When I first started teaching, I planned my yoga classes in what I thought was great detail. I soon realised that this planning consisted mainly of sequences—it rarely went deeper than that. Typically, I would decide which difficult posture would be the culmination of the class and warm up the relevant areas of the body with preparatory poses.
After a few years, I discovered that my most memorable classes were those in which I’d had a clear idea or insight to communicate in addition to the shape of each pose. I got the best feedback from those classes. My students started asking what the day’s session would be about, wanting to explore a particular idea, which eventually inspired me to base my classes on these “themes,” as I would later call them.
Once you’ve decided on a theme for a class, planning the details is comparatively easy. Once you have a clear vision of what you want to communicate, you can use this as a thread to wind through the session.
Themes offer teachers the freedom to react to their pupils. To adapt to the class while still imparting something specific, tangible, and memorable.
In our own practice, themes can act as a focus to help us maintain our interest and attention. It doesn’t matter what kind of yoga you practice—using themes can be truly inspirational for both teachers and students, drawing everyone together. While I’m sure you’ll come up with your own ideas for class themes, I’ve compiled some practical ideas to help get you started with some examples from my own teaching.
These themes fall into 10 broad categories:
1. Working with beginners
Teaching complete beginners is very educational for teachers. It causes us to question what, apart from making shapes with our bodies, are we trying to do with our yoga practice?
When working with beginners, one of the big challenges is to help them feel more. I generally start with noticing and then affecting the musculature, as this is not too scary or esoteric to start with… nearly everyone can release some muscles as they breathe out, and everyone feels the benefit straight away. Here are some themes that may help:
DO WHAT YOU’RE DOING WHILE YOU’RE DOING IT: The essence of yoga.
For me, yoga is more about training attention than increasing range of movement. With this theme, keep bringing everyone right back to the present moment. Look for ways to help them stay interested, moment to moment.
FEELING INSTEAD OF KNOWING: Don’t use the mind to think, use the mind to feel.
Move out of your head and fully inhabit your body. Emphasize sensation in all the postures. Use the idea as a kind of a mantra throughout the session.
This type of ‘basic’ theme can add great depth to any practice as everyone gets drawn inwards with a focus they can easily hold on to. When experienced practitioners start to question fundamentals, it is quite common to find fascinating new insights.
2. Body parts
Picking a theme can (occasionally) be as simple as picking a single spot or area of the body to focus on. This would normally be an area in which many people experience tension or stiffness—but not always. Sometimes choosing to look at our bodies from an unusual angle (soles of the feet, back of the knees, base of the skull) is enough to wake us up a bit and hold our attention.
It can be helpful to choose only postures that will benefit that particular area. This may mean finding postures that feature the chosen area—or you could take the opposite approach. For example, if your goal is to release shoulder tension, you may choose not to do inversions. You may instead concentrate on postures that challenge the lower half like balances, but with the focus on releasing the shoulders while balancing.
Here are a couple of example theme subjects inspired by body parts:
FREEING THE GROINS: The key to releasing so much more.
Deep set, sensitive muscles here engage without our volition—and often without us even noticing. This tension has a powerful knock-on effect not only in the wider pelvic area but throughout the whole body. Starting by releasing tension in the groins, it’s possible to set off a chain of release that reaches into the shoulders, chest, and even the jaw.
DORSAL FIN: Holding attention between the shoulder blades.
The area between the shoulder blades is a common space for tension to quietly take up residence. Focus on releasing tension there in every posture you do in this session… go live there today.
Over the years I’ve been to a number of classes that concentrated on one pose and I found that while there may be breakthroughs, there is also a danger of overworking some areas of the body while ignoring others.
So if I do take a posture as a theme, it has to be something with a number of variations. Another option is to go deeper into at least one other very different posture to balance out the session. For example, if you’re looking at a back-bending posture, balance the practice with either some forward bend variations or a twist—or both.
4. Your own insights
We all have been influenced by our teachers and may carry their voices in our heads as we practice and teach—it’s a compliment to good teaching and is very often helpful. But what experiences made a difference to you? What insights—large or small—have improved aspects of your own practice? What was powerful enough about your understanding of yoga that made you want to teach?
Sharing key moments from our own practice is vital if we want to keep our teaching authentic. In my experience, sharing personal insights is one of the most important things we can do as teachers, and structuring a class around a specific idea offers a way to examine these insights in depth. You’ll find yourself clarifying ideas for yourself and developing new ways to communicate them to others.
Here’s a personal example: I realised that by the time I’d gotten into a posture, habits had already kicked in and it all happened before I noticed. Here’s one of several themes I developed to combat this:
THE MOMENT BEFORE: Catch yourself in the act.
Before every movement, take a moment to quieten and gather your attention. We are training ourselves to start each posture with a moment of meditation and to be awake from the very start of each movement.
🎵 Ain’t what you do it’s the way that you do it 🎵
[Song written by jazz musicians Melvin “Sy” Oliver and James “Trummy” Young]
Our emotional state is critical to our overall health and happiness and gaining some control over this aspect of ourselves is a wonderful, if often unexpected, benefit of yoga. A benefit that goes way beyond the mat into our everyday lives. In traditional, posture-led classes it can be hard to address these essentially personal issues.
Our mental approach while practicing yoga can be brilliantly examined through a huge number of themes. Here are a few examples to illustrate what I mean:
WAKE UP: Feel. Look. Sense. Listen. Notice.
