make the mind clearer and more focussed and make us feel good.
Teaching beginners is one of the most challenging but also most rewarding aspects of teaching. Many of us become teachers because we want to share this amazing practice that has made such a huge difference to our lives. By keeping these guidelines in mind your teaching will become more effective and more compassionate. If I were to sum up the most important thing to remember when teaching beginners it would be Compassion with a capital C.
Melanie Cooper has been teaching yoga for 16 years, and training yoga teachers for eight years. She divides her time between London and Goa, practicing and teaching yoga and sometimes dancing on the beach. She currently runs the morning ashtanga self practice at The Life Centre in Islington and runs an annual teacher training at Brahmani Yoga in Goa and at Zolder Studio in North London, She has practiced at Ashtanga Yoga London for many years, and has also studied with Sri K. Pattabhi Jois. Melanie lives in North London.
Melanie also has her own magazine style page here:
Other articles posted here by Melanie Cooper:
- Melanie Cooper Interview April 12, 2014 While in Goa this winter I had the chance to interview Melanie Cooper. Melanie is an Ashtanga and Yin Teacher and has recently had a book published called Teaching Yoga Adjusting Asana. She has been teaching for sixteen years and training other teachers for the last eight years. Presently she runs a mysore program at ...
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