How to teach skeptics, so they learn to love their yoga practice

What are some of the qualities that allow a yoga teacher {especially a private yoga teacher} to facilitate the most meaningful changes in their students’ lives?

I believe having the confidence, ability and willingness to meet your students where they are makes you a teacher that can help students on the deepest, most wide-reaching levels.

What does it mean to “meet your students where they are” ? It means that you make the deepest teachings of yoga accessible to your students so that you can teach them lessons that will be deeply beneficial on all levels: physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual.

I have had a lot of fun and great success teaching yoga to people who are skeptics. They are often interested in the benefits they perceive to be possible with a yoga practice, like: increasing their physical strength and flexibility, learning some techniques to help them be more focused, and feeling more relaxed and at ease. These students will tell me all about the experiences they are hoping to have by working with me, and then add, “but I don’t want to do yoga, because that seems weird.”

“You got it buddy.” I tell them with a wink.

“We will work on increasing your strength and flexibility, I’ll teach you some techniques that will help you focus, and we’ll do all of that in a way that will leave you feeling more relaxed. But none of that weird yoga stuff!”

It’s so funny right? Because of course, all the practices and poses I teach them, within a container of deep mindfulness, are TOTALLY yoga, no matter what they call it.

I sometimes say that I “trick” my students into having a spiritual practice. 😉

How do I do that?

I put a high priority on offering my students the most important spiritual teachings I have received from my practice: presence, mindfulness, and interdependence.

And the catch? I do this in a way that makes sense to them.

To have the confidence and ability to meet our students where they are, and make yoga accessible to even the most cynical skeptics, you first need to know what you think the most important teachings of yoga are. You need to be able to articulate, in a clear and simple way, the most important spiritual teachings you have received from your practice.

Step One: Knowing the Right Questions to Ask Yourself

How can you distill the tenets of yoga down to the most lucid, potent teachings?

  • There are two practices that will help you figure out what yoga means to you::
    • First: Put this question right into the center of your heart and let it sit there.
    • Second: Teach! Teach a lot! And think critically about your teaching. As in:
      • What am I excited to practice right now?
      • What am I excited to teach right now?
      • What seems like the most important practice, virtue, idea to teach my students right now?
      • What do I need to do to be a more clear, skillful teacher?
  • Both these questions, and the answers you come up with, will shift as your teaching changes, deepens and grows.

Here is what I have decided are the most important, simplified teachings of yoga::

My highest intention as a yoga teacher is to create a container within which my students can experience deep presence, and teach them the tools to recreate that experience for themselves.

Especially in the beginning, especially with new people, the way to build trust with your students {which is what allows them to be open to your teaching in the first place} is to teach the parts of the practice that are appropriate for them in a way that is accessible for them.

Step Two: Putting Theory Into Practice

What does this look like in a real yoga session?

Well first of all, if you’re on this list, you will see actual footage from a real private session with one of my most beloved clients.

All of my private yoga sessions look drastically different from each other. A session with a Yoga Skeptic may look something like this:

    • start with a manual version of supta padangusthasana or some assisted stretches borrowed from thai yoga massage and include guided mindful, steady breathing
    • move into supine core work and variations of bridge pose with samavriti breathing
    • come up to standing for leg strengthening and stretching poses like anjaneyasana, standing twists, quad stretches, ardha hanuman, etc
    • standing shoulder openers and shoulder strengtheners {TIP: “skeptics usually feeling like they are “working harder” if they are standing rather than sitting. 😉 }


  • all of this work has very mindful attention to breathing patterns, styles of movement, and muscular engagement patterns
  • back down to the floor for backbends, hip openers, or seated twists
  • finishing in a long held supine twist, supported fish on a block, or some other “savasana replacement.” In this blog post I talked about creative ways to start a session, and many of them would work for a savasana replacement as well.

This is my mission: to help my students have an experience of sustained attention and to give them tools to bring that into their everyday life.  I will literally do anything it takes to make that possible, and am not shy at all about incorporating poses and practices from outside of traditional yoga practices.

