Yoga first developed more than 5,000 years ago, in India. Historically many students worked, not in large classes, but one-on-one with their teacher, learning both the physical and the philosophical aspects of their discipline.
Today, working one-on-one with yoga instructors is a type of wellness training that follows in that tradition. Are these sessions—commonly called "privates"—similar to personal training? Are clients seeking personalized results through a more mindful approach, in a quieter environment? Or are students hungry for more specialized knowledge of yoga—and finding it in dedicated yoga training sessions with a veteran teacher?
While there may not be scientific data to go on, I interviewed various instructors—five veterans and one newbie—for their perspectives.
According to several veteran yoga instructors who have been teaching private sessions for as long as they have taught yoga, some one-on-one clients train long term and plan to continue; a percentage train for 3–7 years; and a handful train short term (3–6 months), to work on a specific goal or injury. Wherever they fall on the continuum, many clients find that although they start working with one goal in mind, they embark on a journey into other areas of their life through the work of yoga.
Green Bay, Wisconsin, resident Regan Kust, 500-RYT and an AFAA-certified personal trainer, commonly sees a shift in goals with her long-term clients. One client began training over 4 years ago as a personal training client (primarily weight training), then shifted to yoga sessions with the goal of gaining flexibility to improve his golf performance. After a serious skiing accident, he came back to his yoga sessions with the new goals of recovering from injury, improving joint stability and gaining overall life balance. Throughout his experience, Kust says, this client experienced a shift of focus from "extreme drive and performance" to a more mindful approach to activity and "appreciation for paying attention to what is possible today."
Suzette O'Byrne, E-RYT 500 and an ACE-certified personal trainer, who is based in Calgary, Alberta, specializes in yoga therapy, so many of her clients begin training to work through an injury or to prepare for an event, wanting to avoid injury. Because they can be in significant physical pain and emotional stress, O'Byrne integrates yoga nidra (for meditation) and relaxation techniques into her sessions.
Both O'Byrne and Kust have a general plan when they start a session, but both say they always adjust for the client's needs that day, taking into account his or her energetic, physical and emotional states and letting the session flow in a way that promotes healing as well as strength, flexibility and stability gains.
O'Byrne notes that when she is training in a fitness facility, with noise and distraction, sessions become much more movement-based; but in her yoga studio or in home settings, she is better able to use the quieter, more healing aspects of the practice. By combining pain management techniques with corrective posture work, O'Byrne has not only helped clients; she has also developed a network referral system that includes physiotherapists and chiropractors.
Some clients seek private instruction to prepare for group classes or to improve on a pose or sequence they are struggling with in their practice.
In Louisville Kentucky, Lauren Eirk, MS, E-RYT 500, and a certified personal trainer, finds that many short-term students are looking for personal attention in order to feel comfortable when they join a class. Kathleen Kelly, E-RYT 500, another Green Bay instructor, agrees, adding that students may also want to master a certain movement or learn a routine to work on at home. Like Kust, Kelly sees goals fluctuate a lot when clients train with her over the long term.
Some clients choose private sessions for the specialized attention; for others, privates simply feel safer or more appropriate. Allison Doyle, RYT-candidate and an ACE-certified personal trainer in San Diego, has been teaching for just a year, but she had private clients immediately—even before teaching regular classes. Most of her clients are over 50 years of age and are working through various injuries, chronic pain or physical limitations. Even as a relative newcomer, she recognizes the need to adjust each session to the client's physical and emotional state. Although Doyle has a personal training background, she primarily sticks to yoga movement in her private sessions, using props as needed. (The most common props used by those interviewed are yoga blocks, straps, bolsters and blankets.) Doyle commonly adds restorative postures to her sessions, a testament to her understanding of clients' energy levels and the need to balance work with relaxation.
Working Out, Working In
Veteran instructors agree that an advantage of using yoga as the training tool is the opportunity it offers to look at the person in front of you at that given moment and to work "in" or "out" as needed. Kelly's long-term clients have worked with her not only through physical goals, but also through life challenges like illness, divorce, menopause and surgery recovery. Those clients have all found that the "working inward" approach of yoga has improved their ability to move through challenges with more ease, which reinforces the message that yoga privates add a dimension to physical training that is not always present in fitness-based sessions.
Yoga privates also let students individually explore the deeper layers of yoga, going beyond the asanas, or physical postures. IDEA presenter Stacy McCarthy, E-RYT 500, located in Rancho Santa Fe, California, has many long-term clients who experience the full spectrum of yoga with her.
McCarthy approaches sessions by meeting her clients wherever they presently are in their yoga journey. She integrates pranayama (breath practice), meditation, mantra, hands-on adjustments and lifestyle design into her training. One client who has worked with McCarthy for 12 years has experienced a profound inner change: Once a stressed, depressed and anxious entrepreneur and mother, she can now say she has clarity of mind and lasting peace from her work in her private sessions, with a toned and strong body as an "added benefit."
Eirk also includes mindful yoga techniques for stress management into her sessions, and she weaves these tools into other areas of her business as well.
A Growing Trend?
Regardless of veteran or newbie status, these instructors do not seem to need much advertising to keep their schedules full. McCarthy has never formally marketed her private sessions; instead, she says, she "lives her yoga" and gives her fullest in every teaching moment; client referrals do the rest. Kelly, O'Byrne and Kust also rely on word-of-mouth as well as business networking with medical professionals. Both Eirk and Doyle have utilized some social media but do not focus heavily on active marketing campaigns. Creating happy yogi clients who refer others appears to be the best advertising approach.
A Whole Package
In identifying the common threads in yoga privates, it is clear that they take a "whole-person" approach, addressing body, mind and spirit and using yoga as a tool of transformation. One-on-one yoga seems to be more private and personal than many other training options in the fitness/wellness industry.
From the students' perspective, there is much less focus on and stress over making progress and improving physical performance; indeed, those aspects are side effects of training rather than goals. Moreover, the mindful benefits and self-awareness gained in sessions become important tools that carry over into everyday life.
Personal trainers who currently train with more of a traditional outward approach may want to add mindfulness training to their toolbox, while also considering how to make their training environment more conducive to a quieter approach.
It would seem that the ancient system of yoga speaks for itself. By integrating both physical work and emotional work, yoga allows each client to discover his or her own strengths and weaknesses using a mindful approach. O'Byrne sums up the popularity and success of yoga sessions this way: "Privates allow us to look at more than the physical body; they let us go deeper."
With the ever-growing popularity of yoga, it is safe to say that this integrated personal approach to training will continue to be a valid and sought-after wellness service.
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