When I started my first yoga studio in New York City, my goal was to create the perfect yoga sanctuary- a place that I was never able to find for myself. It didn't take me long to realize the idea was flawed. The easy part was getting past the attachment to perfection: a little mouse removed that issue the day he scurried across the floor during a kid's meditation class (thank God everyone's eyes were closed)! The hard part was realizing that I was not the typical yoga student- particularly for a new studio.
Who is the Typical Student at a New Yoga Studio?
Unless you're able to attract a core following from other places (which can lead to a number of ethical and legal problems if studio owners perceive you to be "poaching customers"- more on that in another post), your new students will most likely be beginners. This is because established yogis, no matter how enlightened, tend to attach to specific styles, studios and instructors. Thus new schools, in particular, need to make sure they are providing a comfortable, non-intimidating gateway to yoga.
Why Established Studios Need to Focus on Beginners
Even if your school is established, you always need new customers to maintain a solid financial base. Yogis relocate, have children, or simply lose their practice for external reasons. A constant stream of new students will keep your studio financially healthy, and continue to infuse your community with new energy and ideas. New students also benefit you as an instructor. I have become a good teacher not by teaching advanced students, but by teaching beginners and children. Think of it this way: the less someone knows walking in the door, the more they need you to fill them with knowledge and experience.
The Top 5 Things to Remember About New Students
1. The perceptions surrounding yoga are very different now than they were when you started practicing yoga.
Most people who start their own yoga studios are aware that they need to be empathic. I certainly tried to be when I first opened my school. What I didn't realize is that yoga is a completely different animal than it was when I began practicing almost twenty years ago. Many, many people want to try yoga but are afraid they'll be "fat" or "not flexible enough." A shocking number of women are afraid to try yoga because, "they're afraid they don't have a cute Lululemon outfit." It's your job, as a studio owner, to put these people at ease. Having classes specifically for beginners, featuring photos of people doing basic poses in your marketing materials, and telling first time students that it's ok to wear sweatpants to class all help new students feel less intimidated.
2. Making yoga accessible and welcoming doesn't mean you're watering it down.
When I started my first studio, I felt every class needed to begin by chanting om, all poses should be called in Sanskirt, and blocks were the enemy. I felt that it was my mission to provide real, traditional yoga. Now I realize that my goal is to make students feel safe and comfortable so they continue practicing. As long as they keep doing physical asana, the full yoga practice will be revealed to them by their inner self in a pace and manner that they can digest. I have come to view yoga as a gateway to a deeper spiritual practice. Our job is to introduce students to new concepts, and support them on their journey. If you give them too much too soon, they tend to overload and shut down.
3. Beginner yogis don't want a two hour Mysore practice.
Most people simply cannot handle a class longer than an hour. Especially in today's world, with electronics shortening the average attention span to a few seconds. I have found that the ideal class for beginners is forty five minutes, with a 2-3 minute savasana. An alternative, if you simply can't bring yourself to shorten the practice that much, is to provide a forty five minute physical practice with the option for people to quietly leave while others prepare for a 10 minute savasana. Additionally, they need direction. Do not assume that everyone knows what savasana is, or feels comfortable doing things you consider obvious, such as closing their eyes or asking for a blanket if they get cold.
4. Let new students influence your teaching style.
Listen to your beginners, and respond. The best teaching advice I ever received was from a beginner, after class. I had spent an entire hour being very attentive, adjusting almost every move. Afterwards, she was speaking to me and started crying for no obvious reason. I asked what was wrong and she said, very simply, "Those poses made me feel so vulnerable and even though I know you were trying to help, I felt like you were criticizing me for doing it wrong." Lightening bolt! It's taken me years to realize that the way I was taught isn't the only way, or even the best way. Every teacher has to find their own path, and it will be shaped and molded by their students. I believe you should be just as open and receptive when you teach yoga as when you practice- maybe even more. If you're doing it right, your style will shift and change through the years like a beautiful vinyasa.
5. Doing yoga opens people up, which makes them more vulnerable.
This is certainly true in the classroom, but also extends to business items. I make it a policy to discuss all business matters before the practice. Simple things like telling someone their credit card has expired can trigger strong emotional reactions when they've just opened their first chakra. I also find it helpful to make sure instructors know how to handle it when customers have a strong emotional release in class. A couple months ago I was sitting in the waiting area of a well known studio in NYC, cooling off after class. Most of the students had left, and I heard the instructors all making fun of a student that had started crying hysterically during an earlier class. One of the instructors even suggested to their friend that they, "checkout the footage from the security camera for a good laugh." I only hope they were more supportive of this person during the actual experience.