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. I began searching in books 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-author A General Theory of Love are all filling me up with ideas 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 of guidance around using themes.
1 Be sensitive enough to share what resonates for you AND your students.
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.
Mama, founder and co-owner of Virayoga in New York City, author of Art of Attention, Executive Producer of On Meditation and co-founder of GIVE Scent, Elena has taught yoga for 16+ years. Her teaching is influenced by several traditions including alignment-based Hatha yoga, Kundalini yoga, and Handel Method coaching. Her classes help us approach our world with realistic reverence and gratitude. From Yoga Journal to Yogaglo.com, Elena’s work resonates globally to render the actions and movements of yoga relevant to our behavior, our listening and our overall wellness.