If you are clear within yourself about what you intend for them to get from the practice, there are many different kinds of movements and practices that can be “yoga”. When viewed from the outside, some of my sessions may look more like personal training sessions.

The difference between a personal training session and the yoga sessions I teach is that I have a clear intention to help my students settle their mind down to the pace of their body, and come into presence. From across the room it might look like I am teaching my student a super long series of only forearm planks, but what you can’t see is that I am teaching my student a shamatha meditation technique while they hold forearm plank.

Is the idea of a Buddhist meditation practice to be able to sit still and watch the mind? Of course it is. And I know my students will get there, but we have to start where they are. If the only way they are emotionally open to being still is if they are holding a really challenging and strengthening pose, then so be it. That is where we will start.

This attitude has allowed me to have clients that become very engaged in their own experience. Their engagement makes all the difference in their personal growth, and the benefits they are able to feel as a result of their practice.

I want to inspire you to do the inner work that is necessary to teach yoga in a way that is both deeply meaningful and totally accessible. I want you to be able to speak about what yoga means to you with clarity and confidence, so that your teaching can reach many many people {even skeptics} and facilitate the kind of meaningful change I know is possible.

I believe it is up to us to figure out how to reach people, by meeting our students where they are.

Tell me loves…what do you do in your private sessions to “meet your students where they are”?

4 Responses to “How to teach skeptics, so they learn to love their yoga practice”

  1. Nancy

    I enjoyed your blog post and I agree with what you are saying. I am a yoga therapist and I wanted to share with you a recent experience I had with a private yoga client. My client “Mary” (not her real name) came to me based on a recommendation from her neuropsychologist. He thought yoga would help her. She had a variety of health issues so he thought the private sessions would be better than group classes. She expressed her concerns at the first session about yoga as she is a devout Christian. I assured her we would focus on the practices that would help her based on scientific research. She was a client of mine for over a year. She trusted me and she enjoyed coming each week. I did gentle movements with her, breathing practices and relaxation. She told her doctor how much the yoga was helping her and she recommended yoga to her friends and family. About a month ago she called me and said she had to make a tough decision. A close friend of hers from her church told her she should not being doing yoga based on its origins. She told her to look it up online. Mary “googled” the origins of yoga and was horrified that it seemed to be based on spiritual practices and what she called idol worship. She wanted to quit. I had a long conversation with her about how I chose the practices that were health based and current research had proven their benefits. I reminded her I was Christian and would not be teaching her anything that would offend her or her religion. She just could not get over it. Her friend from her church had influenced/shamed her that she should not be practicing yoga. I invited her to bring her friend to a session so she could see that we were not doing anything “weird”. Mary just could not get over what she had read on the internet. I realized I was not going to change her mind and I wished her well. I told her I hoped she would continue the practices I taught her (i.e. basic breathing techniques). Do you have any words of wisdom on this scenario?

    • Amanda

      I don’t know if it would push her towards you or away from you, but the historical research on Jesus is fascinating and shows his link with the Eastern world. Holger Kersten’s Jesus Lived in India is amazing, and seeing that Jesus was open to all this weird stuff (and actually learned the basis for his teachings from the East, if you believe the research) might make her open her worldview in a meaningful way.
      I would also encourage her to pray on it, to let go of the fear her friend gave her and to pray and see if Jesus gives her any answers about how yoga might be helping/harming her and how to proceed.
      Give her time, she may be back anyway!
      Thanks for sharing. 🙂

      • Francesca Cervero

        These are great ideas Amanda, thank you so much for sharing! 🙂

    • Francesca Cervero

      Hi Nancy! Thanks so much for writing with this question. I am so sorry about this, I could imagine feeling really sad about it. I think you handled it perfectly. You assured her you would focus on practices that would help her on a deep physical level and it worked, she loved it! I think inviting her friend to join you was genius, I am not sure I would have thought of that. The only thing I recommend here is to check in with her every now and then and share a breath practice {or something} that you thought of that might be helpful for her. Just stay connected to her in a warm, friendly way, so if she has a change of heart, you are still there to support her in deepening her practice. Wishing you the best and sending love. <3


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