In my years of teaching yoga, both online and in real life, one of the immediate problems I encounter when faced with new students is how to assess their goals and progress. But then, should yoga even be about goals?
The truth is that yoga is not really about the destination, but about the journey—I know, so cliché—however, there are some specific goals that people might have. Depending on their age and lifestyle, they might turn to yoga as a therapeutic practice to improve their mobility, to heal an injury, or even to improve their performance in a specific sport.
Others might come to yoga for its mental benefits, such as increased self-compassion, improved self-esteem, and better concentration. Or, it can be to learn how to relax and breathe deeper, especially nowadays where so many of us are filled with stress and anxiety.
So, how can we, as yoga teachers, help our students in the best way possible? We have to determine their arriving skills, their goals, and their progress throughout their practice. We’re all unique, so progress will undoubtedly look different for each student.
Still, as the teachers, we should be aware of this if we are to help them arrive at their goal in the most efficient way possible or if there need be any adjustments.
An assessment will help you and the student have a better experience. To do a wholesome evaluation, I encourage you to do three types of assessments: (1) paper, (2) verbal, and (3) mobility/movement assessment.
Before the start of any yoga class, yoga teachers need to hand in a waiver to students for legal protection and to let the students know that they are the masters of their body and, as such, are responsible for it. Additionally, it lets them know that yoga teachers are not medical professionals.
When handing in the waiver, we can seize this opportunity to give out our paper assessment. In this assessment, we want to gather some basic information about our potential students.
It’s essential to get the basics on our students in order for us to target our teaching better. We need to gather information such as their age, occupation, marital status, work schedule, and recreational activities. Also, we can take it up a notch by identifying whether they have any sleep issues.
Do they have any injuries we must be aware of or any other medical condition? How do they deal with stress? How do they ensure that they have proper nutrition?
And last but not least, in this first evaluation, it is reasonable to ask them about their previous experience with yoga. Have they attended classes before? And just how much do they know about yoga?
We need to gather such information to determine if we have to explain the principles and foundations of yoga or if we could get started right away.
The next type of assessment I encourage you to do is a verbal evaluation. In this one, you will both get to know your students better, and more specifically, you will understand what exactly they are planning to achieve by starting a yoga practice with you.
The verbal assessment is also a great chance to see the compatibility between you two. Not all yoga teachers are for all yoga students and the other way around. This is not a bad thing; it just speaks to the individuality and personal touch we each bring to our classes.
Through this assessment, you will try to understand more thoroughly the student’s struggles concerning yoga (i.e., medical conditions, injuries, pregnancy, mental health, etc.).
More importantly, you will discuss what their aims are. Do they want to work toward a specific pose (i.e. a specific pattern of movement)? Maybe they want to become stronger or more flexible. If so, ask them what for. Perhaps they want to focus more on the mental benefits. You can tell them about yin-yoga, meditation, and pranayama, and see how they would feel about incorporating those practices.
One thing that I have to constantly address upfront with some of my students is when they tell me their goal is to lose weight. I don’t think yoga alone can help with weight loss, but it can help with stress and anxiety, which in turn helps us eat more mindfully and avoid excesses.
I think yoga doesn’t focus on the body in a negative, physical way. That is, I don’t encourage my students to come to yoga with a mindset of I’m broken, and yoga will fix me. Or I’m lacking, and yoga will make me whole again, or I’m weak, and yoga will make me stronger. Although some of those things might be true, framing them is crucial.
So, I make sure my students understand that change comes from within, and yoga is not a magical practice that will solve all their problems.
Having said that, though, once they express their goals and aims with me, I tell them to have patience and to be realistic. Sadly, as with most things in life, results can’t be guaranteed, as they depend on many different factors.
As such, it’s essential to let them know that most students won’t be performing a perfect handstand or a split in a month. Things take time. That is why it is essential to find out the reasons behind their goals.
Understanding their “why” will help you keep your students encouraged and inspired throughout the practice. It will also help you know just how much support to extend to them so they do not give up when the usual downs from the non-linear line of progress arrive.
