The ABCs of Teaching Yoga


The ABCs of Teaching Yoga: Autonomy, Belonging, and Competence*

Research based on Ryan and Deci’s self-determination theory indicates that when people experience a sense of autonomy, belonging (relatedness), and competence, they feel self-motivated. Incorporating the ABCs into classes may help students become more engaged in what they are doing, foster their psychological well-being, and increase their ability to self-regulate. If students become disengaged or unmotivated in yoga class, considering whether their needs for autonomy, belonging, and competence are being met. Here are some tips for fostering the ABCs in yoga.


  • Your body is the boss! Empower students to listen to their bodies first and foremost. Nobody knows what’s right for you except for you.
  • Create class agreements as a group. Instead of the teacher arbitrarily laying down the rules, invite students to share what they think is important for having a fun and safe yoga class. Come up with a plan of action if someone breaks an agreement. What can we do as a group to get that person back on track?
  • Encourage students to take a break when they need to. Students can suggest appropriate poses that they can do to take a break, like Child’s pose, lying down (Savasana), or sitting quietly and “taking a breather.”
  • Ask students what they would like to do, and say yes to student requests as often as possible.
  • Encourage students to contribute their thoughts and ideas throughout class.
  • Ask or suggest rather than demand.
  • Discuss rather than lecture.
  • Model/demonstrate rather than tell.
  • Encourage students to take the lead.
  • Allow students opportunities to discover things on their own–engage their “inner scientist.”



  • We’re a yoga team! What affects one of us, affects us all.
  • Include partner and group activities. Discuss what it means to support your partners.
  • Connect with every student in every class.
  • Co-create the class with students. Encourage lots of opportunities for student input and creativity.
  • Ask students who are struggling or finding it challenging to focus to help you by being your assistant, demonstrating/teaching a pose, turning on/off the music or the lights – anything to help the student recognize that s/he is an important part of the group.
  • Follow through with class agreements in a kind and compassionate, yet firm, way without shaming or blaming students.
  • Get to know students’ interests and incorporate them when planning lessons.
  • Discuss themes like cooperation, feeling left out, compassion, and helping others.



  • If it hurts, it’s not yoga. Remind students that recognizing when a pose isn’t right for them is a sign of competence, not failure.
  • Meet the students where they are. Consider students’ energy levels and mood, and adjust accordingly.
  • Don’t rush just to fit something in. Give students the time they need to accomplish a task to their satisfaction.
  • Remind students that learning new things is a process and it takes time. In yoga we’re not concerned with the outcome, but we notice our attitude when we’re faced with challenges.
  • Let students know that you believe they are capable, and encourage persistence.
  • Be humble and share your own challenges with the students.
  • Have high (but not unreasonable) expectations for every student. Doing so signals that you believe they are capable and increases motivation.
  • Offer achievable challenges for everyone. If something is too easy or too challenging students lose interest. There is always somewhere to grow in yoga.
  • Be encouraging, but avoid empty praise. For example: You’ve got it. You’re almost there. I can see how focused you are, instead of Good! Awesome! Nice work!
  • Recognize effort and perseverance, not performance or abilities.
  • Be mindful of how you offer feedback. When you offer positive feedback or praise for easy tasks, students may interpret this as their being incompetent.
  • Make feedback specific and useful. For example, if someone is wavering in balancing poses, you might say: “Find one spot to look at. Does that make balancing easier or harder?” 
  • Only offer one-on-one assistance to a student when asked. Students may interpret unsolicited help as a sign of incompetence. Instead of asking specific students whether they need help, offer a general invitation to the class.
  • Remind students that every body is different. What some people find easy, others find challenging. There is no “right” way to do a pose, and it doesn’t matter what a pose looks like.
* This post is an excerpt from Jacqueline Maloney’s Kids’ Yoga Teacher Training Manual © 2014
Stay Connected.
Sign up for our Newsletter
We respect your privacy. We will never share your information with third parties.