How much of your private yoga lessons should be planned ahead of time?

This question came in on the blog a few weeks ago:

Hi Francesca,

Thank you for taking the time to answer questions! I wonder how you format your class content if a student does not lead you to it by way of the questions they answer during the intake process? IE: Do you just create a plan like for a group class, but for one person? Or do you create it “on-the-fly” when you meet with them? Or do you continue questioning until a direction naturally evolves such as working on particular issues? I find that I’m not totally sure what kind of session to create for them without being given direction to particular goals (I’m also a massage therapist and this is similar to massage…..IE: if my client does not have particulars they want to address, we do a general massage with no specific focus unless we find something along the way). Thoughts?

Thank you!

Lauri Glenn

This seems like a simple question, but it highlights how interesting and complicated teaching private sessions can and should be. The answer to Lauri’s great question covers several of the major topics that I cover in my teacher training!

This includes:

  • how much of a private lesson should be planned ahead of time
  • what must be included in a well rounded private lesson
  • how to create meaningful sessions on the spot
  • unconventional tools for assessment

Let’s talk about planning first:

Are you inherently more of a planner or a winger? Everyone functions differently on this topic, so there is no right way or correct amount to planning your private yoga sessions.

Whether you plan your private sessions down to every last pose, or you show up with no plan at all, this is what matters:

The most important task at hand is to teach a session that will be meaningful and useful for your student, across the full spectrum of their life. The goal is to be relaxed and focused in your presence and intuitive and alive in your teaching.

The question is, “how do you function best?”

  • Take the time to get to know your style.
  • Do you function best with a plan to fall back on even if it turns out you are unable to use it?
  • Or if you have a structured plan are you so tightly tied to it that you can’t be intuitive in your teaching?
  • You should try teaching both ways and see what happens.
  • For new-ish teachers I think it is a very good idea to come in with a basic structure or sequence planned; that may help you feel more grounded and creative.

It is a good idea to be prepared with a little something that will be balancing and inspiring for your student, but as I say all the time, you have to be willing to drop that if it is not going to meet their needs.

When you have been working with a student for a long time, you will be better able to plan a class that suits their specific needs. And yet– you will never be able to completely predict how your student is going to feel on any given day. You have to be willing to be flexible enough to create the session they most need, on the spot. Your deep attention and presence is required for that kind of creativity.

Teaching the body and mind that is right in front of you in the moment is your only true job. {Tweet it!}

“The primary job of a yoga teacher is to mirror back the inner radiance and inherent goodness in each human being.” –Judith Lasater

I function much better as a teacher if I don’t show up with a rigid plan. I spend some time thinking about my student; I picture their bodies, envision their movement patterns, remember what it felt like to be in their energetic presence. That will often give me ideas about patterns, poses and practices I want to work on with them. Then as I chat with them, I assess if those ideas seemed aligned with what I observe in our initial check-in.

In my teacher training I discuss several unconventional ways to take an assessment of your students. Let’s talk about one of my favorites here: Using what you see and hear and feel with your intuition to create a plan for the session, right on the spot!

Questions to Ask Yourself in Making Assessments:

At the beginning of class you will have a quick chat with your student as you set up the props and check in about how their body is feeling that day. As you do this, watch your students’ facial expressions; look at their skin, eyes, and body language, and then ask yourself:

  • How are they holding their body? Energetically what kind of sense does that give me?
  • Which leg do they put more weight on? What would that tell me?
  • What is the quality of their breath?
  • Where in their body do you see the breath moving?
  • Are they breathing diaphragmatically or high up in their neck and chest? And what would that mean?
  • How does their voice sound? Is the tone upbeat, strained, depressed, or anxious?
  • How does their skin look? Their eyes? Do they look well rested or depleted? Do they look restless and anxious, or calm and grounded?
  • What do I see in the space?  In a totally non-judgemental way, you can learn a lot about someone by observing their space.
  • There is no good/bad, clean/messy, happy/sad judgement happening here. It is simply:
    • What do I observe?
    • What do I think that means?
    • What do I need to do to help bring them into balance?

The only way to learn how to do this is by practicing.  You simply ask yourself, “what do I see, what do I think that means?”

This can become a People Watching Practice. At the grocery store, on the subway, at the airport…watch the people around you and ask all of the above questions.

What I think should be included in a well rounded private session is a whole other big topic. Stay tuned for another blog post about that. 🙂

A seemingly simple question about planning and creating a private yoga session shows just how complex and rich this topic is! The delicate and intuitive work we do as private yoga teachers requires a finely honed eye and a toolbox full of ideas. As always, I recommend grounded presence and loving patience, especially with yourself!

Share with us here friends:

  • How much do you plan before your private yoga sessions?
  • How comfortable are you in creating sessions on the spot?
  • What assessment tools do you use when you teach your private yoga students?

