The Biggest Mistake Teachers Make When Teaching Private Sessions

Having the ability to add creativity and flexibility into your private yoga teaching is one of the core components of becoming a well rounded and experienced private yoga teacher.

I was doing an interview once and somebody asked me: What is the biggest mistake that people make at a private yoga session?  Here’s how I responded: “Please cross your legs, move the flesh away from your sitz bones, close your eyes and put your hands on your knees.”

That’s it. That’s the biggest mistake teachers make when teaching private yoga sessions. Why?

Because that in itself is quite an advanced practice.

For someone who is new to yoga, or new to their body, asking them to sit quietly 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. I do start some of my private sessions like that but only with students who are ready for it. Like I said, It’s an 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 a quiet internal meltdown the practice/pose is not going to have the intended benefit.  {I go on and on and on about how to get the intended benefits of the practice in my online teacher training…}

It’s not that you shouldn’t push and challenge your students, because you must. But first you must have a bonded, established relationship. Just trust me on this one. {I go on and on and on about this in my teacher trainings also…}

To truly meet your students where they are, you must be really creative and flexible about the way you start and end class. {Tweet me!}

Let’s talk about some other ways to start a private yoga session:

Child’s Pose:

If child’s pose is comfortable for them,  that is a great place to start because it’s not too vulnerable.

{It is definitely not comfortable for everybody. Don’t make the mistake thinking that everybody loves child’s pose}

  • They’re facing down.
  • There’s a pressure on the center of the forehead which stimulates the vagus nerve and activates the parasympathetic nervous system.
  • It’s a place to turn the attention inward.
  • You can give them nice, grounding, hands-on adjustments, ask them to breathe into the backs of their lungs, help them deepen and expand their breath.


Supported Forward Bend

A lot of people are sitting in a chair all day and the last thing they need to do is more sitting or rounding in a forward bend. But if they have not been sitting all day, and/or they are flexible, a supported baddha konasana might be a nice place to start. {For many of the same reasons that child’s pose is.}

Lying On the Back

Lying on one’s back is a safe, grounding place to be and there are many things you can do from there:

  • hamstring stretching
  • gentle bridge pose work {active or supported by a block}
  • supine twist

Standing/ roll up and roll down

Here’s a step by step of what I do with one of my students:

  • I start her standing and I ask her to close her eyes
  • With her eyes closed, I  have my hands on her back and I assess her posture
  • Her thoracic spine is stuck in a backbend, so I’m working on getting her to move back into the center of herself
  • I assess her posture, and then I have her do a really, really slow roll down into a forward bend, all the way down.
  • Then super, super slow, rolling all the way up, stacking herself on her feet, feeling the skeleton well stacked.
  • When you have a skeleton well stacked, you don’t have to be super engaged in every muscle to stand well.  You can just let everything settle
  • I’ll do that with her several times in a row….

That is what is grounding for her.  That is the thing.  That’s what is centering for her.

Supported Fish with Two Blocks (other restorative poses can be great too)

This one is nice because it opens the front of the chest and is good for people who have been sitting at at computer.  It’s also beneficial as it can have a calming, quieting effect while also allowing sensation, so it is good for people who want to always feel like they should be “doing something”.

In essence, you TRICK them into relaxing 😉

Starting with movement?

I do think that starting right away with a little bit of movement can be fine but you want to move into it slowly.  Even taking three breaths to settle yourself and MODEL that for your students can be an important lesson.

Downward Dog?

Most people need more prep work or warm up before jumping right into downward dog {even me!}.  Sometimes up to 20 minutes of prep is necessary before someone can skillfully get into downward facing dog.
So I want to hear from you!  How do you begin your private sessions? What do you find works best and is most beneficial for your students?  If you happen to try out any of these suggestions in your own private classes, please let me know how it goes!

30 Responses to “The Biggest Mistake Teachers Make When Teaching Private Sessions”

  1. Antonia

    Great blog post. Thanks! I have an older population of private clients I am beginning to work with privately. They are physically restricted and so I have been using chairs. Sitting up tall and taking a few breaths at the beginning of the session has been okay for them (and we’ve got a bond already), so far, but I love these suggestions for the more agile. Thanks again.

    • Francesca Cervero

      Yes, you are so welcome Antonia! Started your clients sitting in a chair to get focused and grounded sounds perfect. Have you found any other creative ways to start your more restricted clients? We would all love to learn from you! XO

  2. Shila tirabassi

    I love what your doing Franchesca! I took a different path and am now doing more therapy but this is going to help so many teachers! I wanted to ask/respond to one of your bullets about starting in child’s pose. You mentioned it stimulating the vagus nerve, but the vagus nerve begins in th brainstem and travels down to c2/3 before exiting the CNS and making its way to the digestive organs. It’s never in the cranium itself. While being on the forehead stimulates the pineal and pituitary glands, I’ve never heard about the vagus being stimulated so I’m wondering where that comes from? Anatomically the forehead is much too superior for the vagus. Just curious so I can learn more! Best to you my friend! Perhaps we can collaborate some day!

    • Francesca Cervero

      Hello dear Shila! It is lovely to hear from you. What you are saying makes so much sense. The forehead is much too superior to facilitate stimulation of the vagus nerve. I learned from
      Judith Lasater that pressure on the center of the forehead helped to stimulate the relaxation response in the body, and she attributed that to the vagus nerve. But maybe something else is responsible for stimulating the parasympathetic nervous due to pressure on the center of the forehead? What else could it be Shila? <3

  3. Carrie

    Great suggestions, Francesca! l also like to start my students in a reclined postures, focusing on the physical movement of breathing. Thank you for regularly sharing from your experience!!

