Too often, new students are turned off by complicated poses, vague instructions or elitist attitudes.
Yoga instructors who offer modifications and speak in a simple language will keep new students engaged.
IF YOU FEEL SLIGHTLY terrified to walk into a yoga class for the first time because you think it will be pretentious and awkward, you might be right. Too often, new students feel uncomfortable or secluded by inaccessible poses, vague instructions or elitist attitudes. As a beginner to yoga, you should feel empowered and engaged by the teachings – not isolated or overwhelmed by new, esoteric ideas.
Yoga should be as accessible and safe as learning to ride a bike. A quality yoga class is welcoming and comfortable for everyone willing to give it a try. Strong yoga teachers facilitate an experience that has depth without making students feel like they are entering a cult. Here’s how yoga instructors can make class accessible to new students so they can work toward developing a deeper practice:
1. Ditch the yoga jargon.
Yoga jargon makes people feel excluded and confused. The more basic and understandable a teacher explains ideas, the more the instructor will connect with students. When teachers use Sanskrit (the yoga language), they should define the word in English. When teachers speak with their own authentic voice and sense of humor, it shines through. In those classes, students feel like they get a more personal and genuine class.
2. Be powerful, not preachy.
Students do not come to yoga to be lectured or to have a therapy session. As a yoga teacher for men, I cringe when I hear how many first-time male students are completely discouraged and annoyed by teachers’ condescending tones. It’s challenging enough to get new students to try yoga. Why are we making it harder?
Yoga is not a school – it is a practice. People come to yoga to put their intentions into action, and to become grounded by moving intelligently. There is a richness and a deeper sense of subtle awareness and connectivity in yoga. Yoga teachings should feel meaningful, but shouldn’t push an agenda or make students uncomfortable. A good class leaves you feeling empowered, not belittled or guilty.
3. Chant less, pant more.
Everyday people do not understand the ancient yoga language and the chants, let alone the meaning behind them. I personally love the language of yoga, but I understand that – unless you have a significant amount of time to teach students why you are chanting and what you are saying in plain English – it is not comprehensible.
If teachers chant complicated yoga sounds during a class, it may be challenging to keep the interest of new students, who are often reluctant to try yoga in the first place. For example, chanting the sounds of the chakras – “Lam, Vam, Ram, Yam, Ham, Om” – requires hours of teaching for students to even begin to understand the chakras and their relevance. It can also make beginners feel singled out.
It makes more sense to offer aspiring yoga teachers – not beginners – in-depth studies on the energetic body and their mantras. If teachers decide to chant in their classes, I suggest they keep it to a minimum and get students moving.
4. Develop a simple and meaningful philosophy.
New students often come to yoga because they want something more than a mindless workout. Yoga has a deeper meaning than just its physical practice. Teachers should be careful to present the philosophy in class in a way that does not make students feel awkward. If instructors come across as if they are talking down to students, or claim to be more spiritually advanced, they’ll only alienate the people they’re trying to inspire.
Ancient yoga philosophy is interesting and fun to learn, but it’s a topic that can be inaccessible to beginners. The notion that people can obtain nirvana, or transcend this world, is not something anyone can honestly talk about. If you put someone on this pedestal of power, it is a recipe for disaster. Bikram Choudhury, the founder of Bikram yoga, is the latest example: After building a loyal following, he's now accused of sexual assault and rape.
Other yoga teachings have evolved to take on a more progressive view of the practice. They are not concerned with something beyond this life, but focus on savoring the one in which we live. Classes that weave in practical philosophy that is relevant to day-to-day life will be well-received.
5. Clear landmarks and modifications.
Each yoga pose has a logical progression toward its fullest expression. There are clear physical landmarks that are great measures for healthy alignment. These landmarks are normally instructed with simple “if, then” statements. For example, "If you can touch the floor in a standing forward fold, then actively work toward straightening your legs."
Every class has a wide range of student levels. It’s imperative that modifications are offered to people who are working with injuries and other limitations. Two blocks, a blanket and a strap for each student are ideal props for most all-levels classes. Students can make it easier on themselves by learning to use the props in a way that keeps the poses safe and efficient.
6. Keep it simple and sustainable.
It’s easy to complicate yoga poses and make a class difficult to follow in an effort to be overly creative. The most simple, efficient instructions work best. First, teachers should name the pose and get everyone into it as clearly and quickly as possible. Once everyone is in the basic shape of the pose, they should help students explore the pose with subtle cues.
Many teachers get caught up with stringing together multiple poses, or sequencing them in a way that is unique. The basic postures work. If done correctly, they are powerful and can be made as challenging as advanced postures. My suggestion to teachers is to go more in depth into the basics rather than trying to force students into complicated poses.