Excerpt: Teaching Yoga Beyond the Poses

Posted by – September 20, 2019
Categories: General

From Teaching Yoga Beyond the Poses by Sage Rountree and Alexandra DeSiato.

Words Are Powerful: Theming Makes Your Class

As leaders of yoga teacher trainings, we’ve got experience teaching the nuts and bolts of how to lead a helpful class. Once you’ve mastered those, the next challenge is adding meaning to your class by tying it to a theme or central message.

This can be as elaborate as an explanation of yoga philosophy that is borne out in the sequences, or as simple as returning to the breath or remembering to relax.

A successful theme functions like a motif in classical music. It is gently but definitively introduced toward the beginning of the program, explored in various contexts over the course of the piece, and authoritatively revisited at the end. Perhaps at the beginning the central motif is played by one instrument. It is then taken up over the course of the piece by different instruments, each of which lend a unique tone, rhythm, and key to it. Finally, the entire ensemble joins in repeating the motif together.

Your class can carry a theme in a similar fashion. You’ll introduce it using words in your opening comments, then students will consider the theme as they move through the class. Sometimes this means students will observe their embodied experience—how things feel in their bodies relative to the theme. Sometimes it means they will remember or repeat a word, phrase, or mantra tied to your theme. At the conclusion of class, you’ll restate the theme again, and students can have time to reflect on its implications off the mat.

What doesn’t work

A successful theme is introduced early, referenced often, and reiterated at the end of class. Simply relating an undigested personal story, or reading a poem once and not referencing it further, does not deepen or enrich your students’ experience. Be sure that you come back to your theme several times over the course of your class. While this may feel heavy-handed to you, remember that students process your words in the context of their own experience. If they are new, they may be focused mostly on the physical cues. If they are stressed, they may be focused on maintaining attention while their minds are tempted to ruminate or wander. If they are hard of hearing, they may not catch every word! What feels like too much repetition on your part is usually just right, since students will only really hear about half of what you say.

But why does theming matter?

You’ve picked up this book, we bet, because as a yoga student you have had at least one profound experience in a yoga class with a theme that affected you deeply. You already sense that saying beautiful, gently provocative, wise, and loving things while students move their bodies can shift them, transform them, and offer them relief from the daily existential suffering that typifies life for even the happiest of us. Theming matters not just because words are powerful, but also because you’re presenting words and ideas to people when they are susceptible to listening to them—they are physically relaxed or physically challenged, mentally undistracted, and ready to receive. In the seat of the teacher, you’re speaking to people when they are hungriest to hear instruction—not just on what to move or how to breathe, but also on how to be.

Theming in a yoga class matters a great deal. Offering your students a theme that allows them to have hope or peace or a renewed spirit is especially helpful in our present day, where politics, social unrest, and technology contribute to anxiety. Our colleague Leslie Kaminoff posted an important message on social media in the days following the 2016 election. He wrote, “All yoga educators: stress reduction is now the world’s number-one growth industry. Let’s do what we do best—stay centered and offer safe havens.” His post resonated with us and reminded us that our job is to reduce the stress of our students. We can do that with thoughtful sequences, but we also need to offer nourishing class content.

Theming is one of the primary differences between a yoga practice and a fitness class. In a fitness class, students come to move, whether that’s lifting weights, doing cardio step, cycling, or doing Pilates. Often, breath is cued in these classes, and excellent fitness instructors encourage self-care (“rest,” “drink water”) and self-awareness (“listen for the voice telling you that you can’t do this—you can!”). But when students take a fitness class, they don’t do so with the expectation that they will learn something—something philosophical, like a new life perspective—from the teacher.

But yoga nourishes the body and the soul; good theming makes that possible. When your students come to a yoga class, they want to feel better, and they also expect to learn something: they expect a side dish of philosophy with the main dish of yoga asana. They expect that as part of the practice of yoga, part of the experience of moving and breathing, there will also be a lesson or thought or advice about being.

