7 Yoga Teaching Tips I Wish I’d Learned Sooner

0 Beautiful yogini woman practicing Utthita Parsvakonasana Extended Side Angle pose. Strengthening hip, knee ankle shoulder, physical & mental healthcare concept.

Before we dive into 7 yoga teaching strategies that every new yoga teacher should know, let me share a story. This is the tale of how I disastrously failed as a new teacher and the yoga teaching skills I wish I had known when I was starting out.

Before I relate the embarrassing mistakes I made as a brand-new teacher, though, let’s fast forward nearly two decades to a recent success story.

A student started taking my yoga basics class about a year ago. He’s now about to move out of the area, and he came to class one last time to say farewell. He told me how much he’d appreciated our weekly classes and said, “Because of you, this is a practice I’ll pursue the rest of my life.” I nearly teared up. Let me explain why his commitment resonated so deeply. You see, I’m pretty darn sure that, way back when, when I was fresh out of my 300-hour, I turned a lot of people off to yoga.

Teaching Beginners is a Privilege—and a Huge Responsibility

Shortly after I graduated from teacher training, my mentor called me up. She said, “We’re adding a new level 1 class to the schedule. It’s prime time: Saturday at noon. Your language is so clear; we think you’d be a great beginner teacher, and we want you to teach it.”

I gulped. I knew I had no clue how to teach beginners. I came to yoga from a dance background. As a lifetime mover, I’ve always been embodied, and learning movement comes naturally. I didn’t understand what was hard for beginner yoga students, and I had no yoga teaching toolkit to make learning movement comprehensible and accessible.

The class attendance is evidence. On the first day of class, seventeen students showed up. Wahoo! Week two? Twelve. Week three? Five. I killed the class. Here are the yoga teaching strategies I wish I’d known back then.

Yoga Teaching Tips: These Tools Should be Included in Every Teacher Training—But They’re Not

Here is a basic yoga teaching methodology that all new yoga teachers should learn to make movement more accessible, simpler to understand, and easier to execute. These yoga teaching tips are anatomically grounded in principles of teaching motor learning.

Yoga Teaching Tool #1: Teach Part Task

Warrior 2 with a focus on the legs only a yoga teaching tip to help students learn yoga more easily.You can probably rub your tummy, no problem. And you can, I bet, easily pat your head. Try to do both at the same time and life gets confusing. Beginner movers lack coordination. It’s difficult to execute more than one action at a time. So teach part task. That means you teach only one step in a complex movement pattern at a time. 

Here’s an example: Instead of teaching Warrior II Pose (Virabhadrasana II) legs and arms, just teach the legs. Have students put their hands on their hips while they learn to turn out the front leg and bend the knee. I think of this yoga teaching strategy as “tying up the spaghetti:” Put hands on hips so students don’t have to think about what their arms are doing, and they can focus on only one body part at a time, in this case, their legs.

Now, come back to Mountain Pose (Tadasana) and teach reaching the arms to a T. Here, students don’t have to think about their lower limbs, and they can better develop familiarity with your instructions about organizing their arms.

Then, put the pieces together: Warrior II legs with arms in a T.

Yoga Teaching Tool #2: Teach Sequentially

2 Using Props and teaching poses with them helps beginners learn yoga.

In a vinyasa flow class, you may come into Side Angle Pose (Parsvakonasana) in one fell swoop: bend your front knee, rest your forearm on your thigh (or some other iteration, like hand on floor or block), and reach your top arm over your ear. That’s three moves in one. It’s super confusing to follow for a new mover!

Instead, teach the pieces sequentially or step-by-step.

Step 1: bend your knee.

Step 2: land your forearm on your thigh.

Step 3: reach your top arm overhead.

Students new to yoga must learn one element at a time. The shape’s doable but needs to be broken down into sequential steps.

Yoga Teaching Tool #3: Minimize Moving Segments

Cat-Cow Pose in yoga

If you want to teach students to move one body part/area, prevent adjacent joints from participating.

