A Framework for the First Session with a Private Yoga Student

Question:: Can you give me a general sequence that moves a new student through all ranges of motion? I need some kind of framework to use for assessment purposes and to be able to set specific goals with my students!

Question:: The hardest thing for me in an initial consultation is to get that delicate balance of how much to ask and how much to move…What is most important in a first private session?

Digging into the complicated answers to these questions is one of my very favorite parts of working with teachers in my training. I have avoided answering questions like this here on the blog however, because I try to stay away from prescriptive teaching, especially from afar.

That said: I have heard you and I want to help you!

I know you all are thoughtful and smart and will want to use this flexible framework in a way that is supportive, but not constrictive. One of the most important skills you can learn as a private yoga teacher is how to hear and trust your intuition, and I trust that you will use these loose guidelines to help you teach as the most grounded and intuitive version of yourself!

First of all….

I am not a psychotherapist or a physical therapist and I am not even a yoga therapist {even though I have spent years in a serious study of yoga therapeutics, anatomy and biomechanics}. I am a private yoga teacher.

All the guidelines and “diagnostics” {using that term VERY lightly} I will share with you here are intended to help you get more information from your student about what kind of yoga practice will best help them come into balance.

I advocate for a style of teaching that is quite simple. Teaching simple poses, simple sequences and simple themes allow you to teach sessions that are also specifically useful on many levels for your student. If you are not worried about fancy sequencing, you can make sure the Warrior One your student is doing is actually interesting and useful for their body, heart and mind. {More on this to come…}

Now…On to the Nuts and Bolts of a First Session…

I do not have students fill out a paper intake form. I find those conversations much more useful in person. You will get more information from someone if they are telling a story and you have the opportunity to ask follow up questions. This is a super important skill you might need to practice anyway. I, personally do not take notes while we are talking because I want to be really engaged in the conversation.  If you need to take notes during the discussion that is just fine! We are all different here.  I have a waiver I bring to the first session and have students sign it. {You are already doing that, right?}

Here are some of the questions I ask at a first session:

I ask about their body history. I want to know:

  • about any major injuries or surgeries from their past
  • about other kinds of exercises they used to do

I ask about how their body is feeling right now. I want to know about:

  • any current discomforts or diagnosed injuries
  • other kinds of exercises they engage in
  • other kinds of movement/ mindfulness practices

I ask questions that tell me about lifestyle. Sometimes I will ask:

  • What do you do?
  • What are you work hours like?
  • Who/what outside of career are you responsible for taking care of?
  • How do you sleep?
  • Do you like to cook, or what are you favorite foods to enjoy?

I ask questions that tell me what they need from their practice:

  • Have you ever done yoga before?
  • What did you like about it?
  • What didn’t you like about it?
  • Do you feel like you need to work on:
    • strength
    • mobility
    • relaxing
    • having better focus
    • Of course I tell them we can work on all of those things if they want!

This whole conversation usually takes around 20 minutes.

Once we get moving, these are the poses I usually use in the first few sessions with a new client::

Supine:
  • Supine twist and variations {there is a dynamic, moving twist I borrow from Feldenkrais a lot}
  • Bridge and its many variations
  • Reclined ankle to knee
Supine Arm Movements:

{sometimes done lying on the floor, and sometimes lying with the spine on a foam roller}:

    • Straight Arms reach forward, up and back towards ears
      • Follow that same path to come back down
      • Keep arms straight the whole time
    • Arms Bent 90 degrees
      • Close forearms together in front of chest on exhale
      • Open as wide as you can {keeping arms bent} on inhale
    • Snow Angels
      • Keep arms down on the floor if possible
  • watch for pinching and limitations on all of this
From Hands and Knees:
  • One leg back and the many many variations of that
  • Plank
  • Gate pose
  • Child’s pose
  • Child’s pose side stretch

By that point I will have a sense of whether or not downward dog is a useful transition pose, or a peak pose that we must work towards. For an overwhelming number of my students the latter is the case.

The hands and knees poses also tell me a little about their core stability and activation, as well as their shoulder and their arm strength.

Next I’ll usually move towards…

Lunge poses:
  • Low lunge {with back leg straight} and its twisted variations
  • Anjaneyasana
  • Lizard and its variations

By this point I will have an idea if Warrior Poses and their variations are appropriate standing poses to use as grounded leg strengtheners, or if Warrior poses are peak poses that must be slowly built and worked towards using some of the previous poses mentioned. Again, it is much more likely that students fall into the latter category.

