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Free Resources – Guidelines for Teaching with Themes (and/or Incorporating Philosophy)


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Lesson Overview

In this lesson, we provide guidelines for teaching with themes and for effectively teaching philosophy with asana.

Objective

Be familiar with techniques and considerations for effectively teaching themed yoga classes.

Description

Explain the potential benefits of teaching themed yoga classes. Describe considerations or guidelines that may support effective teaching of themes in yoga. Describe some of the subtleties related to “teaching what you know.” Explain how you might teach concepts in a universal way. Describe the challenge of effectively distilling a concept down to its essence. Provide considerations that might help to effectively distill a concept for teaching it in class. Describe a common mistake when introducing a philosophical point in class and how you can avoid this. Provide components of an effective theme plan. Describe how to effectively teach a theme while also staying with students’ present moment experience.

Get Inspired: 2-Minute Message


Introduction

Many students find incomparable value and inspiration from the deeper teachings that are thoughtfully shared in class. Here you’ll find considerations related to teaching themes in general. To choose a particular theme, please see Themes & Readings Hub.

When class themes are taught effectively, they can benefit both teachers and students:

    1. Theme readings provide the opportunity to offer wisdom and inspiration to students who are often hungry for such teachings.
    2. The meaning and depth from a related theme can increase practice effectiveness.
    3. Teachers can be continually inspired by what they love.
    4. Themes are a vehicle for teachers to share their uniqueness and to teach from their own truth.

Guidelines

Here are some considerations for effectively utilizing themes in yoga teaching:

    1. Teach what you know.
    2. Invite a personal connection.
    3. Distill concepts down to their essence.
    4. Have a plan.
    5. Practice your delivery.
    6. Tie the teaching to what the student is doing.

Teach What You Know

This point, “Teach What You Know” is about your personal experience and the meaning the topic holds for you.

    1. Regarding such topics as yoga philosophy and other wisdom teachings, it’s simply out of line to teach concepts that you haven’t fully ingested and lived. Not only is it inappropriate to “teach” such topics without personal experience, attempting to do so may lead to sounding like a “talking head,” spouting “blather.”
    2. Rather, sharing your personal realizations will convey the teachings authentically and will make the teaching real for students.
    3. Choosing topics that are meaningful to you is likely to add a form of transmission that is not possible when simply conveying information. And your authenticity will also be helpful in developing the teacher-student relationships.
    4. We are not suggesting that you avoid teaching something that you’re currently working with in your life. All seekers find themselves going deeper with teachings and continuing to learn how much they don’t know. This lifelong seeking is a valuable place from which to teach; not having all the answers should not prevent you from sharing with students.

In summary, we are suggesting that newer teachers be cautious and perhaps err on the side of taking more time before teaching new concepts, and that more experienced teachers consider daring to share more! : )

New Age Blather

There’s talk in yoga classes about spirit but most of it is not genuine. It’s just somebody reading something. That’s a start but it easily turns into a sort of New Age blather. But when the teacher can get confident enough to teach from her own… truths, then whatever they have to say is so much more profound. – Ana Forrest, Huffington Post Interview  link


Invite a Personal Connection

It’s great that you have really worked with a concept and are excited to share. But your experience is yours alone and is not enough to teach effectively. If you teach the concept from your perspective only, there are many people who won’t identify and will either tune out or not feel that the teaching applies to them. Giving a few examples from your personal experience can be wonderful, but the main thrust should be to speak to a more universal application so that each student can find her own way into the teaching.

A related point is really understanding the theme. Sometimes we have a deeply meaningful experience but for awhile, are unable to communicate about it with context or clarity. The ability to truly understand what happened and communicate it effectively may take time and perspective. The perspective that is gained helps you to teach the concept universally.

An excellent way of making teachings universal is to reference traditional wisdom texts and expert commentaries. And then invite a personal connection through examples and practices.

Example

Let’s say that you were browsing  Themes & Readings and under Theme: Connection, Union you found the following teaching particularly inspirational:

Yoga is a Sanskrit word that means “yoke,” [which] means “union” and “joining.” … The interesting thing… however, is that union and joining do not mean the same thing. Union means oneness, wholeness, not separated or divided, indivisible. Joining means coming together, implying the formation of a union from a previous condition of separation. The implication here is that people who at one time felt separated, abandoned and alone, like strangers in a strange and hostile land, now feel connected, in harmony, safe and whole because of yoga. – Erich Schiffmann link

The universal teaching is the meaning of yoga and the many expert commentaries to choose from, including Erich Schiffmann’s observation.

