- Risa Hiser
3 Things I Learned from Teaching Yoga to Beginners
“You will most likely pass gas in this pose,” I shared with a new student recently during a private session. He looked at me, part shock and part amusement across his face, as we pulled our knees into our chest.
Beginners are my favorite students to teach. They have three specific qualities that make them such great students: humility, fear, and discomfort. New students are humble in that they acknowledge that they know nothing, a trait many advanced students must relearn. Their fears are easy to support and help overcome. And their discomfort is the best tool for highlighting the benefits of yoga.
Here are three important traits that I have learned from my beginner yoga students:
1. Humility: Yoga teaches us that there is always room to grow and improve no matter at what level we think we are. Beginners have the advantage of knowing this at the start, and they are excited by the possibilities that lie ahead. Their idea or image of yoga gets them on their mat, eager to learn and explore. As teachers, we can use this enthusiasm to inspire new students to try different poses and introduce new methods of breathing (pranayama) and meditation (dhyana).
2. Fear: The consequence of humility, the acknowledgement that we are not the best, is comparison. Beginners look to others to learn and in doing so often fear that they are not good enough, not flexible enough, not strong enough, not fit enough. Nothing could be further from the truth but beginners use other students and the media to benchmark their progress. This fear has the power to unravel their initial enthusiasm; however, as teachers we can encourage students to focus on their path to growth. Each mind and body is different and the teacher’s role is to help students identify their strengths and weaknesses. The joy of yoga is that there are many paths in which we can be successful, and our goal as teachers is to introduce new students to the many types of meditation, breathing, and poses that will best support a student’s personal growth and cater to their uniqueness.
3. Discomfort: With fear comes discomfort, and beginner students feel most uncomfortable when they think they are doing a pose wrong or when a pose becomes challenging. This discomfort is a great opportunity for either physical growth or for new students to turn inward. As a teacher, we can share with new students the idea that yoga doesn’t start until we go outside our comfort zone. This helps new students realize that discomfort is a part of the exercise. The struggle and overcoming it is the essence of yoga!
After six years of practicing and two years of teaching I still describe myself as a beginner. This helps me remember that I too am a student. Each class I take is an opportunity to grow as both a student in my own personal practice, and also as a teacher, absorbing the other instructors’ cues, sequencing, and class environment. As a teacher, this realization of continual learning helps connect us with new students, to feel the same way they feel as a beginner. My guru, Dharma Mittra, says “If you say something too high or the student is not ready, they will not understand.” It is important to put yourself in the beginner student’s place so we can better navigate their struggles. It is a delicate balance when teaching beginners between acknowledging a student’s unabashed enthusiasm, expelling their fears, and challenging them to move beyond their discomfort. Their growth in the first couple classes is tremendous and playing to their humility, fear and discomfort are a few tricks to help teach any beginner student.
I looked over at my student I mentioned at the start as we released our legs to the ground from vayu-muktasana. “Don’t worry,” I continued, “I’ve seen it all before, and our goal is to move your body, stretch your muscles, and massage your inner organs. And sometimes that means a lot of gas.” He chuckled, his fear of embarrassment erased as he completed his first yoga pose in his first ever yoga class.
Whether you are a beginner student or perhaps are farther along on your journey, I would love to hear what you think about this idea of a "Beginner's Mind." What do you think is so important about approaching the practice with new eyes? Please share your perspective in the comments below.
About the Author: Risa has been practicing yoga since 2010 and completed her 200-hour yoga teacher training at the Dharma Yoga Center in NYC with Sri Dharma Mittra. She teaches hatha-raja yoga and focuses on the classical postures, Yamas and Niyamas, and the path to leading a more compassionate, healthy and simple life. Known for her calming presence as a teacher, Risa's classes are relaxing while her enthusiasm for yoga encourages students to explore new poses, challenge themselves and have fun. Risa lives in Portland, Maine and teaches yoga throughout New England. Follow her on Instagram @risayoga