As part of a preview to my soon to be self published book on the Essential Elements of Yoga Teaching, I’m releasing here the chapter on working with students privately. I hope you find the content useful. There will be a great deal more information in the book once it’s ready!
Working with people one on one is a great way to teach yoga. In your time as a teacher, private yoga sessions may become a large part of what you offer. There are many benefits to teaching privately. It is a great way to learn how to customize the sequence to meet the individual needs of the person. Also, because of the one on one attention, the rate you charge is most likely more than the rate you are paid for teaching a studio class. That aspect aside though, teaching privates is a great way to hone your skills as a teacher and deepen your relationship to yoga practice and with your students.
Considerations as a Student
Sometimes, students are not sure if a private would be appropriate for them. In my experience, there are many good reasons to take a private. As a yoga teacher, it’s a good idea to have these reasons in mind, so you can share them with people as they ask why they might invest in a private session. They include:
Students will learn proper alignment. Everyone learns differently. Some people are more visual, while others are more auditory. In a private lesson, students will learn in a way that suits the way their brain works. As a teacher, you’ll learn this as well in terms of what works best with the individual. Learning proper alignment is key to working efficiently on the mat and also building strength and flexibility without getting hurt.
Students will learn how to breathe in a way that is particular to yoga practice, called Ujjayi breathing. In yoga, breathing is the key to fueling the muscles as well as generating that sense of overall calm that comes with practice. It comes from stimulating the relaxation response in the nervous system. However, it won’t happen if students are unsure how to breathe in this Ujjayi style of breathing. In an individual session, you have a chance to really show someone how to do this and get their feedback as to how it feels. There are other styles of breathing as well and you can work these in too.
Students will learn how to modify poses in a way that is unique to their body. As we learn yoga, our body can be better supported if certain modifications are done. These modifications may or may not involve using props, but either way, they are critical to helping build the pose properly and safely without doing too much too soon. A yoga teacher can help a student learn how to modify. This also comes in handy if a student gets injured in a particular way and wants to still practice.
Students will learn how to use props. All yoga studios have props and people sometimes are not sure how to use blocks, straps or blankets. In a private session, students will have the time to explore how to use this equipment to enhance their practice.
Students will learn how to work with any injuries or conditions they might have, that in the past, might have made someone hesitant to attend a group class. Sometimes people come to a private session because they are injured or working with a physical challenge that is either temporary or permanent. A private yoga teacher can help a student set up a sequence and use props in a way that allows for safe practice.
Students can explore meditation as an additional wellness tool. Sometimes people come to yoga with an interest in developing a meditation practice as well. In a private session, students can learn about different styles of meditation and practice yoga together. A short, seated meditation after a 45-minute yoga class can be a wonderful experience and one that leaves a healthy imprint on the body and mind.
Students can learn challenging poses with one-on-one support. If students want to learn arm balances or other challenging poses, working with someone privately can be an approach. It can give them the support they need as well as that initial boost of confidence that comes once you get into that pose for the first time. We will explore this more in depth later as we discuss the different kinds of students that may invest in private sessions.
Students can do yoga privately rather than with others and can schedule the session at their convenience. Sometimes people come to private sessions simply because they prefer practicing alone and they can’t get to the studio when classes are held. They also may appreciate the one on one, hands-on instruction versus being part of a crowded class.
Students can ask questions as you teach. Sometimes, in my group classes, a person will spontaneously ask a question. I know it can break people from their concentration but I’m sure there are lots of other questions that are left unsaid. In a private session, students can ask questions on the spot as they are in a pose. It’s a very effective way to learn.
Students will receive physical assists during the session in addition to learning the poses. When students receive a private lesson, you will be giving hands-on assists while they are in the poses. Assisting is another way for a teacher to communicate how to do the poses from an alignment perspective.
Considerations for you as teacher
While teaching yoga to a group or an individual may involve similar sequences and poses, the techniques you use may be a bit different and there are certainly unique practical considerations as well. Let’s consider some of what you’d need to think about as a teacher before you host your first private session.
