How To Tailor A Yoga Practice For Private Lessons

Hey loves. This is a big big topic to squeeze into one blog post. You can listen to it right here if you want!

One of the biggest differences between a group yoga class and a private yoga lesson is how and what you plan to teach. In a private yoga lesson the content of what is taught should be directed by the student, rather than by you, the teacher.

When you teach a group class, you take what you’re working on in your own practice, what you have learned from recent studies, and what is most inspiring you, and try to turn all that into a well rounded practice that will support, nourish and teach all the people in your group class.

This is a teacher-driven approach to yoga class planning.

In a private lesson, you teach what the student needs. Sometimes, if you’re lucky,  a student will be clear and vocal about what they want to work on, or what they feel they need from their private yoga lessons. Often, a student will be less than clear, or sometimes their self assessment is less than accurate. A common example of this is a student who wants to do yoga to “get more flexible” when what they really need is a better combination of strength and mobility. Another example is a student who takes up a yoga practice to help them “lose weight”  when what they really need is a restorative practice that helps them rest deeply.

Even if it feels hard to figure out, private lessons should have a student-driven approach to yoga class planning.

One of my favorite things to teach teachers is how to package a student’s needs {what you see they actually need} INSIDE of what they want {what they THINK they need}.

This is challenging because in your yoga teacher training it is very unlikely you were taught how to tailor a yoga practice {in all its many forms} to an individual.

That’s where I come in! 🙂

Much of the writing I do here on the blog circulates around this topic, and tailoring a practice to an individual is almost the entire curriculum of my teacher training, The Science of the Private Lesson™.

Today we will look at a five step process to help you make the practices you love useful and accessible to your private students.

STEP ONE: Commit to Meeting Your Students Where They Are

What does this mean?

It means that you make the most important 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.

Meeting your students where they are means you commit to teaching WHAT they need to learn WHEN they are ready to learn it, IN A WAY THAT MAKES SENSE TO THEM.

This means you teach the parts of the practice that will be most helpful to them, and you leave out the parts of the practice that will alienate them, or put an awkward barrier up between you and your student.

More than anything, you need your student to trust you so you can introduce all kinds of small challenges {physical and emotional} as your relationship deepens. This is how you can be of the most service to your student’s learning and growth.

To have the confidence and ability to meet your 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.

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 the most important teachings of yoga are::
    • 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. This means asking yourself:
      • 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 or movement to teach my students right now?
      • What do I need to do to be a more clear and skillful teacher?
  • Both these questions, and the answers you come up with, will shift as your teaching changes, deepens and grows.

Especially in the beginning of your relationship with your student, the best way to build trust {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.

Is the idea of a meditation practice to be able to sit still and watch the mind? Of course it is!

And I know my students will get there eventually, but we have to start where they are. So if the only way my students are emotionally open to being still, is if they are holding a really challenging and strengthening pose, then so be it. That’s where we will start.

More than once I have taught variations of Buddhist meditation techniques while my students held forearm plank. Is this a real meditation practice? No, it is not. But I’m teaching them the techniques they need to learn, so they will be able to sit in a traditional meditation practice when they are ready.

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.

To commit to meeting your student’s where you are you must drop any rigid ideas about the way yoga must look or must be taught  and open your mind to all the practices that will be beneficial to your student.

STEP TWO: Consider What Might Be Included in a Well Rounded Practice And How Important That Is or Is Not

Let’s look at what might be included in a well rounded yoga asana practice:

  • a full range of spinal movements:
    • backbend
    • sidebend
    • twist
    • forward bend
  • pranayama
  • meditation
  • yoga philosophy
  • warm up vinyasa
  • standing poses
    • neutral pelvis
    • closed twist pelvis
    • open pelvis
  • standing balance poses
  • seated poses
  • inversions
  • arm balances
  • supine poses
  • savasana
  • OMming/chanting
  • intention setting/dedication of practice

Consider this:

Even if your private student is capable of doing a well rounded practice, it may not be what they need.  In my private teaching, I prioritize offering a practice that will be balancing within the scope of my student’s whole life.