Next I might check core and shoulder strength with some work in forearm plank and its variations.

By this point I will be able to tell if they need to slow down {physically and emotionally}, or if they need to do the kind of physical work that will strengthen their attention and focus. To say it another way, by this point in class I will know if it is time to start quieting down and moving towards more restorative and meditative work, or if they need their butt kicked a little bit…

To help you think about when and how much to challenge your student  I will give you one of the most popular resources from my teacher training….

–The Support/Challenge Matrix of Private Lessons::

As the initial set-up and check-in is taking place, you will turn on your intuitive brain, and listen for the answers to these questions:

  • What is going on with this person emotionally?
  • What is going on with this person physically?
  • Given that, how can I support them?
  • How can I challenge them?

Every session that you teach will include these four elements:  Physical support, physical challenge, emotional support, and emotional challenge.  

In theory, if your student is relatively healthy and open {emotionally and physically}, each session would be comprised of equal parts of each of these four elements. It it quite likely however that this will not be the case. Some sessions I teach are 90% about physical challenge, with just small touches of the other three elements. Other sessions I teach are mostly comprised of emotional support, with only small bits of the other elements.

Another way to ask yourself these questions::

  • Given what I’m looking at, how much physical support do they need?
  • How much physical challenge are they open to?
  • How much emotional support do they need?
  • How much emotional challenge are they open to?

Physical Support

Physical support includes practices and poses to help them feel better in their bodies.

Examples::

  • shoulder mobility work for a stiff neck
  • supported backbends for relief from too much sitting
  • side bends and chest openers to help them breathe more deeply
  • quad releasing to help with knee pain

Physical Challenge

In physical challenge, you are asking your students to do something that is physically uncomfortable for them, but that you believe has some benefit. This is often a practice that will help them build strength in their muscles and bones. It could also be a practice that will wake them up and brighten their energy.

Examples::

  • strength building poses like plank, forearm plank, standing poses
  • asking them to hold strength building poses for longer than is comfortable
  • mobility increasing poses if they are quite limited {making sure to teach them not to push too hard…}
  • asking them to move quickly if they prefer moving slowly
  • asking them to move slowly if they prefer to move quickly

Emotional Support

Giving your students emotional support means they feel taken care of. They feel seen, heard, accepted, and they are able to let their guard down.

Examples::

  • this does not mean chatting and “venting” for 20 minutes of a 60 minute session
  • this does mean:
  • being warm and friendly
  • being encouraging
  • being present
  • watching them
  • being attentive
  • making on the spot adjustments like saying “wait, I think that this isn’t having the effect I had hoped.  Is this making you feel more stressed out?  Let’s do something different.”

Emotional Challenge

Giving your students an emotional challenge means you are asking them to do something that’s emotionally uncomfortable for them.

Examples::

  • holding poses for longer than is comfortable

A note::

There are many poses and practices that will crossover between physical challenge and emotional challenge. {One of those two will be the predominate challenge, and I want you to try to figure out which it is. Ask yourself, “Is holding this pose hard for them because they are physically not strong enough, or is it hard for them because they don’t think they can do it, and are afraid of failure? Both are valid, and you will be best able to support them if you understand why what you are asking them to do is challenging.}

  • going upside down when they are physically ready, but afraid
  • savasana
  • meditation
  • or any quiet practice that is challenging for them
  • getting to know and make friends with their own body

Another note::

Offering your students a practice that is emotionally challenging requires a VERY trusting and good relationship between you and your student. It can take YEARS for your relationship to be ready to ask your student to do something that is emotionally uncomfortable for them.

So now you have the basic poses I use to get an idea of what my student needs physically and emotionally. You have the four categories I use to create sessions that, while simple to the outside observer, are also specially designed to help my student find a more integrated sense of balance.

As you teach your next few sessions {especially a first session}, please think about these frameworks and let me know if you find them helpful!

Also, if there is anything else you do in a first session that I left out here, please share it with us!

