Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Why You Want a Private Lesson: An Inside View

If you teach yoga, you know how great private lessons are. If you don't teach yoga, you can easily imagine how great private yoga lessons are. I know what you're thinking: hell yeah, more money for the same time and energy commitment, of course yoga teachers want to book private lessons. Here's the thing: they're good for you, too! Seriously. If you can spare the cash, you are seriously shortchanging yourself if you don't book (at least) one. Your practice won't be as effective, and you run a much higher risk of injury.

I know, I know. I used to think just like you: why would anyone shell out for a private lesson when group lessons are already getting pricier and pricier, especially in New York? There are so many quality instructors out there to choose from, who give individual attention and adjustments in class. You'd have to be a sucker, or be working with something that makes working in a group setting really difficult to get a private lesson.

Over the years, I've realized how absurd that conclusion is. But don't take my word for. Here's what a group class looks like to a teacher:

Basic plan: Heat it up! It's cold out there, so lets get the muscles really warm and moving, and thaw these guys out. Back bends will be good, too, since everyone is hunching over in the cold. I can focus on relaxing the shoulders and creating space for the neck in every pose.

Special requests/injuries: That woman can't extend her arms over her head due to a shoulder injury. That guy really wants to work on peacock pose, which no one else in this room can do yet. This girl wants to do 'stretching'. I don't have time to have a conversation and where, and why, she wants to stretch. Alrighty.
Over the course of the first sun salutation, I see that half the class isn't clear on the alignment for a half lift, and this woman over here is really unclear about the action of the lunge as a transitional pose. In an effort to help the most people possible, I offer my favorite self-adjustment for half lifts; take the hands to the hips, don't move the pelvis from forward fold. Everyone keeps their heads up to watch me, crunching their necks. I remind them to keep the neck long. Half get it. I run around giving hands on adjustments to fix necks for five more seconds, then it's past time to move everyone back into their vinyasa.

Oooooooh, vinyasa. How I love you. How I loathe you. In spite of telling everyone not to let their hips touch the mat before their chests, a few people are persistently still dumping the weight of their hips into their lower back, setting themselves up for back pain in a matter of months. I take a few seconds to remind verbally each and every time, and I give a hands-on adjustment to one person per vinyasa: I can't take a few minutes to really workshop each variation, because half the class has this down pat and is itching to move on.

By the time we move through a few warrior sequences, a few sets of chair pose, and some balances, I'm starting to count the minutes left in class: I haven't started back bending yet, and I have to fit in more stretching, and hopefully peacock pose offered in a way that will be meaningful for the people who haven't yet encountered it. Hamstring stretches are always a safe bet when someone says they want to stretch, but several students in here are borderline hyper mobile, and need help finding muscular support as opposed to extension. If I take them into a simple forward fold, they'll likely press their pelvis bones into their hamstrings in a way that will eventually cause injury. Do I have time for that conversation?

I have to sort all that out, and still leave enough time for an inversion before final relaxation. But which one? Peacock guys pops up into handstand as soon as I say the word, 'inversion', which is totally fine by me, but now I have three intimidated beginners that are going to need reassurance that this class is ok for them. I offer legs up the wall, which takes care of a couple people, and talk the ret of the room through shoulder stand, which I'm hesitant to do because keeping the neck truly safe in this shape means the perimeters of 'doing it right' are much more narrow than for your average pose. Don't move your head, don't wrap your thumbs around your hips, don't collapse into your hands, keep your shoulders on the blanket, make sure you lying on the fringe-free side of your blanket...

And finally, Savasana, much shorter than I'd like it to be. And I never fixed that girl's issues with the lunge transitions.

These are the kinds of challenges a teacher in a group setting faces every day: balancing their own plans with the needs of their class, and the desires of their class, which are frequently two different things, and the different levels, some subtle and some extreme, present in the room. Learning to balance these things and teach a complete, useful class is a skill that comes with experience: it's why yoga teachers are trained experts who deserve to be paid well for what they do. But no matter how excellent the teacher, a group class is not going to provide the asana sequence, guidance, and adjustments that a private can. Lets contrast that class with the highlights of an accidental private (a group class only one person showed up for) that I taught this morning:

Biggest difference: dialogue! Before class, we had a conversation about what the student wanted to work on, both in terms of goals for the body, and specific poses. I talked about what I had in mind for class that day and why, and how we could fit those goals together.

We got started, and within five minutes, a verbal cue had clicked for her, and she had fixed a pose she had been doing wrong up till now.

Before another five minutes had passed, we had paused everything to focus on chaturanga, and how do it safely, versus how to do it prettily.

We spent several minutes in Warrior I and II, working out how best to balance the many different alignment challenges this pose presents in this client's particular body.

We worked through some mini conditioning sequences focusing on the body issues the client had brought to class, spent five minutes working on headstand together, my hands and eyes available to her every second, so instead of depending on the wall, she was able to fight for proper alignment using the right muscles supporting her body in the right way.

We finished with some carefully and specifically offered forward bends, and a simple reclined twist. When I gave her the opportunity to wrap up her practice with the pose of her choice, she took a bridge pose, and we talked a bit about wheel. I was able to say that, yeah, wheel pose puts a lot of pressure in my lower back too, even though I'm working with proper alignment. There wasn't any advice I could really offer, except to listen to her body and not push it, and that was fine. She trusted me, so I didn't have to have all the answers.

See the difference? And just think how much more progress we could have made if we had met beforehand to discuss these goals, so I could have custom-tailored a session just for her!

And I could do the same for you! Come on, I know you have questions: is my ankle supposed to be tweaking so much in Warrior I? Am I lowering enough in Chaturanga? Why do I suck at balancing? Can I ever have a perfect split...or at least touch my toes? I'll bet you have New Years Resolutions just crying out for a session!

Whatever pose you're pining for, or whatever yoga practice or fitness goals you're going for, you'll get yourself on a much more direct route if you invest yourself in a private lesson. Go for it! Your yoga practice is worth it. Find an experienced teacher whose teaching style really resonates with you, and get in touch. If that's me, send off a Facebook message, or e-mail me at before you change your mind! ;-)

Live Omily,

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