Mixed Level Classes

Lesson Overview

In this lesson, we explore inherent challenges and pitfalls in teaching a mixed-levels class.

Objective

Understand the challenges in effectively teaching a mixed-levels class and review suggestions for overcoming them.

Description

Describe three options for demonstrating variations to a mixed-level class. Give an example of teaching verbiage that implies a hierarchy of value (i.e. you are a better student if you do this variation and a lesser student if you do this one). Provide priorities that can help to effectively teach pose variations to mixed-level students. Describe two ways of effectively teaching pose variations to mixed-level students. Explain why using the word “beginner” with a pose variation may be inappropriate.

Introduction

The vast majority of classes draw students of various experience levels. This is arguably one of the most challenging areas of skill development for teachers. To effectively meet the needs of both new and experienced students is a deeply satisfying accomplishment. But it takes skill and attention.

Areas to consider focusing on include:

  • Effectively demonstrating variations.
  • Using language that is respectful and inclusive as well as empowering.
  • Prioritizing how you attend to individual needs.

Demonstrating Effectively

Demonstration Technique

We are big proponents of the approach Baxter Bell M.D. describes below. It allows for complete demonstration of all variations you wish to teach. And it offers more experienced students the opportunity to experience the value in variations they may rarely experience.

Teaching Progressive Stages to Whole Class

My favorite way of addressing new students who don’t know the poses yet, able-bodied students of all levels, and my students with challenges in getting up and down from the floor, is to take everyone through an individual pose or vinyasa in advancing stages of difficulty… This, of course, assumes you have enough props, chairs, wall space, etc., for everyone to try the [earlier] versions at the same time. – Baxter Bell, M.D. 

Meditation Seats, Too

This same approach is an effective way to inspire students to choose a meditation seat that is optimal for their body. You might demonstrate a highly propped version of Virasana (Hero’s Pose) to the whole class, for instance, or a cross-legged seat propped on two folded blankets. In the propped cross-legged seat, you can show the relationship between knees and hips and why this is important. You can then offer students the option of progressively removing propping only as optimal alignment is maintained.

Grouping Students by Skill Level

When it’s possible and appropriate, you may wish to have students set up in such a way that beginners or those with particular conditions are in one area of class. This will enable you to more efficiently demonstrate and assist them.

Co-Teaching

Another option, as noted in the article above, is to utilize an assistant or a student assistant to demonstrate one version to a subset of class while you demonstrate another.

Speaking Respectfully to Different Levels

Self-Reflection

  • Do your words imply a hierarchy of value based on experience or of physical capability?
  • Do your teaching descriptions of variations and steps toward challenging poses imply some are better than others or are associated with being a better or worse student?
  • How do you support beginners with poor body awareness and little exposure to common yoga cues?

Example for Consideration

Instead of:

  • “If you can’t do the full pose, you can use a block.”
  • Such a statement implies the version without the block is better when in fact a full, traditional pose done incorrectly or with strain is not better than a variation done safely and with breath awareness.
  • Nor does that expression describe the value of using a block or how to use it effectively.

Consider:

  • Experiment with words that avoid hierarchy and that teach the why and how of the variations.
  • Teaching Why & How: “Press your hand into the block so that you can create length in the side body.”
  • Avoiding Hierarchy of Options: “Press your hand into the block. Stay here and breathe fully. Feel length in both side bodies. If your arm reaches the floor without losing that feeling of length, then remove the block and press your hand into the floor.”
  • Another approach: “Option A, press your hand into the block. Option B, press your hand into the floor.”

“Beginner” and “Advanced”

  • Consider the meaning of the word “beginner” to you, and how you use it with students.
  • Some students who have been practicing for many years may never be able to perform the full versions of particular poses due to physical limitations. So if a variation is termed as being for beginners or for those who “can’t” do the full pose, it seems this student is improperly being called a beginner.
  • A yoga practice whose goal is to increase functional health and reduce mental fluctuations can be done in many ways and a particular asana version is unimportant to a yoga practice, unless the practitioner were to see it as one. In light of this, how might teachers use words around experience level and advanced expressions of physical practices?

Prioritizing Individual Needs

Due to the nature of a mixed-levels class, you may be presented with a plethora of considerations for which students to give individual attention or adjustments. You may wish to take note of what is instinctive for you:

  • Is it fun and easy for you to help students practice advanced variations?
  • Do you have a tendency to over-correct beginners?
  • Do you have a fear of – or aversion to – working with a particular type of student or condition?

With this awareness, you can reach out for guidance or study in areas of weakness or otherwise evolve your approach to ensure it optimally supports the various needs of your students.

Address major misalignments and/or potential for injury first, followed by foundation issues, minor misalignments, stress/fear response, then other enhancements to outer form, and then fine tuning for the inner body. – Jill Abelson

See Also