I have one student that’s a great example of this. She is strong, flexible, and quite familiar with yoga and all aspects of the practice. She is open to, and capable of, moving through a well rounded Intermediate to Advanced asana class. However, she also has an incredibly busy life, and is extremely physically active outside of her yoga practice. She runs 5 or 6 times a week, and works out {quite aggressively} with a trainer twice a week.

I taught her a fun, intermediate, well rounded yoga practice twice a week for years. She liked our classes a lot, and had standing appointments with me twice a week.

She also often late canceled on me. She would just get too busy or overwhelmed to take the time for her practice. She was really sweet about it, and never gave me a hard time about paying for the session, but I didn’t feel great about it anyway. I had a nagging sense that even though she had two standing appointments with me each week, there was a lack of commitment to her practice. I had a feeling that I wasn’t reaching her as deeply as I could be.

Then I wrote the curriculum for my teacher training, The Science of the Private Lesson™, and I realized that because she was so easy to teach, I wasn’t doing all the things with her that I recommend for meaningful, private teaching.

With students that are “easier” to teach sometimes more effort is required to figure out what they actually need. They can be more challenging to teach in a deep way. The people that are more difficult to teach {because they have injuries or are demanding in some other way} require your intense presence and curiosity right away.

Once I began implementing the tools I teach in The Science of the Private Lesson™, this student and I {very slowly} began to shift her practice to be one that is more balancing within the scope of her whole life.

From the outside it might seem like a strange practice. We spend quite a bit of time supine, working on strength and mobility exercises for her lower body. She loves to backbend, and for her backbends are energizing without being depleting, so that is an important part of our practice. Also, she loves to work on handstand scorpion {away from the wall!} because it’s fun for her, and that is reason enough for me! We close with supported fish and some balancing pranayama, and then we call it a day.

She is now much more committed to the work, and never late cancels anymore, no matter how busy she is.

STEP THREE: Know the Intended Benefit of the Pose

What is the intended benefit of the pose or practice?

This is a question you will hear from me a lot if you take a teacher training with me!

Is this something you are thinking about when you are practicing and teaching? I encourage you to!

And the question is not:

  • What did my teacher say the intended benefit of this pose is?
  • What does Light on Yoga say the intended benefit of this pose is?

Those questions are also useful and important, and are a good place to start your investigation, but I’m interested in empowering you to ask deeper questions.

One of my highest intentions as a teacher’s teacher is to empower you to to trust your own physical experience and to teach your students to do that as well.

The questions I want you to ask are:

  • What benefit do I experience in this pose?
  • Do I think that is a common experience?
  • What other benefits do my fellow teachers and students receive from practicing this pose?
  • When I ask a student to do this pose, what benefit do I hope they receive?

Getting to know ourselves and learning to trust ourselves is a wildly powerful teaching, and the physical body is a fantastic place to begin that work.

On a practical level, when you have specific ideas about the benefits you intend for your students to receive from the practice as a whole, or each pose individually, you can better create highly personalized sessions for them.

STEP FOUR: Be Creative and Flexible

Having the ability to add creativity and flexibility into your private yoga teaching is one of the core components of being a good private yoga teacher.

One part of the yoga practice where I recommend a lot of creativity and flexibility is the centering that happens at the beginning of the class.

Here is why:

For someone who is new to yoga, or new to their body, asking them to sit quietly with their eyes closed and legs crossed 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. Not to mention, “easy pose” is hardly easy for many people!

Here is why asking your clients to do something that makes them 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 student is so uncomfortable that they’re having an internal meltdown then the practice of centering isn’t working. It is not having 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.

We go back to Step One here:

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

Here are some examples of creative ways to start a private yoga lesson:

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 of  thinking that everyone loves this pose.}

  • They’re facing down.
  • The pressure on the center of the forehead stimulates the relaxation response and activates the parasympathetic nervous system.
  • This is a natural place to turn the attention inward.
  • You can give them grounding hands-on adjustments and introduce touch in a safe and careful way.
  • Breath cues that deepen and expand the breath often come naturally here. For example, you ask them to breathe into the backs of their lungs and expand their back ribs.

