Why I Advise Against A Traditional Centering

You guys have got to hear this story of the “creative” restorative yoga class I taught on Sunday…

This past weekend I taught a yoga class for an urban retreat my friend Jamie hosted in NYC. We rented a yoga studio to use for the class, and I was there bright and early at 7:30am to get grounded in the space.

The studio manager wasn’t there, but one-by-one the retreat participants started to show up looking sleepy and excited for their end-of-retreat yoga class. By 7:50am I was pretty worried because there was still no sign of the studio manager to open the space, and I now had 15 women standing on the corner of Bowery and Houston waiting for their restorative yoga class.  


My friend Jamie was understandably pretty stressed out, but I tried to help her calm down…”Listen”, I said, “teaching yoga in the least desirable circumstances is one of my super powers…don’t worry!”

We left the studio and walked back to the apartment where they were going to have brunch. There was a small living room space, so we moved all of the furniture and there was barely enough space for all the women to lie down. We had no mats or props. The chefs preparing the brunch were trying to be quiet, but they also had to talk to each other and turn on the fans. The circumstances were far from what we all were expecting.

But I have so much experience bringing yoga to people right in the middle of their messy lives, this was actually a blast for me. It was an incredible challenge and I really had to tap into my most creative self. It was so fun, because even with the dirty floor and no room to move and no mats and no props and people talking and cooking, I STILL feel like I found a way to help the students turn their attention inward in a calm and loving way. Even when the smoke detector was set off!

Here’s what I definitely didn’t do…

Ask the students to sit comfortably {with no props!} close their eyes, and turn their attention inward and try to relax…

What I did do instead…

As they were lying down, I led them through a Feldenkrais-style body scan. Next, we used scarves and sweatshirts to do an active version of Supta Pada. Then we came up to stand and did a series of slow side bends, chair pose, goddess pose, and some shoulder openers in prasarita padottanasana. Next, we did a few seated poses before I led them in a breath awareness meditation while lying down again.

I used this playlist, and tried really hard to model what it feels like to be grounded and calm and loving towards yourself and others, even in a stressful situation. I think it worked! So many of the students told me after class that it was one of the best yoga classes they had ever taken.

The truth is, before I started teaching clients in my home studio MOST of my teaching was like that…. kids running around, doorbells ringing, co-workers popping in to ask questions and cakes that needed to be taken out of the oven…so many of the yoga sessions that I taught were filled with constant little interruptions and took place in less than ideal circumstances. And I LOVED it.

I think that one of the of the great benefits of private yoga is that we bring the container that holds the yoga practice to our students, right in the middle of their messy lives. Students don’t have to leave their home or office to get to practice, and this can make it more possible to fit a yoga practice into a busy life.

It also shows our students that they don’t have to wait until things “slow down” {HA!} to take care of themselves. They can practice being grounded and centered and present right in the middle of the mess. This is a beautiful thing to teach.

This can also present some challenges.  How to Use Interruptions as a Teaching Tool is a forthcoming blog, so today I just want to keep it simple and think about the transition INTO practice mode.

The No-Transition Transition

If you travel to see your students in their space make sure to remember that they miss out on the usual buffer time of a walk, subway, or car ride on their way to yoga class. They may show up on the mat immediately after taking care of a crying child, having an argument, running an important meeting, or sitting in front of a computer. They may need some extra time, and your help, to “land” in the yoga session.

Even if the transition of “regular life” to yoga class is stressful due to traffic or crowded streets, it is still an intentional choice to go from one mode of operation to another. When we show up at our student’s house or office to teach them yoga and no travel is required from them, it becomes our job to guide their mental body to the mat, and help transition our students into practice mode.

A traditional {seated with eyes closed} centering may create more anxiety for your student.

For someone who is new to yoga, asking them to sit quietly with their eyes closed can make them feel quite vulnerable and uncomfortable. Sitting upright with closed eyes is an intimate experience, and can be unsettling for students who might feel like you are staring at them, especially if they are already anxious.

If there is a lot of noise, people walking around or a related disturbance in the space you are teaching, starting the private lesson by saying to your students, “Please cross your legs, move the flesh away from your sitz bones, close your eyes, put your hands on your knees and turn your attention inward” is probably the biggest mistake you can make in that yoga session.

I do start some of my private sessions like that, but only with students who are ready for it. I think it is a very advanced practice.

Here is why asking your clients to do something that makes them really uncomfortable is a bad idea: The reason you are asking them to close their eyes and sit quietly is because you want to help them center and calm, right? If your students are having an internal meltdown the practice/pose is not going to have the intended benefit.

It’s not that you shouldn’t push and challenge your students, because you must. But first you must have a bonded, established relationship and those take a really long time to build. To truly meet your students where they are, you have to be creative and flexible about the way you start and end class.

One of my favorite Traditional Centering Replacement Transition Practices is to put my students in an inward facing pose {like child’s pose or a supported forward bend} and give them a focus for class that is related to the breath.

For example…

  • If you sense that they are frantic and harried, suggest they put their attention on their exhale, to help slow and quiet the nervous system.
  • If you feel like they are exhausted and depleted ask them to put their attention on deeper inhales, to bring in some new oxygen and new energy.
  • If  you feel like they are both frazzled and depleted, then focus the attention on taking even length inhales and exhales, to help them feel more balanced.

By doing this, you teach people that they have the power to affect change in themselves with intentional attention on a specific part of their breathing pattern.  It could be an advanced teaching to ask them to notice and then choose which of those three focuses will best help them come into balance.

How do you help your private students transition into their yoga practice time? Have you ever taught yoga under less-than-ideal circumstances?

4 Responses to “Why I Advise Against A Traditional Centering”

  1. Marianne Tanner

    Love this story of resilience and creativity in the midst of a stressful and unexpected situation. I admire how you think of these situations as actually being FUN — that must serve you well in the rest of your life too! I love the idea of modeling how to stay grounded and calm amidst “real life stuff”. What a good thing to teach.
    I have two private clients, both of whom can arrive to the lesson very chatty and a bit ungrounded. I agree that asking them to sit still upright with eyes closed and breath would be a hard way to begin. Most often, I have them recline their chest and head onto a bolster/blanket, bring their legs into constructive rest pose, and place hands on the belly to feel the breath. This seems to work well, and they already feel like they are “doing something” because there is some opening happening in the shoulders/chest/front body. Thanks for the post Francesca!

    • Francesca Cervero

      Oh, thanks so much Marianne! I’m so happy to hear this resonated. I did have a blast teaching that class! I can’t say I am always so calm in my regular life, but teaching brings that out in me. 🙂 Your work with your two chatty clients sounds perfect…yes..get them to feel like they are “doing something” and it will be much easier for them to settle in. Sending love your way!

  2. Victoria

    Yes, yes, yes! This is everything! I do think that it requires practice/experience on a teacher’s part to guide students into a centered state, despite interruptions, but this is such a great reminder for all teachers to strive toward creating that environment, whether in a bustling home or a studio. Thank you for this insight.

    • Francesca Cervero

      You are so welcome Victoria! I think this is one of the not-talked-about-enough tricky parts of our job! 🙂


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