RAISING THE BAR WITH MODERN MOVEMENT SCIENCE EDUCATION: MEET INSPIRATIONAL YOGA AND MOVEMENT TEACHERS.
An Interview with Francesca Cervero.
"I think as yoga teachers we need to be asking ourselves a lot of questions, to ourselves and each other, about what we do and why we do it and who is helping and who is hurting, and I would be wary of people that seem like they have lots of answers and they are sure they are right".
Who is Francesca Cervero?
Francesca Cervero has been a full time private yoga teacher in New York City since 2005.
The foundation of her teaching practice comes from OM Yoga Center’s style of alignment based vinyasa. Her teaching is also inspired by the years she spent as a dancer, the subsequent years she spent in physical therapy, a deep study of anatomy, and the Buddhist writings of Pema Chodron. She has a thriving business teaching 25 private clients a week and a full practice teaching and mentoring yoga teachers in The Science of the Private Lesson.
Get to know her more in the interview below.
How did you begin in the movement/yoga culture?
I was a dancer. I went to a dance conservatory program. I was on the path to be a professional dancer; I move to New York and I started to perform. During my time in college, I started practicing yoga and initially I didn’t see myself as a yoga person, thought it was too flippy and I was this hard core, athletic dancer, so I honestly thought it was for lazy people, but I was curious that it seems that there were some forms of yoga that were good exercises and I started practicing and despite my best efforts to stay armour and aggressive, the practice works, it worked on me. I began to love it because it was softening me from the inside in a way that I really needed and helping me having a much more tender relationship with myself. Then I really fell in love with the practice and when I move from Philli to New York to kick off my professional dance career, I needed a bridge job and I didn´t want to wait tables and I thought that teaching yoga would be a good way to support myself while trying to be a dancer. Meanwhile, supporting yourself as a yoga teacher is as hard as supporting yourself as a dancer.
What impact has yoga/movement had on your life?
It really shifted the relationship with me and help me be in a more dependent relationship with myself, and I think this came from being in a container, in a classroom setting that the teacher held in a really loving but strong way, and inside that container, to be continuously redirected to notice what I was experiencing with gentleness.
I had the idea that being able to be focus was a good thing, and then being able to be quiet and be still be a good thing, but I had never had the space held for me in a way that allowed me to be quiet with myself in a way that actually felt gentle. Changed everything for me.
Who have you studied with?
My very first 6 months of yoga practice were Bikram and from the first moment I did not like it, it was too hot in there, but I kept going because I was kind of like into the aggressiveness of it. Then I started practicing with lots of teachers around the city, who come from Vinyasa tradition mostly and then a choreographer that I worked with let us through Ashtanga primary series as a warm up before rehearsal.
When I moved to New York I did Om Yoga Center Teacher Training, that was founded by Cindy Lee and my teacher was Jennifer Brilliant. I learned a lot there and that definitely shifted my experience of yoga practice even more; to be even more discerning, more curious, more gentle and less aggressive, it´s just been sort of like a slow unwinding of my inherited very aggressive and competitive nature.
Why did you decide to start teaching private classes?
Initially, when I first starting teaching, I was running around hassling, I taught a lot of classes and I got one private client pass down to me from a friend of mine, and had an amazing experience working with her; she was hard to teach and she was really fun to teach, for that reason I felt working with her brought out all my creativity, because I had to figure out how to take the poses, and the practices and the tools that yoga offers us and make them useful for her, I had a really good experience and she as well, so she recommended me to work with her friend, who again recommended me to work with her husband, then I ended up working with all the guys at his firm and so slowly at first and very quickly my private practice grew.
I was teaching like 25 private sessions a week and I really loved it and I have a lot of teachers ask me “How do you have so many private clients” “What´s your marketing secret” and I was not doing any marketing, I wasn’t on social media, I didn’t have a website, all happened by word of mouth. At the same time I had a friend of mine who was a really fantastic teacher, who was very popular and had a lot of private clients as well, and he confessed to me that he really did not love teaching his private clients, because he could never quite decided what to do with them, I was so surprised by that, because I looked up to him so much as a teacher, so it was through those kind of conversations with other teachers, that I realize that I was doing something differently in my private lessons that most other teachers where and while it seems like a skill that I had intuitively fallen into and been good at, I thought it was teachable and it is proven to be very teachable.
Tell me about your school/training/ courses.
In New York I have the same group of clients for ten years, my clients stay with me for a long time and we get to go really deep into their exploration of their practice, because I get them really committed and really engaged, and these are skills that are not taught.
When you take a Yoga TT, you are taught how to teach a group class, which is very interesting and very challenging and hard to be good at and takes practice, so these are all worthwhile skills but they are different. They are different than the skills that it takes to be a good private teacher, so I teach it!
My signature program is a teacher training that is called “The Science of the private lesson”, this is taught in two ways: in person and online. It is very intensive, in person is like 5 or 6 full days, it is a lot of content. The online variation of that is 12 weeks and it is the same basic content. I have smaller things as well like “The getting starter, primer” which is 15 lessons of the tip of the iceberg of “what you need to know about teaching private clients”.
What advice would you give to someone who is just starting out on their yoga/movement journey?