Decide where you will provide private lessons. Some studios will let you rent space for a small fee. If you have a space in your home, make sure it’s free of clutter, is clean and you have enough space for both the student and yourself, as you move around them on the mat.
Pets are great but have them off on their own during your session. I have a dog and she loves when people come to practice at the house. Once she greets the student, I have her in the bedroom and put up a pet gate so she can see us but isn’t underfoot. Be aware when first time students visit that not everyone is dog or cat friendly. If you notice any wariness on the part of the person as they first arrive, bring your pet right away into the other room. I also am very careful to avoid them stepping on the student’s mat while we’re setting up.
Invest in quality mats and props. Even though most students will come prepared with a mat, they most likely will not have a block, blanket or strap. Spend a little money and invest in a few good mats, 2 blankets (great for under hips in pigeon), two cork blocks (more stable than foam) and two straps. Be sure these mats stay clean and are only used for private sessions (don’t use them yourself).
Ask questions before the session to understand the student’s goals: If you make the appointment with the student in person, get an understanding of what they’d like to learn. You’ll discuss more once they arrive for their first session but it’s always helpful to get a general idea before they arrive. If you make the appointment over the phone or email, ask via that method.
Once the session is set up (via email or phone), confirm with the student 24 hours in advance. This helps to ensure their arrival, as sometimes, students forget. Have their phone and email and confirm via email. Let them know that if they’re unable to attend, it’s helpful to have at least 24 hours notice. While this is not like a doctor’s appointment, you want the student to respect not only your time but their own. Also, as you get busier as a teacher, you may have other students you can fit into the time slot if someone cancels.
When the student arrives for the first session, have a seat and help them feel comfortable. You’ll be the one to set the tone at this first session. Most students will be nervous, especially if they’re in your home. It will be unfamiliar to them and they’ll most likely feel self-conscious. Sit down, ask some open-ended questions: “I know we talked on the phone already. Let’s talk a bit more about what you’d like to work on.” Let them set the pace in this first session. I once had a woman come and we talked about her personal struggles with weight loss for the first 20 minutes. For many students, you are acting as a health coach as well as yoga teacher.
If your student has a specific injury they’re working with or a medical condition, do some research before they arrive. Be prepared with ideas for a sequence but keep an open mind. Start with some seated breathing to get the student connected to their breath. Move on from there to stable poses, such as Cat/Cow or lying on the floor and pressing into Upward Dog or Cobra. You’ll be doing diagnosing as you go in this first session, so keep an open mind. Your experience and ability to be creative as a teacher will be critical here.
Be generous with assisting. Many students love private sessions because they get lots of assists in yoga poses. It’s like a massage and a yoga practice rolled into one! Be sure you feel comfortable around assisting. If not, ask a friend if you can practice on them a few times (you’ll have friends lining up for this!).
Set your rate: This of course, happens before you offer the service. Generally speaking, teachers charge anywhere between $80-$125 for a private session for a one hour meeting but you may want to set a different rate depending on the circumstances (where it is, if travel is involved, etc). Let the student know the rate beforehand and the methods of payment you accept. If you’d like to accept credit cards, check out www.squareup.com.
Make sure you have liability insurance and create a waiver for signature at the first session: All yoga teachers should carry liability insurance. Check out www.phly.com for coverage. Also, have the student sign your waiver form when they first arrive. If you’re looking for a sample form, your local studio can provide you with the verbiage they use on their sign in sheets when students check in.
Always be safe: If a student asks you to come to their home for a session, be sure you feel safe around the circumstances. If you prefer to hold sessions only in a public place, such as a studio, let the student know. If you’re willing to travel to their location, make sure you ask in advance what space will be provided and be sure you include in your rate a payment factor to compensate for your travel time and the convenience to the student.
General themes for teaching private sessions
Given that people come to private yoga sessions for different reasons, you have an opportunity as a teacher to create some custom sequences for students to help them experience the practice safely and with integrity. Let’s review some general themes, inspired by the list of reasons students would book a private session, and discuss the kinds of things you might do.
