How to Teach a Beginner Yoga Class

How to Teach a Beginner Yoga Class

Introducing people to yoga in a beginning class is a privilege and no easy task. Yes, the poses are simple, but only to someone who's familiar with the practice. If you're not a yogi, or even someone who's very active, moving your body into Downward-Facing Dog, sitting still in meditation and breathing with awareness are completely foreign.

When teaching a beginning class, you'll stick to basic poses, offer many modifications and field questions, the answers to which seem self-evident to you. Exactly how you teach this class depends largely on the population that comes; a beginning class taught at a senior center is going to look a lot different than a beginning class taught to a high school track team.

Regardless of what poses you teach and whether or not people "get it," remember to be open, compassionate and patient.

Start with the Breath

The breath is the most fundamental aspect of yoga. If you can connect to your breath, you can connect to the sensations in your body. The breath keeps a practitioner safe, if you can breathe, you usually know you're safe in a pose.

Johnny Kest, long time yoga practitioner, master teacher and founder of the Center of Yoga in Michigan, notes that many people hold or constrict their breath when faced with challenging circumstances. Teaching beginning yogis the importance of the breath first gives them the tools to relax in class and understand that as long as they're conscious of the breath, they've got some aspect of yoga down.

A good beginning breath to teach is the complete, or three-part, breath. It's deep and requires focus, which helps beginners take their minds off getting the other poses "right." It builds incredible awareness of breathing without the pressure and awkwardness of the "raspy" sound of ujjayi.

To teach the complete breath, instruct students to draw air in through their nose and fill up their body as if they were filling a pitcher of water. Breathe into the lowest abdomen, then the middle chest and finally the upper chest. When full, slowly exhale from the upper chest downward. Remind them to breathe deeply like this throughout practice.

Stick to Simple Poses

You may think that poses such as Cobra and Warrior I are mundane, but they're brand new to your class. New students aren't likely to remember poses easily, so keep flows to a minimum, if you visit them at all. Take them through posture by posture so they feel confident and strong.

A simple sequence to visit for beginners is:

  • Easy pose 
  • Seated twists in Easy pose
  • Cow-Cat undulations
  • Downward Dog
  • Forward Fold
  • Standing Mountain
  • Warrior I, each leg
  • Warrior II, each leg
  • Triangle, each leg
  • Tree pose, each leg
  • Seated Forward Fold
  • Bridge
  • Savasana

Instead of offering complicated or athletic transitions, such as step-throughs from Downward Dog, make the transitions simple. Allow practitioners to find a wide stance and then move into the Warriors, for example.

A beginner class should encourage people to come back.

Modify, Modify, Modify

Be prepared to modify poses for all levels of practitioner in a beginner class. You may have people with knee problems, back pain or stiffness from inactivity. Core and upper-body strength may not be up to par — and even if it is, your new students may not know how to apply that strength to yoga poses.

But, don't assume that beginning yogis are unfit. Observe who has come to class. Although the previously mentioned sequence offers a good place from which to start, there's no absolute way to teach beginners. If you have a particularly athletic group, you might find adding poses that require a little strength or thought keeps the beginners interested in yoga and will encourage them to continue to practice. Teach to who is in the room.

Skip the Yoga Woo Woo

You may be all about prana, chakras and sanskrit, but this won't necessarily help your new students get yoga. Speak in terms that your students can understand. Instructing students to "shine" their hearts, "puff" their kidneys or "fluff" their armpits is meaningless. You might enjoy such flowery speak when you practice, but you're already an established yogi.

If you mean stand firmly in the mat, say it. If you want people to bend backwards, tell them to do so. Remember, sanskrit yoga names, such as Trikonasana and Padangushtasana may sound cool to you, but it's a foreign language to your students. If you teach a good beginner class and recruit students for the longterm, you'll have plenty of time to immerse them in more specific yoga terms and teachings.