Most yoga teachers know that yoga isn't just about performing poses, stretching or getting a good workout. But your students may not know this. As a teacher, you have the ability to not only instruct students to perform asana, but also to open their eyes to the wider world of yoga. Structuring your classes thematically helps tie the physical practice to a spiritual or philosophical idea, which adds meaning and makes your classes richer and more memorable experiences.
Opening Themed Classes
It's important to set the stage for your theme right from the beginning of class. Have students sit in a comfortable posture or lie on their backs for a short guided meditation on your theme, or discuss an event from your own life that inspired you to want to teach the theme. For example, in a class on acts of kindness, you might relay an inspiring memory of how someone's kindness toward you affected you deeply.
If you've studied ancient yoga texts, you might discuss the theme from that perspective. Tell your students how the yogic texts or teachers wrote about your theme. For example, you might discuss one of Patanjali's Sutras as it relates to your theme, or tell a brief story from the Bhagavad Gita. Keep it brief, but interesting.
Ask students to set an intention for their practice that relates to the theme, and remind them to come back to their intention throughout class. Perhaps provide an example for students to focus on if they can't come up with their own. Offer a mantra related to the theme that students can repeat to themselves throughout class.
Instructing Asana According to Your Theme
Tie your theme into the postures you teach during the class. Choose a peak pose that exemplifies your theme, and work up to it with with supporting postures. A peak pose is usually a challenging posture, such as Half Moon or Wheel. Work up to your peak pose with supporting, or preparation, poses. For example, Warrior II, Reverse Warrior, Side Angle Pose, Triangle and Goddess pose are supporting poses for half moon.
Think about ways in which the different postures relate to your theme. For example, does your theme require strength, flexibility or both? Does the challenge it presents speak to your theme? For instance, if your theme is having patience, you might discuss modifications for challenging poses that will eventually help students perform the full pose. In the meantime, instruct them to be patient with their bodies and know that with practice they can reach their goal.
Continue to remind students to return to their intention or mantra. While you can continue to expostulate on your theme during class, keep it brief and focus on asana instruction.
Ending Themed Classes
As you shift the class to quieting, cooling and calming poses prior to Savasana, it's a good chance to pick up where you left off at the beginning of class. Perhaps, you are ending class with Reclining Pigeon pose or a Seated Forward Fold. Have students hold the pose for a longer period of time as you read a poem or meaningful passage from a book that relates to your theme. Again, keep it brief but insightful.
After the final resting posture, have students sit cross-legged with their hands in prayer at their heart or third eye, depending on the theme. Ask them to remember their intention or mantra as they step off their mats and go into the world. Offer a brief saying or chant that relates to your theme, if you know one.
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Choosing Your Theme
There are endless examples of possible themes; what matters most is that it resonates for you. If you don't believe in a theme or feel strongly about it, it will be difficult to teach it authentically. Think about what is really important to you, to the world or to your students and jot down some ideas about how you could design a themed class around the idea. If you're having trouble coming up with ideas, here are a few to consider:
Open Your Heart
Teach students to practice kindness, compassion and openness of heart -- and mind. Choose a heart-opening peak pose, such as wheel or bridge, and work up to it with heart-opening poses such as Cobra and Camel.
Get Out of Your Comfort Zone
Illustrate to students the ways in which challenging oneself or having a new experience encourages growth. Inversions are generally good peak postures for this theme; choose an inversion suitable to the class level and students' abilities. Always offer modifications for inversions.
You might focus this class on the yoga community, deepening ties with family or friends, or community service. Offer up a personal story about how community has served you or vice versa. If possible, teach a partner pose such as the partner version of seated forward fold. Or, offer inversions as a peak pose, and have students spot each other.
Judgement can be directed outwardly as well as inwardly. Explain how judging others and judging oneself can be defeating. Choose a challenging peak pose, such as an arm balance, and ask students to attempt it without judging their performance or comparing themselves to others.
Let Go of Perfection
Explain to students how holding ourselves or others to unattainable high standards sets us up for failure. Tie in the physical postures by encouraging students to let go of their idea of the "perfect pose" and to love and accept themselves for where they are right now. Explain that yoga is not about achieving perfection; it is a daily practice without an end goal.