The Beginner: These students are great to work with because they are eager and open. The fact that they have set up a private yoga session with you shows great motivation to learn and build a solid foundation. It’s also a great opportunity for you to show them correct alignment before they start to build unhealthy habits in practice.
Begin your session with a focus on the breath and how to create Ujjayi breating. Move into teaching Sun Salutation A and B, as these two sequences will cover many things, including the alignment in Downward Dog, Upward Dog and Warrior 1; moving from High to Low Push Up and synchronizing breath to movement.
In a one-hour session, the above offering may take at least 30 minutes. Use the remaining time to cover one balancing pose, such as Tree, to allow the student to feel grounded and experience the benefits of balancing poses. Move on to the floor to present one or two poses on the belly, such as Locust and Bow and then move onto the back. Include a Bridge pose and then finish with Half Pigeon and Shavasana.
The above-suggested sequence will give your student an overall experience that covers the whole body. Go at a pace that meets the student’s need and enter into the session with no agenda. Your role is to start with an intention but stay open to the questions the student has and allow ample time for adjustments and to explore each one.
I like to end each session with a few minutes for questions and then ask the student if he or she would like to set up a subsequent session. If not on the spot, I leave it open for the person to contact me whenever they wish.
The Injured Student: Students may come to you when they are returning to yoga after resolving an injury or while they are experiencing an injury and they wish to see if it’s possible to continue their practice. While there is no way in this chapter to review every single possible injury, there are some things you can keep in mind when working with students in these two categories.
The first thing to ask the student is if their physician has cleared them to do yoga or related activities. If they have not, then you should suggest they do so before meeting with you for the first time (ideally, this will come up when they are trying to set up an initial session with you). Certainly anyone that is in physical therapy or someone who is post-surgery should have the blessing of a physician before starting a yoga practice.
Upon meeting the student, the first thing to understand is the nature of their injury or what injury has since resolved. Remember that it’s important to not only know specifically what it is or was, like a herniated disc or Achilles tendonitis (although this is important too), but to understand how it impacted them. It’s one thing to know the traditional clinical presentation of a particular injury, but this does not take into account the presentation in the individual. The severity of the injury, the nature of the person’s body before the injury and their healing ability as well as the treatment they received or are still receiving all will have an impact on how that particular injury presents.
I like to ask students questions about their current pain level, if pain wakes them at night (always a telling indicator), if the pain shows up during the day while they are doing their activities of daily living, such as driving, picking up groceries or sitting. Using the answers to these questions, I start to compile a mental note of movements that we may want to avoid all together (such as forward bending) or movements we need to approach with caution.
Once you have a general idea of the kind of injury, the nature of the injury, how it presents in the student and what movements to avoid, you can begin to present poses and see how he or she does. Allow lots of time and use props to support the person. As I said above, it’s outside the scope of our work here to review every single kind of injury and present a modified practice but it is safe to say that starting with a seated pose and introducing deep breathing is always a great place to start. This can even be done in a chair for someone for whom sitting on the floor or a block is impossible.
Ask questions as you’re moving through the sequence to see how the person is feeling. Remember that people will not always say if they are experiencing pain because they may be embarrassed or may be trying to appear strong. When you have 10 minutes left in the session, allow a full five minutes for Shavasana, being sure to support the person with props. Take the last five minutes of the session to ask what worked, what didn’t and see how the student feels, both mentally and physically.
The Older Student: This is a bit of a tricky category because who is to say what age constitutes an “older” student? Certainly there is much more of a grey area here when we try to categorize someone as “older” but generally speaking, we can say this refers to people over 55 years old. Now, having said that and especially if you are a reader that is over 55 years of age and in excellent shape, you may be saying, “Hey, I don’t need a modified yoga practice because of my age!” To you I say, “Awesome!” But, in my experience, what I find in my teaching is that there are many people in this age group who have never tried yoga and are interested, but due to lack of physical activity, are de-conditioned. So, perhaps the better name for this category is “Older and Deconditioned Students.”
