So, you have been asked to teach an OPEN LEVEL class. You have no idea what you will be faced with. Of course at the start of the class you ask about injuries, but have no record of previous experience, except to know that there are some beginners and some more experienced people in the group. This can be very scary even for the more mature teacher. As the class begins, you can see the huge variety of physicality in the room. This can really put you off your stride. But, it doesn’t have to. It needs some forward planning, but there are plenty of strategies to make this a great, all inclusive class.
1. Be aware. In mixed level classes, it is critical to be hyper aware for the newer students and give them alignment suggestions that are specific to what’s happening in that moment. Avoid going on auto-pilot, rattling off your standard script, or demonstrating everything along with the class – blocking your ability to see your students. Don’t worry if what you’re going to say is focused on a few people; those basic tips are helpful for everyone.
2. Stick to a tried and tested familiar basic sequence. Why would you want to stick to a basic sequence if you see that there are people with varying degrees of yoga experience in your class? Because this is going to help you keep it simple for those that are new as well as make it challenging for those that are more experienced. Keep modifications in mind in both directions; actions to make the pose more challenging as well as actions to dilute the posture. I’m a big fan of stick men to make this task more practical. Simply drawing poses will make you understand the action required in each part of the body. Just about every pose has an approach to go in either direction. However, chances are you’ll forget to suggest them if you’re thinking about what comes next in your sequence. Know how to deconstruct every asana you teach.
3. Don’t assume anything.We sometimes make assumptions about a student’s experience level based on how they look, what they’re doing before class and the questions they ask. Resist the urge to let these assumptions take you off track, or change your plan by making you nervous. Many students may appear experienced but have very little training. Also, students that often ask for specific poses may believe that the only challenge in yoga lies in the tough postures. If your plan or experience as a teacher does not support a particular pose, or you decide it’s not safe for the whole class, leave it out. NEVER ask what their last teacher did!- you will get conflicting reports and if you were not there, you really do not know what that teacher was doing.
4. Have supports ready. Depending on the studio you’re in, props may or may not be nearby. Even though you’ve asked people to grab them before class, many will get it wrong. When you see someone newer struggling put a block/prop under them. Don’t make a big deal of it .Alternatively give a prop to everyone and let them feel the support it gives before choosing whether or not they want it. I know many (myself included) who considered sitting on a block a badge of failure, and instead spent 12 years without even experiencing the amazing support it gives. I certainly wish a teacher had insisted that I use one earlier.
5. Don’t listen to the voices in your head. “I’m so worried that certain students hate my class because it’s too basic” Stop! You will never know what your students are thinking even if they tell you after class. Stick to the plan and move forward. Many times, you’ll have students that you thought hated the class (based on their facial expressions) come up after class and tell you how much they loved it.
6. A group of beginners in the class does not necessarily mean that you have to avoid all poses that might be considered more challenging. In fact some of the Key poses can be pretty tough if you hold them, or move in and out of them very slowly. Half Moon and Dancer’s Pose are considered more challenging but not so far out of range that most students can’t safely give them a shot. Know what “Key Poses” are- theses are normally accessible to all levels.
7. Return to essential tools of yoga. Even though you believe the more experienced people know about ujjay, bandhas, drishti and the basics of alignment, don’t be afraid to mention these techniques. It’s great to remind everyone of these tools and helps keeps them anchored in the present. If you have a high level of confidence in your own understanding of these basics, share what you know. This can change the challenge to a mindfulness perspective versus a purely physical one.
8.Give people space to be beginners. Some of the best teachers in the country are able to teach to a large group of practitioners with mixed levels of experience and stay calm. Part of this comes from the ability to let people be where they are, resisting the urge to fix or correct them except where safety is in question. Newer teachers sometimes feel badly for new students as they see them looking uncomfortable. Never pity your students. You will never know what they are feeling and how they are interpreting their experience. Stay neutral and teach with the approach of “how can I help?” If it is safe but not particularly aesthetically pleasing- let it be.
9. Do no harm