To further this metaphor on eating, consider that doing yoga, like doing any sort of movement practice, is akin to eating a really healthy meal. It’s enjoyable, in part because you know you’re doing something good for yourself. But the best healthy meals are the ones that are not only good for you but are also delicious. The meals that are so delicious that you think of them later and want to make them again (“how could kale salad be that amazing?”)—that’s a yoga class with beautiful theming.

Theming also gets to the heart of ancient yoga, which began as a philosophical practice as the main with asana as the side dish. And while we’re not purists and we love the ever-evolving exploration of yoga in the modern world, we also believe that yoga asana can’t be divorced from its roots. Yoga is yoga today, and it’s also the yoga of over two thousand years of philosophical thought. Yoga has always been used as a tool to help people with the daily challenges of living. Physical movement does a pretty good job of that on its own, but pairing movement with theming and wise words does it most fully. In offering your students wisdom on how to deal with the struggles of existence, you’re connecting with the true history and purpose of yoga.

Yoga theme: TAPAS

Write a Little about Your Theme and Why It Speaks to You

Tapas is about discipline, zeal, and internal heat. Broadly, we think of it as having the courage to change the things you can—the discipline to take action toward a goal. Without such drive, there’s no change, physically, mentally, or spiritually.

Tapas helps us remember to keep getting on the mat, to keep fighting the good fight. It makes a wonderful theme, as you’re preaching to the choir in a group class: they’ve already taken the step of showing up. Now we parlay that into practice.

Chants, Quotes, Mantras, Poems, or Songs That Connect

“One of Kali’s names is ‘She who knows the nature of passion.’”
—Daniel Odier, Yoga Spandakarika
“Kali” by Y La Bamba
“The human being is not a puny speck in this cosmos, as we may appear physically. By virtue of a power called tapas (‘heat’) generated by extreme austerity (also called tapas) or in deep stages of meditation, ordinary men or women can compel profound changes in the universe.”
—Eknath Easwaran, afterword to his translation of The Upanishads

Poses That Work with Your Theme

Any poses that build heat, either through a long hold (think Chair Pose) or through repetition (like a few rounds of Boat!).

Distill Your Theme to a Short Sentence or Intention

Have the courage to change what you can.

Phrases or Sentences to Employ in These Parts of Your Class

Here you are: you’ve taken the biggest step. Set your intention and carry it through your practice with dedication.

During movements
Are you shying away from effort? Realign with your intention of discipline.

During pauses
Can you match your effort with release as you rest? Without breaks, you’ll be unable to sustain your discipline. Just like day is followed by night, match some ease to
your effort.


Rest. Rest with a sense of well-deserved release. Offer gratitude for your effort. What happens on the mat shows us what can happen off the mat. Consider where you might bring the lesson and practice of perseverance into other areas of your life.

Anything Else
Tapas is in a relationship with the two niyamas: svadhyaya and ishvara pranidhana. Together, they echo the Serenity Prayer: tapas is the courage to change what you can, ishvara pranidhana is the serenity to accept what you can’t change, and svadhyaya is the wisdom to know the difference. (Gratitude to Leslie Kaminoff for this lesson.)

A question arises and is especially pertinent on the yoga mat: just because you can change something, does that mean that you should? Just like fire can be harnessed for good or for bad, tapas can be transformative or, unchecked, destructive. Help your students consider what changes are healthy and necessary, and when they may be restless or over-efforting their way into poses, actions, and relationships that don’t need changing.

Tags: Sage Rountree Alexandra DeSiato
About the Author

North Atlantic Books (NAB) is an independent nonprofit publisher committed to a bold exploration of the relationships between mind, body, spirit, culture, and nature. Founded in Vermont in 1974 and operating in Berkeley since 1977, NAB has been at the forefront of publishing a diverse range of original books in bodywork and somatics, ecology and sustainability, health and healing, Indigenous cultures and anthropology, psychology and personal growth, social justice and engaged activism, and spirituality and liminality. NAB’s Blue Snake Books imprint is one of the largest sources of internal and historical martial-arts books in the world.