In working with someone like this, it’s similar to working with a beginner. You’ll want to start with the breath, as a way for the student to build connection to the body and to start to relax. Begin to work through a basic sequence and notice how the person is doing. Ask for feedback. One thing that can come up is the person may have a hard time moving from the floor to standing, as in Sun Salutations A and B. If that is the case, switch to presenting standing poses first and then move to the floor.
Remember to present all modifications, such as dropping the knee in Crescent Lunge, using a wide stance in Warrior 1, using blocks under the hands in Upward Dog or doing alternates such as Cobra instead. Work at a steady pace but allow time for the student to breathe and experience the pose. Watch for signs of stress, such as panting, redness in the face and shaking through the legs. Be generous with your offering of Child’s Pose but be focused also on presenting a steady flow. These students (or anyone for that matter) should not be “babied” but should have adjustments made to the standard practice to accommodate them as they are gaining strength.
The Advanced Student: By “advanced,” I’m referring to a student who has been practicing for a few years and is coming to you to learn specific poses or to learn new ways to find challenge in the practice. Sometimes students are looking also to correct bad habits or they could be coming merely because they enjoy the one-on-one time they get in a private session.
If they are there to learn some specific poses, it’s helpful if you as a teacher can do them, so check with the student when they set up the session on what poses they’d like to learn. If you do run into a request that you cannot do, explain to the person that the pose in question is not part of your particular practice and look for an alternative or be open to the idea of teaching the pose from an “alignment only” perspective.
If the student is looking for a correction or confirmation that they are “doing it right” (this comes up a great deal), approach the first session as you would with a beginner, understanding that the student will be able to approach each pose with greater ease than a beginner but you should look for all the same general things you’d look for when working with a beginner.
If the student is coming to you more for the connection and attention one gets through a private session, look for ways to present challenge. This may not be only through the poses presented but could be through pace, sequence presented, moving deeper into some of the more traditional poses or having each session focus on a theme, such as inversions or twists.
The Corporate Executive Student: This is a bit of a tricky classification. This refers to the working corporate executive that may be seeing you because a friend referred them, or perhaps they’ve had health concerns and want to take better care of their physical and mental health. These are all great reasons and certainly something for you to build on together. However, in my experience, these students can be highly distractible, may have little to no yoga experience and may be self-conscious and nervous. Now, these qualities can apply to anyone and that’s why I’m hesitant to classify them as qualities of this type of student. However, despite that, they can appear in students with this background so we will progress in our exploration here.
These students, given their work-a-holic lifestyle may also have a hard time putting their phone off to the side and on silent while you practice. Encourage them to leave their phone in the other room while you teach and if necessary, leave the ringer on, but at least in this case, they won’t be checking email during your session. I also find that this kind of student, given their long work hours and extended computer use, will have very tight shoulders and hips. I also have a student who literally has shifted the position of his head forward over his chest so we work in each session to re-align his head on top of his spine.
For these students, the approach can be very much like the beginner; use the basics of breathing, alignment and the essential poses to build a connection to the body. For these students, just the mere work to breathe, be away from technology and be taking action to do something healthy can be very powerful. Give them ample time at the end to rest and be open to questions at the end. Look to integrate poses to help them open tight hips and shoulders and leave them with a few poses they can do at the office to stretch these tight parts.
Working with people one-on-one is a great way to build a deeper bond with a student and be “of service” to someone looking to learn, deepen or modify their practice. It’s a great way for you as a teacher to apply your knowledge in a comprehensive way, pulling together all that you know and applying it to an individual situation. Also, because the student will ask questions along the way, it’s a great way to test your own knowledge of yoga and it’s applicability in different people.
Remember to stay open, drop your defenses and stay focused on being of service. If something comes up that you do not know, let the student know you will research it and get back to them. Look for helpful, credible ways to stay in touch with your private students, including sending articles and videos that highlight things of specific use to them and being responsive to scheduling future sessions.