The Case for Leveled Classes

I would like to join the intelligent chorus that calls for having {mostly} leveled asana classes at yoga studios.

I know that running a financially viable yoga studio is incredibly challenging. And bless those who undertake that work…you will NEVER see me own a brick and mortar yoga space. Between paying rent and {hopefully} paying your teachers a living wage, keeping the lights on at a yoga studio is a monumental task. With yoga’s popularity growing, so have the number of studios. In New York City, yoga studios are as prevalent as Starbucks. They are on every street corner, and new ones are opening all the time.

This can make filling the classes more challenging than ever. I understand that having “Open Level” classes filling the schedule seems like it will welcome more people into the studio.

Trying to reach EVERYONE? You end up reaching NO ONE. Current and potential students need to feel like you are talking right to them. {Tweet it!}

I say this to teachers when I am teaching how to create authentic branding, but it absolutely applies to this situation as well.

What that means is that when you open up a class with the intention of meeting a wide variety of needs, you end up not really meeting anyone’s needs. More often than not, what happens is that open level classes are taught like Intermediate/Advanced classes and that is frustrating and dangerous for students who are newer to the practice. In a worst case scenario, a beginner student could see an advanced variation they are not ready for, attempt to do it, and get hurt. At best, it is very likely the practice will feel like an Insiders Club with less teaching and explanation than a beginner level class, and turn potential students {and customers!} off from the practice, or at least your studio.

Also, while I’m on this soapbox, allow me to take this one step further. As far as I am concerned, a Basics class is not the same thing {or shouldn’t be the same thing} as a Gentle yoga class. An Advanced class should not only be a super-hard-core-standing-poses-workout class.

This was highlighted for me when I recently took a Level 1 asana class. In 90 minutes we did three standing poses, spent about ten minutes in total weight bearing on our arms {between being on hands & knees, downward dog, and simplified plank variations}, and did about 55 minutes of seated poses. Basics level students need to stand on their feet {and get off their tush} as much as advanced level students. I might even argue that what is most necessary in a Level 1 class IS that students learn to stand on their own two feet.

A Gentle yoga class is a lovely and different practice that would be useful and appropriate for people of all levels. When I see a Level 1 class labeled as Gentle, Easy, or Relaxing it kind of bums me out, ya know?

I am teaching a Level 1 class for the first time in years, and I am having so much fun! While the physical practice we do is quite simple and safe, I wouldn’t say it is gentle, easy, or relaxing. Holding a clear and organized lunge for several breaths {several times} can be quite a lot of work!

A Level 1 class should take the full breadth of the practice and teach the pieces of it that are physically and emotionally appropriate. From the asana practice, standing poses are important, as are seated poses, upper body strengthening poses, and preparations for inversions. The beginning variations of pranayama, meditation, and philosophy should also be included. Advanced level classes {I think} should include the advanced variations of all the parts of the practice including the full spectrum of the asana practice, as well as pranayama, meditation, and philosophy. Much of the “advanced” spectrum of the practice is quite subtle, so when I see higher level classes labeled as Strong, Edge, or {god forbid} Power, it also bums me out.

Here are some Q and As from our Facebook community::

From Stephanie: How do you find the balance between empowering students to choose their own adventure and going beyond their edge on that particular day? Could you give some tips for guiding someone who’s not having a level 3 day that it’s okay to take the level 2 option?

This is a great question! Taking care of yourself and your body is as much an advanced practice (if not a MORE advanced practice) as doing advanced asana variations. This is actually something I talk about a lot in my teacher training, even though my TT is focused on what to do in a private session. The way you talk to your students, the way you offer the next step, and every word coming out of your mouth should have the foundation of self love and self care supporting it. I would avoid phrases like “full variation of the pose” or “the advanced variation” and just say, “If that feels easy, you can try the next step which is _______, otherwise stay right where you are.”

While I really do think it is important that classes are leveled to organize students into the right place, once they are there, I would avoid saying, “This is the Level 2 version of the pose, and this is the Level 3 version.” Because what does that even mean? We are all complex, unique beings and our practices will be different from each other, different from our teacher, and different than our own practices were yesterday. As teachers, it is important that we teach students to honor that.

From Racheal: How do you make it easy for peeps to actually understand what that level means? Level 1 – 2 – 3 is pretty vague and can vary dramatically from studio to studio!

Another good question, Rach! I’m not sure that much can be done to standardize levels across the board. OM Yoga Center, the studio I used to teach at {as well as many others} had clear descriptions of what was and was not taught in each level. Here is an example of a description of a class I will be teaching this year. 🙂 I think a student’s best bet is to keep trying studios and levels and teachers until they find the right fit!

If you end up teaching an Open Level class {it totally happens, and it is good for your teaching chops to be able to handle it skillfully}, be sure to check out this great article from Bernadette Birney on Teaching the Mixed Level Class from Hell.

So, what do y’all think about this? Is there any reason to have a schedule full of Open Level classes that I am missing?

6 Responses to “The Case for Leveled Classes”

  1. Shawna

    Hi Francesca! Thank you so much for this! I currently teach a few open level public classes and was just thinking it’s time to redefine the class description because it’s definitely more of a “basics” class level just by the nature of who is showing up (mostly people who have some yoga experience but need more basic level, some injuries, lots of standing poses and more basic level of poses, i.e. lots of figure 4 pose, supine twists, etc.). I’ve also been told my classes have a gentle quality but it’s not really a gentle class in my opinion. All that being said, “Level 1” just seems so general and for the people in my class, it’s basic but very challenging for them! Seems like it would be discouraging for them if I called it Level 1. Anyway, lots of good food for thought here and this is such an important topic! Thank you so much! Xoxo 🙂

    • Francesca Cervero

      Yes, yes. I totally hear you Shawna. Thanks for bringing up this great question. I know it might seem discouraging for students to be told they are in (or should be in) a level 1 class, but I think we need to work collectively to help teach the general public that BASIC is not the same thing as EASY. I have several teacher trainees in my level 1 class, and they are working their little tushies off. If someone had never played the flute before they wouldn’t expect to be able to jump right into an ADVANCED level piece, they would start with the basics. It is the same when you are learning any new activity. What if your made TWO new class names??
      Level 1 (gentle)
      Level 1 (challenging)
      And people could separate themselves that way. What do you think??

  2. Ashley

    What a great thread! As a small studio owner I totally agree that having clear descriptions of your classes and levels is critical. This consistency is not only good for helping students find a class but is also crucial for helping them advance their practice. This has inspired me to start a dialog with my teachers. Thanks so much!! Oh, and your advanced Vinyasa class looks amazing!

    • Francesca Cervero

      Oh, awesome. I am so glad you are with me on this Ashley. Come take my Friday noon class sometime! It is a blast 🙂

  3. Olga Kabel

    I could not agree more about Gentle yoga classes. I’ve been teaching those for a long time and it’s obvious that what makes them “gentle” is NOT sitting on your bum. I wrote a post about it if you are interested: In general, I am really happy that I found your blog because I’ve been teaching mostly private yoga sessions for the past decade and you don’t often see a kindred spirit!

    • Francesca Cervero

      Ah, yes, it is so fantastic to meet you Olga! I am always happy to meet a sister on the path. <3


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