For example, let’s say you want to use Cat-Cow Pose (Marjaryasana-Bitilasana) to teach spinal undulation. You’ll often see people bending and straightening their elbows instead of rounding and arching the spine. (Including elbow movement can be a yummy choice, of course, but if it’s replacing spinal movement, you’ll need to limit the student’s ability to involve their elbows.)

What if you rest your forearms on blocks? Now, the elbow joint can’t participate, and the student has a greater opportunity to explore trunk movement.Cat-Cow Pose on Forearms

If you want to highlight a body region, immobilize uninvolved joints.

(Add blocks under forearms in the image, right)

Yoga Teaching Tool #4: Change the Orientation 

4 Tadasana is a foundational yoga pose that helps beginners understand other poses.Our accustomed relationship to gravity is standing up. Tipping a shape on its side is disorienting for new movers. So introduce new skills standing up, then teach them in a more complex orientation to gravity.

Let’s stick with the Side Angle Pose example. There are many ways to verbally cue the rotation of the top arm, but these often fall flat for beginners. They’re busy trying to bend their knees and not fall over. A beginner registers, “My arm is up. Good.” Introducing details like how to rotate the shoulder joint is simply TMI while in the pose.

Stand up in Tadasana. Teach the action in this more familiar relationship to gravity. Then repeat tipped sideways in Side Angle Pose.

Yoga teaching tips include using the wall for student feedback about the pose.

Yoga Teaching Tool #5: Use Kinesthetic Teaching Methods

Have students touch their own bodies to identify the focus body part and feel it move.

In our Side Angle example above, you could have students stand in Tadasana, lift one arm overhead, then use the free hand to rotate the top arm. If you say something like, “Spin your outer upper arm toward your cheek,” a new student first has to identify the “upper arm,” then locate the outer part of the upper arm, then figure out which way to turn to move that landmark toward their face—not so simple! But if they touch the target body part with their free hand, its location and movement direction become far clearer.

Yoga Teaching Tool #6: Use External Feedback

Learning Pyramid Pose or Parsvotannasana at the Wall is a yoga teaching tip.

This yoga teaching tip is similar to the last one but relies on touch from an external object. 

Let’s say you’re teaching Pyramid Pose (Parsvottanasana). The challenge in that shape is sensing where your hips are in space. You can’t see them while you’re in the pose, and because your legs are doing two different things, it can be really tricky to figure out how to square your hips.

Use a block to improve body awareness via external feedback. Have students place a block flat on the back of the pelvis. This becomes a game: don’t let the block fall. For an added challenge, turn the block to a higher dimension.

Walls and the floor also serve well as providers of external feedback in several contexts.

Since body awareness is a key skill for new movers, this yoga teaching tip is tremendously useful when working with beginners. It can also be a way to introduce the concept of svadhyaya, self-awareness.

Yoga Teaching Tool #7: Use Task-Based Teaching Methods

yoga teaching tips and tools- use a chair as prop

Daily movement takes place in relation to our environment. You never lift your arm overhead for the sake of creating a shape. You reach your arm upward to grab a cup off a shelf or to close a window.

It’s easier to accomplish a task than to move purposelessly in a void.

So, use task-based teaching methods. Instead of simply stretching your arm forward when entering Triangle Pose (Trikonasana), for example, reach for a chair that’s just a little too far away. (The latter will produce way more length on the underside of the torso!) Instead of sending your heels forward in Supine Tadasana, use them to push away a bolster. The possibilities are endless.

A Yoga Toolbox for New Teachers

These are tips every yoga teacher should know. I certainly wish I’d learned them much earlier in my career. 

To anyone who popped in on that Saturday level 1 class a couple of decades ago, my sincere apologies. I certainly hope you didn’t give up on yoga! I hope you gave someone else’s class a go and discovered the many benefits that this practice has to offer.

Jennie Cohen

Jennie Cohen, YACEP, E-RYT 500, started teaching yoga in New York in 2006 and now teaches aspiring teachers, experienced teachers, and movement enthusiasts all over the globe. Study with Jennie to learn anatomy in fun and practical ways, to build or refine your teaching skills, and to expand your movement repertoire. Jennie’s fascination with the body in motion and her studies of the texts that form yoga’s philosophical foundation infuse her teaching, making it both informative and transformative.

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