When I started teaching yoga many years ago I remember spending a lot of time wondering “What do my students want in a yoga class?” and trying to please everybody. Now I think that a much better question to ask is “WHO are my students and what do they NEED?” Jay Fields wrote a book titled “Teaching people, not poses”; I haven’t read the book, but I think this is a fantastic title. All teacher training programs spend so much time analyzing the anatomy of yoga poses, but those poses do not exist outside of the practitioner. That’s why they need to be accessible, applicable and relevant to the people you have in front of you. And of course, an effective yoga practice is so much more than a collection of poses.
So who are your yoga students and what do they need? When it comes to answering those questions, I like to think of them in terms of human needs, group needs and individual needs.
Human needs are the ones that all of us have, and they are reflected in the elements of the yoga practice that we can all benefit from. We all want strong and tension-free bodies, ability to balance, feeling of vitality, clarity of mind, and so on. I believe that the best way to approach human needs is by working with The Panchamaya Model. It maps out the five main dimensions of the human system and what we are striving for within each of those dimensions.
Group needs are the ones that apply to specific groups or populations of students: older students, pregnant women, office workers, cancer patients, stay-at-home moms, golfers, and so on. Most people within those groups will have some common needs which can be used as a jump off point for your class planning. Most of the time, however, your groups of students will not be so clearly defined, and you will have a mix of students of different ages, professions, levels of activity, etc. That is why it’s important to know some basic information about your regular students, like:
- What is their general level of activity? On any given day, do they move a lot, or are they sedentary? How physically demanding their jobs are, what other kinds of exercise they are doing, etc.
- What do they do before the class and what will they do after? This is largely related to time of day you teach your class: Did they just get up? Did they spend the whole day in front of the computer? Will they be active after class or will they go to bed?
- What are the general expectations from this particular class? This is mostly related to context: Where are you teaching your yoga class? Are you teaching at the gym, yoga studio, assisted living facility, meditation center, hospital, office building? Class expectations and the kind of students that show up for it will be different depending on context.
Based on that information you can make some conclusions about what most of those students would need. For example, if they are sedentary, they would need to move a bit more; if they are very active, they would benefit from slower, more internalized practice; if they just woke up it would be useful to transition from less active toward more active movements gradually, and visa versa if they would be going to bed soon after class; if you are teaching at the gym students generally expect more movement; if you teaching at a meditation center, they would expect more mind-focused practices, and so on.
Individual needs are unique to each individual student. It is not realistic or even possible to address each student’s needs in a yoga class, but we have to consider what some students shouldn’t be doing. It’s always good to know if the student has some sort of health condition or sensitivity that might interfere with her practice. In terms of conditions we need to be primarily aware of contraindications (for example, do not bring your head below the heart if you have glaucoma, do not do internal hip rotation if you have hip replacement, and so on.) However, we don’t want to peg students into fixed categories like “high blood pressure”, “herniated disk”, “foot surgery” or whatever. Those conditions don’t define who they are. We still want to work with people, not conditions.
In a private yoga session, you are primarily focusing on students’ individual needs, and those needs guide and inform every aspect of your work together. And every yoga class is an interesting juggling act between human, group and individual needs. I would say that if you have a clearly defined group of students with specific needs, it makes more sense to address those needs with consideration for individual flavors and limitations. But if you have a hodge-podge of students from all walks of life, as well as levels of ability and activity, it would make more sense to focus on human needs (while still being aware of individual contraindications). If that’s the case, then how would you even know what to focus on and how to make your class useful and relevant to everyone present? We will talk about it next time – tune in!
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