We were all beginners once. We all probably had a moment in a yoga class when we looked at another student and wondered, “How the heck are they doing that?!?!” Some of us would then attempt to hurl ourselves into the elusive pose and fall, some of us would tell ourselves, “I can’t do that,” and others might take the teacher up on their offer to ask questions after class to receive more one-on-one instruction. Whether we are aware of it or not, all of us yogis have a common bond. We come to the yoga mat to learn. But, for some reason, many people see asana as a skill that they should just naturally be “good” at. I tried my first yoga class in my late 20s. As a Group Fitness Instructor and former competitive gymnast, I thought it would be a cake walk. Breathing? Who cares about that part? I just want to do some crazy arm balances and feel fierce! How humbling (or rather, anger-inducing) it was when I fell right on my face. It took many face-plants to realize that, in order to take a step forward in my asana practice, I had to take about 20 steps back. The first of which was accepting the fact that if I kept muscling my way into poses, I would never learn and progress.
I put the lessons of my own practice into play when I began teaching Vinyasa. While I’d already been teaching yoga for over a year, and Group Fitness for 10 years, I quickly realized how challenging it is to mindfully sequence a class for students who might have never stepped on the mat before. You can’t rattle off Sanskrit, or say, “Ok, now take a Vinyasa.” And, there’s an art to saying enough, and not too much. There are entire workshops built around just one pose, but in a class setting where there are multiple poses and sequences, how do you keep it accessible to new yogis? Here are a few tips that work for me:
Accessorize Your Practice
If you were like me, you walked into your first yoga class with just a mat. Sure there were some rectangular cork bricks, woven blankets, and belt-like items neatly displayed on a wall, but what did I need those for? While many teachers will ask their students to grab certain props before class begins, there are some who don’t. If you have a luxury of teaching in a studio where props are readily available, ask students to grab 2 blocks, a blanket, and a strap. Sure, they may not need all of those things, but if they find that they do, they won’t have to feel awkward getting up in the middle of class to grab what they need. It’s not enough to just ask students to take props, be sure to demo and explain how to use them when needed.
Introduce the Breath
This might seem like a “duh” comment, but to this day, there are times in my practice when I stop breathing, particularly in balance poses. It’s integral to establish the breath at the start of class, and continue to reinforce and remind students of it throughout. Be sure to explain the why of the breath in a way that is mentally tangible to the new yogi, rather than esoteric. The question I get most frequently about breath…“How do I know when to inhale and exhale?” The best way I’ve found to explain this is through movement. Inhale the arms up, exhale fold the body down. Inhale arch the spine, exhale round the back. To make it super simple, most of the time the inhales happen when we are moving away from the mat and/or lengthening the spine, the exhales, when we are moving towards the mat and/or contracting. Of course there are exceptions, but I find this to be a relatable and satisfying explanation for new students.
I always build a pose from the ground up. Often times, I’ll have my students keep their hands on their hips the first time we enter a pose. I love teaching Warrior 2 by explaining the positioning of the back foot, then the front foot, traveling up the legs, moving to the pelvis, the trunk, then asking students to look back and extend their back arm in line with their back shoulder, then look forward and extend their front arm with their front shoulder. After holding the arms out for a few breaths, I always offer to bring the hands to the heart or hips if it becomes too much. Like a tree, it’s key to establish strong roots before we can grow beautiful branches.
Ease Sanskrit in Slowly
The first time I introduce an asana in a beginner class, I don’t call it anything. It’s all explained anatomically. Then, I’ll label the pose once we are in it, first in English, then in Sanskrit. The next time we do the asana, I’ll refer to it again, first in English, then in Sanskrit, and by the 5th or 6th time, maybe Sanskrit only, depending on the class.
Learning the asana practice is like learning a new language, but it’s perhaps even more challenging because the language also requires movement. When I build my sequences for beginners, I keep them short, and do the same sequence multiple times, which a few small tweaks like arm variations, to keep it interesting. Between sequences, I introduce an arm balance, some core work, or a balance pose to keep students on their toes.
When I teach any class, I am always in-tune with my inner beginner, because even for the most advanced practitioner, there are days when our roots are shaky. I think this quote from the late pro tennis star Arthur Ashe sums it up nicely: “Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.”
What are your tips for teaching asana to beginners?
A former competitive gymnast, from a young age Dina had a natural affinity for challenging her body, and the rewards of disciplined training. In an effort to share her enthusiasm for fitness, she earned her certification in Group Exercise in 2002 through the Aerobics and Fitness Association of America, and moved to NYC to begin her teaching career. The pressures of city life left her feeling totally unbalanced, and it was then that Dina discovered yoga. Inspired by how yoga positively impacted her state of well-being, in 2010 Dina completed the 200-hour teacher training program at Sonic Yoga, becoming a certified Vinyasa Yoga teacher. She infuses elements from her varied backgrounds in fitness, martial arts, and gymnastics to create classes that challenge the body and the mind, yet are fun, not intimidating, and accessible to all levels. Catch one of Dina’s classes at Equinox locations throughout NYC, and at The Yoga Room in Queens. Visit Dina’s website and connect with her on Facebook and Twitter. Also, check out Dina’s fitness/fashion blog which marries her love of fitness fashion, and her expertise as a former athletic apparel buyer.