Supported Forward Bend:

Many students will have been sitting in a chair all day and if so, then 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 naturally flexible, a supported baddha konasana, or similar pose, might be a nice place to start. Starting in a {very} supported forward bend is a nice place to begin private yoga sessions 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 opening and/or strengthening
  • gentle bridge pose work {active or supported by a block}
  • supine twist
  • core work

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 let her thoracic curve exist and 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. She is very good at evenly articulating her spine, and we continue to talk about this.
  • We do a super, super slow, roll back up to stand. She stacks herself on her feet, feeling the skeleton well organized when she gets back up to the top
  • I’ll do that with her several times in a row….

Supported Fish with Two Blocks {or similar supported backbends}

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’s good for people who want to always feel like they should be “doing something”. In essence, you TRICK them into relaxing .

STEP FIVE: Continue to Study Anatomy and Biomechanics

Many yoga teachers feel insecure about their lack of anatomy knowledge. This insecurity about lack of anatomy knowledge is totally normal. We ALL feel it, me included, because it’s true! We don’t know enough.

There is so much to learn about the body and how it functions and then even more to learn about specific individuals bodies and how they are patterned. It’s totally overwhelming!

This comes up a lot in my work with new private yoga teachers because many students who reach out to teachers for private lessons are doing so because they can’t attend group classes. Some of the most common reasons students reach out to a private teacher is because they have an old or current injury, limited strength, unstable balance or a lack of mobility that makes your average public class inappropriate.

In the spirit of that, here is a list of all my favorite functional movement and anatomy teachers that you guys should be following and learning from!

Just A Quick Recap:

  • STEP ONE: Commit to Meeting Your Students Where They Are
  • STEP TWO: Consider What Might Be Included in a Well Rounded Practice And How Important That Is or Is Not
  • STEP THREE: Know the Intended Benefit of the Pose
  • STEP FOUR: Be Creative and Flexible
  • STEP FIVE: Continue to Study Anatomy and Biomechanics

Does this all make sense? Does it feel helpful? Let me know what questions are coming up for you!

I know I don’t offer an easy cookie cutter approach to teaching private lessons, but I trust that you guys are more interested in being empowered to hear and trust your own intuition than you are in being given Five Easy Tricks!  I have many more questions than I have answers, and I invite you all to join me in continuously questioning our assumptions about the way things MUST ALWAYS be done. Thank you so much for being on this journey with me!

4 Responses to “How To Tailor A Yoga Practice For Private Lessons”

  1. Elaine

    So informative and helpful Francesca. Thank you for being so generous with this info. As a Physical therapist, I feel confident in my knowledge of anatomy etc and how the body works, although I am always learning of course. I struggle with making the private session less like a PT session for my clients. Adding the yoga centering, pranayama etc helps. I find that I sometimes slip into “group teacher” mode when working with a private client. I think that I find it hard to keep the yoga peaceful feeling going when there is too much dialogue. Does this make sense? Anyway, I love listening and reading your blog!

    • Francesca Cervero

      Yes, this makes complete sense Elaine! Switching from PT-style dialoging into yoga teacher mode and then into chatting back into a calming flow is super challenging! This is something we spend a lot of time practicing in my teacher training, but one simple thing I can recommend here is to SLOOOOOOW DOOOOWN. Let yourself move and speak slowly in those transitional moments. You will be able to be more intentional about how you speak and move your own body around the space, and through that intention you can make a conscious choice to create a different space for private yoga than you would for a PT session. Does that make sense? Thanks so much for your presence here! <3

      • Elaine

        Great advice! I work one on one with PT clients all day and have been practicing more intentional dialogue and slowing down with my patients even in a rehab gym setting. I pray that one of these days I will be able to take your training!

      • Francesca Cervero

        Oh man! It would be so great to have you in a training Elaine! 2017?? <3

Leave a Reply

  • (will not be published)