Why is teaching yoga 1×1 so uncomfortable?

I met an extremely experienced and knowledgeable teacher at a continuing education workshop a few weeks ago, and she sent me this message when we returned home,

“I’d love to hear your theories on why it’s challenging for someone to teach privates, it’s always been curious to me, because I’m confident in my teaching skills but find more comfort in a group setting. Thanks!”

My short answer is that teaching yoga in a private setting is quite intimate {emotionally and physically} and this immediate intimacy of a teacher/ student relationship is uncomfortable for many people. And within that close relationship we are in The Leader and I think that asks us to be so grounded in ourselves, any hidden awkwardness will be revealed. {For me too!}

The longer answer goes like this…

I think that teaching yoga 1×1 feels most uncomfortable
when we require a solid and complete trust
in our “learned knowledge” to feel confident in our teaching.

I think the confidence we feel in our teaching is more useful when it comes from somewhere else. {More on that later.} In my many years of teaching private clients the one thing that has become really clear to me is that I can never be sure that I am “right”. Working with the tumbling truth of another human’s path will reveal how limited our maps and models are.

Let me back up.

What is a map or a model?
A few weeks ago I attended the Beyond Anatomy Symposium hosted by the Breathing Project in NYC. It was fabulous. We talked a lot about the maps and models we rely on in yoga and their usefulness. Some of the maps I’ve found personally useful in my life are: Iyengar and Anusuara-based asana alignment, basic anatomy, fascial trains, biomechanics and functional movement studies in general, chinese medicine, ayurveda, and various somatic movement practices.

I think any map might be useful at anytime depending on the student and what they need.

Maps become a problem though, when we treat them as a static and universal guide to a unique human’s body, heart and mind.  Maps become a problem when we start confusing them with the actual territory. {I think this is loosely adapted from something Neil Gaiman said…}

If the maps we follow have limited usefulness than what are we doing actually doing in asana? {shoutout to Remski for that one…} If there is no magic in perfecting a pose to look just like Mr. Iyengar, than what are we working towards? How do we teach our students in a way that helps them receive the most benefit from the practice? If nothing is black or white, how do we know if we’re doing it right???

We are all familiar with the teaching that the only thing that can be counted on is change. The Truth of impermanence, if you will. This also affects yoga teachers in a special way that I don’t think we talk about enough. Groundlessness means that even when we are in the seat of the teacher we can never be sure that what we are saying is true or correct or useful for our students.

There is nothing solid that we can hang our hat on.
There is no “right”.
There is only this inquiry…
“Is this interesting or useful right now?”

That makes the teacher’s seat extremely uncomfortable for many people, with very good reason. How can I stand here in this role as The Teacher if THERE IS NO GROUND TO STAND ON?

So I ask: Can presence and attention be ground enough to stand on? Could your confidence in your teaching come simply from your confidence in your ability to be fully present for your students?

This challenging part of teaching, especially private yoga, creates varied responses.  

For some people it makes them hold on even tighter to their maps.

“THIS alignment principle is right. When you do THIS ACTION with your pelvis, you will have THIS EXPERIENCE.” And so on.

Some teachers will run away from groundlessness in the opposite direction. They say, “You could try this, but really…do whatever you want. Make it yours. Do whatever feels good.”

I feel both of these approaches to teaching have gone too far to the edge of the spectrum. You know me…Middle Path Girl.

In my teaching I talk to my students about some of the physical sensations that might occur in any given pose and we will discuss whether the sensation is beneficial or not. I make sure they know the benefit I intend for them to receive, but even more importantly I give them freedom to explore the pose for themselves and decide what variation of the pose has the most benefit to them RIGHT NOW.

Beyond just telling them to do “whatever feels good”, I’ll share anatomical and biomechanical information that INFORMS their understanding of what might be of benefit to their body. I do this in almost every pose we spend any length of time in, and especially in any new pose. I don’t think people find this overwhelming, because there is no instruction that limits them to doing it “right” or doing it “wrong”. The anatomical instructions are interwoven seamlessly as part of the dharmic themes of presence and awareness.