Demand more of your attention… make these next minutes of your life sparkling clear.
YOU ARE PRECIOUS: Be kind to yourself.
Be as kind to yourself as to those you love—decide to let go of negative thoughts and work gently and with great care. Resolve to be kinder to yourself both during and after this practice.
BE YOUR OWN TEACHER: You are the only one who can really do it.
You’re the only one who knows what is really going on in your body right now. You are best placed to understand exactly where you would benefit from releasing and where you may be able to strengthen. Be your own brilliant teacher, kind and understanding, always with your best interests at heart.
6. Our physical world
It can be both soothing and uplifting to reflect our physical reality through topical themes: a new season, the time of day, nature. Props can be an important part of our physical realities, too. As long as everyone has access to the same thing (like bolsters, straps, chairs, or weight-bags), finding ways of working with and making the most of props can be the basis of rich and enjoyable classes.
And there are many aspects of this wonderful planet that we mostly take for granted nearly all of the time. For example, gravity has a profound impact on all of us in every moment of our lives. I enjoy using gravity and ground-based themes like this one:
GROUND-GRAVITY TEAMWORK: Luckily they work together.
This theme is about noticing how the gentle yet powerful pull of gravity is perfectly matched by the safety of the ground. How can we use our trust that these massive forces are completely reliable and find ways to use them to help us relax and support our strength?
7. Visual metaphors
I use a lot of visual metaphors in my teaching. They can work really well as many people find it easy to retain and use an image.
In fact, my first book, “See How Yoga Feels” is full of visual metaphors to help the practice of the postures, and many of them make a good focus for a session. Things like having an invisible helper, an actual tail, the back of the pelvis opening like a fan in forward-bends, the feet having grown enormous to help in balances—these visual metaphors are a rich seam.
Once these themes are introduced to your students—it may take a few sessions to take hold—they become an intrinsic part of your teaching language… shortcuts to help you to communicate efficiently with a group you see regularly.
The ‘chain mail cape’ is a good example that I introduced to my students ages ago. Nowadays, when I say ‘chain-mail cape’, everyone understands the idea of a weighty cape on their shoulders helping to release tension in their upper arms, neck, shoulders, and throat as the shoulders are gently but continuously pulled down away from the ears lengthening the sides of the neck… using the exhalation.
So now when I use the three little words “chain-mail cape,” a lot is communicated.
8. Inspirational quotes
I‘m sure you have found many powerful teachers on your own yoga journey. Sharing resonant ideas from people who inspire you, or who explain a concept in an elegant or clear way, can make the basis of great classes.
Here are a few personal favourites:
“The highest spiritual practice is self-observation without judgment.” — SWAMI KRIPALU
“Your present circumstances don’t determine where you can go, they merely determine where you start.” — NIDO QUBIEN
“In drawing our attention to background anxiety, practice also frees us from it.” — JOHN STIRK
If yoga is a dance, then the breath is the beat.
There are many benefits to breath-centered work. Not only do we gain more control over our own breathing, but the breath itself can act as a great anchor for our attention.
I often use breath-related themes and there are lots of ways of doing so. For example, you may want to start with pranayama and then take one of the breaths you have just practiced into a few well-chosen postures. For example, try using kapalabhati when coming into downward dog.
Or, you may want to concentrate on a single aspect of the breath in all the postures. For example, adding a pause in active postures and lengthening or growing during that pause.
Or, adding a pause in resting postures and using it to release tension.
I particularly value themes that help harness the power of the breath in bodywork:
RIDING THE WAVE OF RELEASE: Surfing the exhalation.
An analogy between the breath and the sea—as the exhalation leaves the body, visualise it acting like a wave dumping rubbish on the shore, carrying out tension, and leaving it there.
THE PAUSE AT THE END OF THE EXHALATION: Wait for the inhalation to arrive.
This theme is simple and accessible yet also strangely powerful. And it can be easily used in conjunction with your posture planning to deepen the focus of any session.
10. Tricky subjects
Themes give us a way of talking about things some people find challenging. Introduce the theme at the beginning of the session and make it clear that whatever is being discussed has relevance to everyone.
You can focus on almost anything, from the metaphysical nature of consciousness to the importance of embodiment, to diet or other forms of exercise.
You can investigate positive and practical ways to respond to an illness or injury (we all have some injuries or illnesses in our lives).
Themes can be used to look at important, relevant issues such as the effect of emotions on our bodies, how to go about harnessing our own attention. We all have to find ways to handle our expectations and our irritation when it comes up (including during your classes!)
Here’s an example:
MASTER OF YOUR OWN DOMAIN: Who’s in charge of you if not you?
We are more powerful than we realise. We can change ourselves simply by the power of our own thoughts. Be in charge of your own feelings and find strategies to deal with negative emotions—after all, you are in charge – the master of your own domain.
The themes summarised here are more fully expressed in my latest book, Yoga Themes. Inevitably, my themes reflect my personal practice and understanding. But the beauty of this approach is that it really can work for everyone, no matter what style of yoga or level of experience.
If it suits you, be creative, enjoy exploring your own theme ideas. You’ll find using a theme in teaching adds focus, helps you clarify your communication, and add more depth and fluency. If you’re inspired by any themes mentioned here, that’s great. Enjoy making them yours!