To Theme, or Not To Theme? For Teachers.

Featured on Teachasana, March 2013

What does it mean to use a “theme” in our yoga classes? Is it valuable? Necessary?

Lakshmi notes

For years I was sworn against having a specific theme for any class; reading a poem at the end brought us all together and felt great. Eventually I realized that in order to become certified within the tradition I’d studied (Anusara yoga), I’d have to learn how to teach using what became known as “heart themes,” to create more relevance and meaning in my teaching.

As I bumped up against that paradigm (and didn’t use heart themes), I continued to explore how the body and mind relate and heal one another, so that when I did finally start talking in themes, it would be real and true for me. So I noticed as we’d address our hips that we could cultivate groundedness, stability, and connection. We’d open our shoulders and chest and were spontaneously listening to our heart. A vision began to materialize of how to articulate the relationship between the actions we take in yoga and how we behave in any moment.

That took years of searching in books and in my heart for some way to direct our attention toward themes that felt true for me, and found ancient texts, like the Upanishads, as well as more modern books, such as The Reality of Being by Jeanne de Salzmann, A Course in Miracles,A Theory of Conscious Harmony by Rodney Collin, Awaken the Spine by Vanda Scaravelli, and Mindsight by Dr. Dan Siegel. Open to any page in those books and find profound teachings on when and how to observe ourselves, why to cease our automatic tendencies and choose new pathways.

More recently, dear friend Gabrielle Bernstein’s May Cause Miracles, Richard Rosen’s Original Yoga and the multi-authored A General Theory of Love are all filling me up, with concepts that become themes on which to focus as I’m teaching asana classes. Each one of these books I’ve named gives us myriad ways to consider how our actions in yoga connects and informs our behaviors, habits and tendencies in other realms of our lives.

Ultimately any way in which we can entrain our minds to our bodies is a good way to ensure healing is happening. When my mind is held to a focus (for example, releasing blame), as my body receives the impression of a movement (for example, opening my chest/heart), both my mind’s focus and my body’s movement become imprints, established as possibilities in my being. Blame be gone!

Our yoga practice is here to show us those possibilities, for our behavior, ways of seeing, ways of relating to ourselves and to the world. Turns out that using themes in our classes, when well-wrought and coming from our own experience, are indeed truly helpful and healing.

Teachers, 3 points regarding the use of themes.

1. Be sensitive enough to share what resonates for you AND your students.

If a concept or theme resonates for you, take time to listen and really hear if this is something that will have meaning for the students in the room. Great way to do that is to invite the class to get very quiet, and join them, first thing. Be sensitive to the room and ask yourself what might be the most relevant articulation of your theme.

2. Have your experiences fully so you don’t need to say so much; you simply embody the lesson.

As teachers, let’s  take care to spend time having our experiences, so when we teach about them we don’t feel compelled to verbally share so much. Can we be sensitive enough to offer the message that’s pertinent to our students, from our own hearts, not just from notes in a book? When we don’t sink into a theme for ourselves, we will invariably talk too much and try to explain its efficacy; when we are embodying a teaching, we need to say very little, because the truth of it is with us, in us, emanating from us.

3. Be sure to mention and link back to your theme in meaningful ways throughout your class.

Ultimately, themes just provide another way for teacher and student to find common ground as we navigate the terrain of emotions, instincts and intellect, together in the setting of a class. Linking back to the message in creative ways – using movements, muscles, bones, fascia, skin, feelings – gathers us together and keeps us physically and energetically connected, thereby amplifying our intent and granting it momentum. After a well-wrought practice that holds that kind of space with steadiness, all that remains for all of us is gratitude.

8 thoughts on “To Theme, or Not To Theme? For Teachers.”

  1. Thank you for sharing this. This a very relevant topic and speaks to how important it is as teachers to shine our authenticity through. Connecting to my students through direct experience is something I strive to do and teach my new Yoga teachers to do as well. So nice to hear it put so thoughtfully!

  2. Such powerful words, “Have your experiences fully”. I have added, “not as me, but of me” in my own mind. Being able to fully access my experiences but living by my truth. Life has been rough, but I see the rewards in every sharp turn. I am learning to remember and embody the lessons in my experiences, but also separate myself from them so that I don’t stay in the negative spiral pattern of emotions and traumas tied to my past. Even though I am not a ‘certified’ yoga teacher yet, I am getting good practice with healing myself and my family. Since I am on the path and they are, well, on their paths I feel like I have to preach sutras or talk about great change. But, they have their own experiences, they are making their own life choices, just like me. Sometimes I get so emotional that they don’t make the changes necessary to better themselves or live their truth but, that is their choice and shouldn’t love them any less. I am learning restraint and to save my healing energy for my own heart and simply lead by example. It has not only started to resonate with my family, but it changes how I carry myself in the world. You are a legendary teacher Elena, full of light and love and profound language that beams straight into the hearts of all. There is no other like you. Gratitude. Love. Katie Ryan.

  3. Thanks for this offering. I find I am drawn to theming and it is useful to hear your experience with it and your suggestions. Very true how when I’m trying to theme something that hasn’t fully taken root in me, I talk more and say less! And it is fun to watch the process of trusting myself more to observe, express and embody what is true and real in me in the moment of teaching. I hope that one of these days I can visit a class or workshop with you in person. RIght now I do your classes and love them. Your teaching presence is very healing. Namaste!

  4. I always have so much more to say about a theme in a class than what actually comes out of my mouth. It’s like while I’m teaching, I don’t really want to interrupt the exploration of the students’ own train of thought – or lack thereof. But I do try to craft classes around a mind/body connection and then allow them to set the ultimate personal intention. Great article! Thank you!

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