Our first and most important job is to create a container and offer gentle suggestions that support our students’ personal inquiry.  Teaching private yoga lessons is much more about holding space for thoughtful, directed questioning than it is about transmitting information. {Does that take some of the pressure off??}

So would should I do?
How can I be a good teacher AND enjoy my teaching?

The best thing you can do as a teacher is go into your classes armed with as much anatomy and biomechanics knowledge as possible, and then remember those studies are only maps, and when you are teaching you are walking around in the actual terrain.

Also, be gentle with yourself. It will help you stay grounded.

Also, be uncomfortable! It’s okay! I think it’s a really good sign. A. It means you’re paying attention to how you feel, and B. You’re being honest about how little solid information you have. That’s okay. That is what is real and true.

And I think this is the most important part, so I’ll say it again:

Can presence and attention be ground enough to stand on? Could your confidence in your teaching come simply from your confidence in your ability to be fully present for your students?

Noticing and allowing your own vulnerability and discomfort to exist is a powerful and beautiful place to start.

It makes SO MUCH SENSE to me that teachers feel really uncomfortable teaching private clients, even when they feel really confident in their teaching skills. One of my favorite things to do is help teachers process this discomfort so they are able to really enjoy their 1×1 teaching. What other thoughts or questions does this bring up for you, love? Ask away!

9 Responses to “Why is teaching yoga 1×1 so uncomfortable?”

  1. Aneesa

    Thanks for your insight! I teach private yoga almost exclusively. I am more comfortable focusing on the needs of one person than with a large group. I would encourage teachers not to be intimidated by private teaching. Sequences and instruction can be tailored without compromising the needs of other students.

    • Francesca Cervero

      Hi Aneesa! Thank you for sharing your thoughts here. I totally agree! If teachers can relax into the intimacy of a private lesson, I think in some ways they will find them much easier to teach! Getting to focus on just one person’s needs always feels like a huge relief to me. 🙂

  2. Lauren Gibbons

    Francesca – love all of your writing, but today’s blog post spoke to me even louder than usual. Great insight! I love teaching 1:1 and the connection I get to experience with my students. While I feel confident in my teaching and my knowledge of the prenatal and postnatal body, I do feel I need some extra biomechanics training and can always use more anatomy study to increase confidence even more. I’ve been taking your guidance – giving the student freedom to explore the pose, asking them “how does that feel?” and telling them “this might be what you’re feeling”- into my private lessons. I believe it’s improved my teaching and the experience for my students! It indeed takes some of the pressure off when we create a safe container and guide our student through the practice with suggestions. Looking forward to signing up for your Science of the Private Lesson training this summer as I learned a ton from the Primer!

    • Francesca Cervero

      Lauren! Hi! I am so honored to support you on your journey and am thrilled to hear you are loving your private teaching! I can’t wait to work with you in-depth in August. If you want to sign up now with a payment plan, just a gentle reminder that option ends on Saturday. 🙂

  3. Chris

    Thanks so much for sharing all you do! I am one who quietly follows you.
    I don’t teach privates yet, but I am ready to do it. I get positive feedback from my students in class. I have done one on one with friends and students, and very comfortable with how it goes. I am very confident in my teaching, BUT when you start talking about anatomy and biomechanics and such…I get scared. Do I know enough? I have minimal knowledge there, only what I learned in TT and my own research. Right now I don’t have the time or money to invest in a lot of study of that. Am I really ready? Any suggestions?

    • Francesca Cervero

      Hey Chris! I replied to this question awhile back, but I’ve now installed something in my website that will email you when I reply to your question. {Technology! 🙂 } Have a look at the blog post I recommend below and let me know what other questions this brings up for you.<3

  4. Antonia

    Love this post on 1:1. Yes! I find myself far happier in the inquiry than pretending to be certain of anything.
    I believe it is Borges who coined the phrase about maps versus terrain…. but maybe Neil Gaiman has refreshed it!
    Thanks for all you do.

    • Francesca Cervero

      I’m so happy this landed so well with you Toni! I’m so grateful for your presence in my community here. <3


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