Teaching Yoga for Beginners

It used to be that before every one of my yoga classes, I’d spend up to hours to prepare detailed lesson plans. Not so much these days. It’s not that I now slight the need for lesson plans; rather, it’s because experience has taught me that sometimes lesson plans have to be thrown out the window because things don’t go as planned, so being able to adapt and think on your feet is far more important than planning out lessons in painstaking details.

Don’t get me wrong. Going into a class with nary a form of a plan is a disaster. In order to teach any class, you need to at least have a structure in mind before you step into class, a structure that serves as a guiding star towards which you want to direct the students, but just enough so that the details can be filled in as you learn how each student responds to your teaching.

Having said that, when you are new to teaching, a lesson plan is a must. Making lesson plans is the only way to really hone your planning skills. Without the experience and confidence of adapting your lesson on the spot, a good lesson plan can help you think through the important stuff before stepping into the class.

Sitting in on a yoga teacher’s training class today brought back memories of my own teacher training experience and my first time practising in a mock class giving instructions to my fellow trainees on yoga poses. Looking back, I can see how much I’ve grown in my teaching method now. I thought to myself, if I could give advice to my old self about teaching as a new teacher, what would I say?

Here are three things I think are what really matter, in my opinion, when setting up a lesson plan. I hope this may also come in useful for other budding yoga teachers in taking their first steps.

1. Be clear about your intention

There can literally be about 100 things to say about a single yoga pose (benefits, contraindications, modifications, instructions, etc.), so being very clear about what it is you want to teach right here and now is very important. It helps you pare down the information to transmit to your students to only the essentials, leaving out the noise (either because they are unnecessary, or they can come in later) so it doesn’t clutter up your message.

As a rule of thumb, benefits and contraindications should be conveyed as early as possible, to engage the students in understanding why the pose is important and how it helps them, and to caution them about possible dangers in the pose to prevent injuries. Modifications and instructions should be adapted to suit the students’ needs; if it’s not necessary for a student, don’t share it, or you may end up confusing them.

Making yourself set an intention also helps you keep things simple. If the intention is not focussed or is too broad, it’s probably a good indication that you are trying to do too much. For many poses, it may be impossible to cover all aspects of a pose in one sitting. So, divide and conquer. Set your intention on what you want the students to achieve today. For example, when teaching the yogic deep breathing technique for the first time, you may want to simply concentrate on inculcating in the students the coordination of belly and chest movements with the breath, and nothing else. Once that intention is set, your instruction will revolve around only that one aim, and everything you tell the students to do should work towards making them get closer to that goal. Again, using the deep breathing example, you may ask the students to place their right palms on their bellies as they practice inhaling and exhaling slowly, so it’s easier for them to really focus on the movements you want them to be aware of.

2. Show and tell

Using only verbal instructions to guide your students through the poses is going to be really difficult when you are first starting out. The words you choose to use, your tone of voice, your enunciation and your verbal tics can all come together to make or break the experience for your students. With so much stress that can come from just relying on your verbal instructions, you should avoid having your students simply stop and listen to you explaining the poses. Unless you have the ability to draw a very vivid image of what you are saying, it’s going to strain both your students’ imagination and attention span. So, instead of just describing the pose, show the pose! Having a visual parallel to what you are describing will help your students be able to better understand what you are saying, as well as leaving nothing to misinterpretation.

For me, there is yet another equally important benefit of “show and tell” for the teacher — being new teachers, we may not have the advantage of muscle memory to help us recall each step of the poses quickly. By “doing” it while you are “saying” it, it may help you physically walk through the steps and supplement each step with the appropriate verbal instruction. In this way, you again “divide and conquer,” breaking a lengthy verbal monologue into bite-sized chunks. This beats standing in front of your students while you try to strain your memory and imagination trying to walk all the steps through your mind.

3. Build a good foundation

All said and done, if you don’t have a good foundation, you are not going to find it easy to be able to set a realistic intention nor will you be able to demonstrate with confidence. A good foundation is formed by strong knowledge of the benefits, precautions, contraindications, methods, anatomical implications and modifications of each yoga pose. It can only come from consistent practice and hard work. Keep practising your asanas, and while you practise, keep talking to yourself (either in your head or out loud) and give yourself instructions for each step of the pose.

While you shouldn’t be memorising the instructions by rote, you should start committing certain phrases to memory that can help you convey complicated movements or concepts across more smoothly. Do this, and you avoid fumbling over words or using filler utterances such as “uh”, “erm” and “like”, all of which will only make you come across as unconfident and unsure of what you are doing.

It’s always nerve-racking to stand in front of a class to teach. With time and experience, it will get better and easier. The joy of teaching and seeing my students gain from my sharing of what I’ve learned in yoga and helping them discover their limits and potential is such an exhilarating thing that I wouldn’t exchange it for anything else in the world.

Photo credit: Julia Caesar

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