  4. Chelsea

    While we’re not in a traditional teacher-student relationship, my boyfriend is probably my most challenging and honest private student. Not only is he impossibly tight in almost every part of his body, but he also has no patience for things he can’t benefit from immediately. This challenges me to work quickly and efficiently; to find poses that calm and center him without telling him, “feel calm and centered;” and to properly align him while he is holding a pose using many, many props. One of the ways I start a practice with him is in the supported fish pose. He loves the feeling of opening up his chest and I feel like it makes him more receptive to the rest of the practice.

    • Francesca Cervero

      Yes, this is awesome Chelsea! Supported fish pose is GREAT for people who feel like they should always be “doing something”, isn’t it? I have so many clients that sound much like your boyfriend. It is great you are getting solid practice and feedback with a “toughie” like him. 😉

  5. Amanda

    Hi Francesca,

    Love this post, thank you for all the tips! One thing I often do with my private yoga clients is do some gentle movement while laying on their back (supported bridge, twists, etc.) and then invite them to find a comfortable position where they can be still for a few moments and focus on their breathing. I then ask them to ask their body what it needs that day – what is their body craving. And I’ll give them some cues such as do your legs want to be stretched or does your chest want to be opened or is your body craving quiet slow movement, etc. This helps them listen at a deeper level to their body as well as invites them to direct their own practice. It is also very informative for me as we move through a practice. Besides providing a way to ground and center, I have found that these questions also help them understand how they can develop their own home yoga practice. Like you suggested, meeting students where they are at in that particular moment is essential to creating a trusting relationship and an embodied practice.

    Thanks so much!

    • Francesca Cervero

      Amanda, thanks so much for sharing this. There is so much thoughtfulness here; your clients are lucky to have such a smart, present teacher.

  6. Sarah Farnsworth

    This is terrific! Thanks for such an informative post, and I love the standing up roll-up/roll-down. I want to try that!
    I have a few different ways I start out my sessions, depending on the person. One of my clients loves to start reclining with her legs up the wall. It comforts her and lets her relax into a trouble area simultaneously. Another way I like to start (for a different client) is with cat/cow, and I can do a slow build-up by cycling through child’s pose, coming up high on the knees, and/or down dog. But again, two different starts for two very different clients!

  7. Michelle

    I am really grateful for this blog post today. I particularly appreciate the notion of me sitting still and modeling breath that is easy, slow and focused. I’m going to use everything you offered here in my classes this week. The standing roll up/ roll down is so gentle and yet, I can imagine the connection students feel to you with that compassionate touch. Please don’t stop sharing these pearls of wisdom!!!

    • Francesca Cervero

      You are so welcome Michelle! I am glad you found it helpful. There is so much good teaching and learning to be done in modeling quiet, confident behavior. You can feel really grounded in that. <3

  8. Samantha Billings

    I so needed this post today! I have a relatively new client that has lupus and is new to yoga. She is very fit but her body is very tight. My intent was to start slow and relaxing and moving through her joints gently. We always start lying down on her back and coming into the breath then doing hamstring stretches, ankle rolls, and movement through her hips. So in theory this sounds okay for her to start but she has told me “I really don’t need the relaxing stuff in the beginning, I just want to get to work”. So I’m battling how to start with her so today I’m going to try the supported fish and see how she likes that. Thank you so much for this post and all that you do!!!

    • Francesca Cervero

      You are most welcome Samantha! Thank you for being here! I say this a lot, so you may have heard this from me before, but you have to give your students what they need, packaged INSIDE of what they want. It can be tricky to do when what they want and what they need are at extreme odds, but it is possible! {I do it every single day…haha} Maybe I should write a blog post about that? Pop back in here, and let us know how she likes starting in supported fish! XO

      • Samantha Billings

        A blog post on packaging their needs inside of what they want would be perfect. She loved the supported fish!! She actually said today was her favorite session and I think it is because I really focused on meeting her where she was and not trying to force her into my way of practicing yoga. Thank you and I can’t wait to find out more about your online teacher training!

      • Francesca Cervero

        That is so so awesome Samantha! You are really on to something with her! <3

  9. Lindsey

    Hey Francesca! Love this post! I teach a variety of levels privately so, it’s so great to hear different options from everyone. Recently, I’ve obtained a new client who had a herniated disc in his lower lumbar spine so, for him it’s all about focusing on his physical posture and how he carries himself. That being said, I will either start him in a supported bridge pose, or standing in mountain and ask him to inhale into his rib cage lifting ribs away from pelvis. As he inhales I assist his ribs from behind allowing him to feel and keep that lifted feeling as he exhales. This lifting action has totally changed his awareness towards how he holds himself and it grounds him a lot as well. Thanks for all you do!

    • Francesca Cervero

      Ahh, this is fantastic Lindsey. That sounds like the perfect way to start class with this student! Love to you. X

  10. Zeshan

    Yes! I’ve noticed the discomfort of some students when I ask them sit still like this to start and also the discomfort some students feel when I close in savasana. I realize that I take it for granted because for me being in silence like this is easy and comfortable and it is my favorite part of class. I must be more aware that it is really uncomfortable for some, and just because I love it does not mean students will too. Yikes!! Thanks for the thoughts on the subject and for offering some juicy alternatives!

    • Francesca Cervero

      You are welcome Zeshan! I am glad you found this helpful! You bring up a great point in general: as teachers, as soon as we assume our students will have a similar experience as we do, we have shut down our best teaching tool, our intuition. Sending you love! <3

  11. Tanya

    I like starting in crocodile. It is a gentle backbend. Because of the belly to floor connection you get good breathe awareness and the forehead is supported by the hands for 3rd eye stimulation.


Leave a Reply

  • (will not be published)