11 Responses to “How much of your private yoga lessons should be planned ahead of time?”

  1. Samantha

    I love this post Francesca! I’m the same way with working without a rigid plan however I’m constantly trying to evolve my observation skills so that I can plan a practice that meets my students needs for that moment. I love your list of questions to ask and what to observe. I go through many of those in a very short amount of time but sometimes I don’t know what to do with the information I learn for my observations. For example if I observe the space in their house is cluttered and messy something is obviously out of balance but I don’t exactly know where I can help. I was also wondering if you have a set range of motion test or any specifics that you do in first sessions? I’m working to create more structure in my first sessions with clients to really help me determine their needs but am struggling with that. Thank you for this post!

    • Francesca Cervero

      Hi Samantha! I am so glad you found this helpful! Thanks for asking these great questions. I am torn…I want to answer this question in three very different ways.

      {This highlights how complex these issues are and shows why my teacher training is so long and intense {and fun!} 🙂 }

      1. My first thought is: if you don’t know what to do, don’t do anything at all. Just collect the data, and be okay with not knowing what to do with that information. An idea will present itself if you keep paying good attention.

      2. There is some work to be done here to strengthen your intuition and to teach you to trust it. Learning to trust ourselves is a really important ingredient in being a private yoga teacher.

      3. Be careful not to make black/white or cause/effect judgments. I actually had the exact example you gave {messy house indicating something is out of balance} in my notes and didn’t include it in the blog. A relaxed and cluttered house may be exactly what that person needs to feel at ease in their home. There is no way to make a direct judgment or correlation like that. That is why I said,

      There is no good/bad or clean/messy judgement to be made here. It is simply:
      What do I observe?
      What do I think that means?
      What do I need to do to help bring them into balance?

      You certainly could be right, but I just recommend we are all careful not to make negative judgements or assume anything. The longer you teach your student and the better you get to know them the easier this will be! Does that make sense? A lot of our work is getting comfortable with not having all the answers, while maintaining a highly focused eye, and continuing to think critically about what we are doing in our teaching. Phew! Not easy!

      Yes, I do try to get a sense of a student’s general flexibility and strength with some tests and observations in the first session. Maybe that could be my first video blog?? Sending love…

      • Samantha

        Thanks for your detailed response Francesca! That’s a great point about not making judgements. I know that I need to work on trusting my intuition and making observations while staying neutral instead of good/bad as you said. Thank you for giving me some things to think about and work on. I would love to see that video blog post! By the way I plan on taking your next in-person training!!!

      • Francesca Cervero

        You are so welcome Samantha! I would love to have you in an in-person training! The schedule is getting set for 2016, so keep your eyes peeled for that. <3

  2. Ashlee Green

    Before I meet and teach a private client for the first time, I ask them either over the phone or via email a) what their yoga experience is like and b) what their specific goals are (if any). This “intake survey” helps me to determine how to arrange our sessions. I always come into my sessions with a basic framework, but am prepared to leave it behind at the drop of a hat (or in one specific client’s case, a total sobbing meltdown as she client walked in the door)!

    As always, thank you Francesca for the great information you provide! Love your blog.

    • Francesca Cervero

      That sounds perfect Ashley! I do something very similar. Thank you for being here! <3

  3. Jen Donnell

    I love how free spirited you are and totally agree with your advice. I figure out as I go and feel what’s right when I arrive, but often get a weekly assortment of poses to maybe incorporate. Though, it’s never one size fits all… Even when you sometimes wish it could be. Lol How is the move going!

    • Francesca Cervero

      Haha, I am glad my advice comes across as free-spirited. My students and teacher trainees might argue that my soft, intuitive vibe is all a front and I am really a hard ass, type A teacher. :-p A mix of strong container and soft, intuitive presence works well for me. Sounds like it is working well for you too! Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts here…XOXO

  4. Lauri

    Hi Francesca. Thank you so much for getting to my question. Ive been teaching several students since asking that question and am finding my style evolving naturally. Im a planner, always have been, but am always ok if things don’t follow the plan precisely (or at all!). So, after a detailed intake outlining their history, goals and some personal details, I bring a plan with items I definitely want to get to, items I’d like to and those that would be “bonus time” items in relation to what their intake led me to. My latest client is signed up for seven weeks with weight loss as a goal, so my plan is to teach each week with a chakra as the theme and see how it evolves. Good so far! All of the other above advice is great. This conversation reminds me of the one I constantly have in my head about authenticity…….If I am truly authentic to my style of teaching, to what I love to share and to the message I want to put out in the world, then my teaching will speak to those who are drawn to it and things will flow and evolve from an organic space. Sometimes tough when we want to satisfy people and give them what they want, even if its not our authentic offering but absolutely essential I believe.

    Thanks for your blog, time, generosity in sharing. So much fun!

    xo, Lauri

    • Francesca Cervero

      This all sounds SOOOO fabulous Laurie. I love the idea of 3 lists of poses and practices in your head, the must-get-to, the could-get-to, and the bonus ideas. That is brilliant. Also, 7 weeks/7 chakras— sounds lovely! I’d just like to plant one little seed for you to think about:

      Yes, teaching from an authentic place is extremely important. However, what I try to teach teachers how to do is this: give their students what they need, packaged INSIDE of what they think they want. I know what you think they need, and what they think they want can be totally at odds, and that is what makes it fun! You have to get really creative and sneaky 😉


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