Teaching Beginners: A How Not-To


Let me tell you how not to teach a beginning yoga class:

Back at the beginning of my stint teaching our Yoga Basics class at It’s All Yoga, I was an earnest young teacher with a lot of ideas. One of those ideas was to offer as much information as humanly possible. I was flush with the new-found knowledge that yoga was not just the practice of asana (poses), in fact, asana might not be much more than a perplexing side note in the long story of this practice, and I, with a sort of missionary zeal, decided I was going to be the teacher who breaks it down. Who decides to opt out of the hatha yoga fitness charade, and steers humanity towards a clearer philosophical understanding.

With this goal, I prepared my first handout. I carefully summed up the eight-limbed system of classical yoga. When you add in each individual yama and niyama (the ethical principles – in Sanskrit, no less!), it starts to look like about a zillion limbed system but no matter, I was not going to pander.

At the very beginning of the very first class, I proudly passed out my handout and gave my little lecture. I believe I ended with a really ill-advised phrase, such as “And so, in conclusion, the ultimate goal of yoga practice is enlightenment. Any questions?”

There was one: “Have you ever met anyone who did all this? Who was enlightened?” Not a question I was prepared for. I think I hemmed and hawed and muttered something about monks seeming real happy, and do you ever just meet people you like being around?

Are you surprised that almost no one returned the next week? I sure was.

Since then, my approach to Yoga Basics curriculum has mainly been a system of pruning. Now, I rarely walk in on a first night with a clear picture of what the month will bring. Instead, I go around the room and ask each student what they are looking for, what they hope yoga will do for them.  I find each group to have a different flavor, a different theme. Some groups are looking for more flexible hamstrings. Some are looking for less stress. Some are just curious. Almost no one expresses any interest at all in enlightenment, which really is a load off my plate.

What I can count on is this: every group, every time will challenge at least one dearly held assumption of mine. Whether it’s straight out laughing at me when I suggest that umpire position is a resting place, or telling me the pattern of breath I’m suggesting is stressing them out, each of them knocks a brick out of the walls of my snug little yoga house. Because of this, teaching beginners is the most challenging thing I do. It’s also one of the most rewarding.

If Yoga Basics sounds like your thing, check it out here.

About madyoga

Yoga Teacher and Massage Therapist in Sacramento, CA
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6 Responses to Teaching Beginners: A How Not-To

  1. Jeannie says:

    that class made me love yoga. and even though enlightenment wasn’t on the menu, it comes regardless. xoxo

  2. “Almost no one expresses any interest at all in enlightenment, which really is a load off my plate.” LOL–so true. Great post! xo

  3. Nancy A says:

    I loved this… so funny how when we start we have an assumption of what people want to learn and usually it’s a little bit off. I’m still learning that every day: i’m so surprised by what lands and what doesn’t. A great post!!

  4. Tami says:

    all of this is why i LOVE you! so perfectly said.

  5. Such a great thing to read as I am so new to teaching. You are so right, people who are new to yoga typically aren’t there for the philosophy, or enlightenment 101. I sure wasn’t…I didn’t even know yoga had a philosophy till I stumbled across Hip Tranquil Chicks podcast like 2 years ago. What your saying helps me see that I get to be the facilitator of playing in poses, instead of being a teacher at the podium. Yay!

  6. Pingback: In Case You Missed It Edition, Volume 20 « Teacher Goes Back to School

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