Now, let’s get to the physical evaluation part. Although yoga helps develop many mental skills like mindfulness, self-control, focus, and even self-compassion, it’s mainly a physical practice.
As teachers, we will be guiding our students through different movements and poses, so we need to get acquainted with the physical capabilities of our new students—not just to see where their starting point is but also to understand any limitations that might require us to propose different alignments and modifications for them. Or, it can be to identify which props to use and poses to avoid.
As we all know, no two bodies are the same, and a Down Dog Pose will look quite different depending on the body that is doing it. This is thanks to the differences in bone structure and the flexibility of the muscles and connective tissues, as well as many other variables.
So, as a simple assessment, you can ask your student to do some foundational movements to realize if they have tight muscles, limiting joints, or even hyper-flexibility.
Please remember to do a slight warm-up for your students and to let them know that although some of the poses you will ask them to do might feel challenging, they are to gauge their physical capabilities. However, the poses are not meant to be something they should already be doing perfectly.
Some Poses That You Can Use for Your Mobility and Physical Assessment
It will allow you to assess their back and hamstrings’ flexibility and see how mobile their knees are.
Any Plank Exercise
It can be on elbows and forearms or hands. With this exercise, you can see how strong their shoulders and core are, and depending on the tilting of their hips, you can also gauge how tight their hip flexors might be.
As lunges work the lower body, you can see how flexible they are and how strong they are. They are a great way to assess glute strength, coordination, proprioception, and the strength and flexibility of their hamstrings in their squats.
Twists are a crucial movement in yoga and are essential in keeping the spine’s health and encouraging the flexibility of all the breathing muscles. Ask your student to first perform the most basic twist and to tell you if they feel any unwanted tension in their lower back.
As a staple pose in yoga, it is good to see how your student does in this pose. Ask them to keep their spine as straight as possible, no need to keep their legs extended if their hamstrings don’t feel all right doing it.
It is also a great way to see some shoulder openings and how they are doing with this important joint. Don’t forget to ask them to engage their hands—to grip the mat and to protect their wrists.
Ask your student to move their arms straight to the front, then up, and down to the sides. Then, ask them to move their arms in circles, paying close attention to their mobility and shoulder-opening capability.
These are just some of the poses that will help you get a clearer image of the overall capability of your student and will allow you to prepare a better class for them—a class that has been customized to their level and their needs.
Additionally, you might want to do a couple more depending on what they have expressed as their specific goals. The assessment shouldn’t take too long, but it will give you the information you need about how your body is at the starting point.
Now that you have gathered all the information you need about your students and you already know what they need and want to get out of their yoga practice, you are ready to start your classes.
After some classes have already been done, weeks have passed, and namastes have been said, you need to be able to assess the progress that your student is making toward their goals.
And how do you determine their progress?
Depending on the goals that your students have, you will evaluate their progress differently. What’s important is to emphasize that yoga is not a thing to get better at by itself. You don’t practice yoga to get better at yoga. You practice yoga to improve life.
So, you should tell your students that in the event that they notice no physical progress, they should consider their progress outside the mat, too. And give more weight to the latter one.
Having said that, though, collect your notes and keep a small journal to write down your student’s journey. Which poses used to feel awkward for them and have now become almost like second nature?
How are their flexibility and their strength? Are they doing all right, or do they need a more challenging class, or maybe to focus a bit more on their flexibility? What’s their headspace now after X weeks of yoga?
Keep going back to these questions and also to how they are feeling and what’s working for them. Remember that they definitely need to get out of their comfort zones to see progress, but pain—physical or mental—should always be avoided.
As I mentioned before, many people will approach yoga with a specific therapeutic, physical, or mental goal, and it is very important to keep working toward them, but I promise, most student’s will—after a while—forget about those initial goals and focus on the feeling and overall life improvements that yoga brings.
Nonetheless, it is important to get to know your students before starting the practice and to keep reassessing every now, and then to make sure your teaching and their practice are working for both of you.