30 Responses to “A Framework for the First Session with a Private Yoga Student”

  1. Zoe M.

    Wow, Francesca. This is smart, intuitive and well articulated (as usual!). I love all these suggestions not only for my students but also for myself in my own inquiry. …I’m realizing that in order to guide students into alignment based on this matrix, I must really work at keeping myself in alignment as well. This is super important to me…and also a constant growth edge in my practice!
    Thank you so much for offering truly valuable resources in your blog. I am consistently impressed by your spiritual and professional integrity, and I hope one day our paths will cross in person. 🙂

    Reply
    • Francesca Cervero

      Thank you so much Zoe! This is something that comes up in my trainings quite often. When people realize they have to support and challenge themselves with impeccable care to be able to do the same for their students, the depth that is possible in this works becomes even more evident. I really appreciate your kind words, and I would so love if our paths crossed in person sometime soon!<3

      Reply
  2. Shell Merrill

    I’ve been teaching for many many years, but always have found group classes much more comfortable than privates. I found this blog extremely helpful, thanks so much.

    Reply
    • Francesca Cervero

      You are so welcome Shell!! Thank you for being a part of our community here.

      Reply
  3. Megan

    Thank you so much! I have been teaching for 4 years. I am very comfortable teaching public classes, but not so comfortable teaching privates. This post has been very helpful- I feel very lucky to have stumbled upon your website, Francesca!

    Reply
  4. Samantha

    Wow just seeing this article and it is so super helpful and answered some questions about emotional challenge and support! I appreciate and am so grateful for all the awesome content and insight you share. Xoxo

    Reply
    • Francesca Cervero

      I’m so happy to hear this article truly resonated with you, Samantha! I’m grateful for you being a member of this amazing community.

      Reply
  5. lisa galizia

    Thank you Francesca! I teach private and group classes. Privates are always somewhat complex but great. I really appreciate your clarity, intuition and intelligence. Best! Lisa 🙂

    Reply
  6. Karama

    Hello,
    Francesca, this is very wonderful and useful information. I thank you immensely. Where can I get a waiver for the private yoga sessions that I teach?

    I don’t have a website, but I recently started a YouTube channel at: bit.ly/2J7ABmz. My Instagram is: @yogawriter.

    Reply
    • Francesca Cervero

      You are so welcome! I am so happy to have you as a part of our community here! There are lots of sample waives online, and you could check out the waivers at studios that you teach at. If you know anyone who is a lawyer have them take a peek at it and see what they think. I think simple and clear works best!

      Reply
  7. Zooey Ahn

    Such a great article!
    Thank you so much for this deep and thoughtful information. It really helps me teach private lessons!!

    Reply
    • Francesca Cervero

      You are so very welcome Zooey! I’m thrilled this all landed so well and I’m happy to be on this path with you. xo

      Reply
  8. Sam

    I am so pleased I stumbled across this article! You are so knowledgeable, and gentle in your approach. It is great how relevant this post still is even a few years after it was written. I have taken a lot of this useful information on board and hope to create nurturing, well rounded classes with future clients. I really want to give back what yoga has given me. Spread the love. Thank you again for your generosity

    Reply
      • Allison Key

        Thank you so much Francesca! Great insight & wisdom. I’ve been teaching for 5 years groups, semi & a few privates in studio, so they already had their waiver. Where do suggest to formulate my own waiver? Thank you again!

  9. Shavon McCown

    This information is amazing! Thank you, so much, for sharing your knowledge, expertise and support in such an accessible way!

    Signed, Appreciative New Teacher in Maryland

    Reply
  10. Laura Daly

    I am new to your site. I am blown away by you and your community. I’m teaching my first private session next week in my home in Lafayette, LA. I truly believe you were heaven sent to me. Sooooo grateful for your professionalism and giving spirit. You are my new idol!!

    Reply
    • Francesca Cervero

      Welcome Laura!! I am so happy you are here! Have fun with your first lesson this week and be sure to check in and let us know how it goes! 🙂

      Reply
  11. Sam

    Thank you so much for this amazing and insightful article Francesca. The points helped me to go in with more confidence for my first in person private client

    Reply
  12. Liz Combdon

    I stumbled across your site while researching to start working with private clients again. I’ve been teaching since 2013, but stepped away over the past year and a half, burned out and not connected. I’m excited to start working privately with clients and I love the resources and information you provide!

    Reply
    • Francesca Cervero

      Hi Liz! I’m so glad you found our community here! Don’t hesitate to reach out with any questions or requests for support! <3

      Reply

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