My first recommendation would be to try lots of different teachers, try lots of different studios, and make the goal to be supported and finding a teacher and finding a studio to be supported in being more curious, and inside that curiosity looking for ways of being in your body in forms that feel interesting and supporting and challenging.
A lot of people think there is a goal in yoga, to be able to look a certain way in yoga poses or to do certain poses and that is a fine goal, but If you want my advice, is to really expand out of that limiting thinking and make the goal to be engaging in your body and engaging in your thought process and mind and heart space in a gentle way, and to find a teacher that really supports that curiosity really opens up what the practice can do, and become less about “Am I nailing this pose?” and more about “What do I notice when I am in this pose? And I think that is much more exploration for the long term.
What is the philosophy you try to transmit in your teaching?
To be aware what´s coming up, noticing what sensations are arising in the physical body, noticing what thoughts are on obsessive loop, noticing what emotions are in the heart space, noticing what´s here and welcoming all in. I think one of the most foundational principles of the practice as I teach it is making friends with ourselves, and getting to know ourselves and being in relationship with ourselves, in a tender and loving way.
What was one of your most profound moments in teaching?
In my private classes there are so many moments that are so tiny, and so could be skipped over to feel insignificant, but when you are really present for them, you feel their power.
I have a student who has a lot of hip pain, we come up with a lot of strategies that help a lot, but this is still a challenge for her and really want to be more regular in her own practice without me, which I always strongly encourage, but she is always worried that she is doing it wrong and she is going to hurt herself.
We were having this conversation the other day and she was saying something like “I don’t want to do this one without you because I´m worried that I would do it wrong” and she said that a few times and then I thought to say “You know, I actually think that you could trust yourself more than you do, I think that you know what kind of discomfort is going to irritate you and put you on a fire up and what kind of discomfort you find to be more beneficial, I think you know that better than you think you do”, and she really heard that and I was glad I said it, because we kept having this back and forward of “I don’t want do this one because I´m worry, I would hurt myself”, and because she does have a lot of very serious chronic pain, I want to be gentle and I want to be nurturing and I don’t want push her, but I realize that she actually does have more body awareness and more of sense of herself than she is giving herself credit for and being able to name that felt super powerful in that moment.
These moments are tiny, but when you get to engage with someone in such a deep level, even the smallest things carry a lot of will and power and that’s what I love of the work I get to do.
What is the single most defining issue facing the global yoga community today?
There are so many things, we have so much work to do as a community. Accessibility is one thing and it has a lot of different tracks; financial accessibility, creating spaces where people with different skin color, body types and abilities feel comfortable with, we have a lot of work to do on that front and making yoga more available to people who have less income, that feels like a huge one. I think in the west and speaking for the United States in particular, the large percentage of yoga teachers are white people like myself, and I have a lot of work to do on this as well, to really understand cultural appropriation, and how we are engaging with the history and the culture that yoga comes from in a way that is appreciating it and honoring it and not appropriating it; I do not have the answers, I mostly have a lot of questions about that, but I think that’s something that we in the West, in the USA in particular have a lot of work to do.
I think there is a huge cultural shift happening away from the physical forms of yoga that initially came to the west, a lot of those lineages, the guru at the top of those lineages are being exposed as not having been great leaders, to say the least like Pattabhi Jois and Iyengar and others, and people are reevaluating the way some of those methods and lineages are taught and the effect they have on the body which I think is a good thing. I think as yoga teachers we need to be asking ourselves a lot of questions, to ourselves and each other, about what we do and why we do it and who is helping and who is hurting, and I would be wary of people that seem like they have lots of answers and they are sure they are right. We need a lot more critical thinking and a lot less like assuming what somebody else is telling me is right, we just need more critical thinking of ourselves individually and as a community as well.
What do you see influencing or affecting yoga teachers and students in the next five years?
Here in the States, there are so many yoga studios. A lot of people seem to think that opening a yoga studio was a good business, don’t know why, because is not really, is a very hard business to run, some people do it beautifully, but is a ton of work, but there are tons of yoga studios and it seems that the main way that they are able to financially stay at float is by running teacher trainings. There are people that have been teaching yoga for one, or two or three years who really are brand new on their path and are teaching, teacher training, so we have a lot of yoga teachers graduating from yoga teacher trainings who were taught by people who are really not that deep in their yoga teaching practice, so we have more and more yoga teachers that are less well taught. So I think that’s going to continue to have a big impact on the yoga community, to have so many yoga teachers that are not that deep in their own teaching and practice.
What's the most embarrassing thing that has ever happened to you as a student?
This was so long ago, it was around 2001-2002. I was in NY studying on a scholarship at a dance school and had a yoga teacher that I really liked to go practice with, that morning I had been to an audition and got really far on it, but then got cut, after that I went to this yoga class to try to calm myself down and just kind of down regulate; they were working on handstands, which is a pose that I like and was not so hard for me, but I could not get up into the handstand, probably my body was very exhausted, but I couldn’t quite feel that at that point of my practice, and I just could not get up and I got so frustrated that I started crying, and it felt such an immature thing to do, but it was all the emotion of the audition, working really hard, getting really far and then getting cut and all came out at that moment when I could not get up into a handstand.
Check out Francesca´s Instagram and her website if you want to know more about her online courses and upcoming events!