Then you could introduce a way to make it personal, such as:

Right now, in this pose, take a moment to observe your body, mind and emotions…

  • Is there anything that feels separate or abandoned?
  • If you don’t know what I mean by feeling separate or abandoned, another question could be: Is there something in your body that you’re trying to ignore or feelings that you are trying to forget?
  • Or, is there, say, a part of your body or a feeling that you can’t seem to connect with, even when you try?

Examples: The right side of your body? Your hamstrings? A feeling of anger or grief? A sense of independence or power? A thought you can’t seem to get rid of? Your heart or a feeling of compassion?

From there, the in-class practice might be:

  1. Right now, what feels separate or abandoned?
  2. Take a moment to witness the alone-part.
  3. Notice any judgment that arises. (I don’t want to feel that, I don’t approve of that, I want a break from that.) Allow the judgment to pass and simply observe with interest and compassion.
  4. Consider inviting in the separateness, asking it to join you and your practice.

Distill Concepts to Their Essence

Just as with asana, pranayama, and other practices, really understanding the theme is key. In addition to personal experience, teachers work to understand the topic from a broad and deep perspective. But then when it comes to the actual in-class teaching, the teacher must be able to distill information down to its essence.

    • While always a key challenge, this can feel particularly tricky with philosophy.
    • If it is narrowed down so much that it’s simply a statement such as found in the Yoga Sutras, the teaching is likely to lack the depth, relatability and energy that can make it come alive.
    • And yet it isn’t possible to recite lengthy teachings during an asana class.

What to do? As with teaching asana, preparing and practicing how you deliver your theme will help improve your skill and effectiveness. Here are some considerations:

Teach Related Topics Over Time

By focusing on one topic or related topics over a period of time, it can be easier to focus and limit your teachings in each class to manageable chunks.

    • For example, you can choose a philosophical focus for the month, highlighting various aspects of it each class throughout the month.
    • Or, you can create a six-week series, for example. Learn more about planning series here.

Use a Teaching Nugget

Another consideration is to introduce a concept during an opening centering or other time in class and then to select a “teaching nugget.”

    • By that, we are referring to a quote, phrase or visual that captures the essence of the teaching.
    • This nugget can then be sprinkled throughout class to bring forth the energy of the concept or to work with and expand on it throughout class.

From the sample practice under Invite a Personal Connection above, the nugget can simply become a soft:

Right now, what feels separate or abandoned?


Have a Plan

A classic neophyte mistake when introducing a philosophical point in class is to bring it up early in class and then never mention it again until the closing.

To be more effective, think through how to incorporate the teaching in a progressive way, concluding with a way for students to take the teaching into off-the-mat practice. We are calling this a Theme Plan.

Our new Theme Plans take class theme support to a new level! We offer a detailed guide for incorporating a particular theme into class, including:

    • Theme Teaching Points
    • Readings
    • Inviting Students’ Personal Connection
    • Practices for Applying the Theme Teaching in Class
    • Teaching Tips & Reminders
    • Off-the-Mat Practices

We include plenty of ideas and readings to make the presentation unique, but provide the structure and specifics to make it easier to effectively teach themes that resonate for you.

The process we use, and that you can use for developing your own theme plans, is to have a beginning, middle and end. Here are some examples of how to plan your theme presentation.

1. Beginning

    • Introduce the theme.
    • Describe a common human problem and/or read from the Sutras or another yogic text.

2. Middle

    • Provide a short but vivid teaching: you might read a poem or quote from a text or tell a story, for instance.
    • Identify practices that can help students to embody and work with the theme.
    • Use a “nugget” to evoke the teaching and encourage reflection during practice.
    • If you wish to have supportive music, play songs that convey the feeling at particular points in class.

3. End

    • Do not use Savasana as a teaching moment. Allow students to simply experience Savasana.
    • After Savasana, offer an invitation for taking the teaching off the mat.
    • In a closing, invite awareness of the current body-mind state and suggest that students use a cue (such as the breath or a phone call) to serve as a reminder to engage in mindfulness or other off-the-mat practice.

Practice Your Delivery

Practice refining your technique, considering these recommendations:

    1. Speak slowly and concisely. One expert advises that teachers speak “in sound bytes.”
    2. Avoid trying to say too much or telling a story that hasn’t been thought out.
    3. End sentences succinctly as opposed to letting your voice trail off, or making a statement sound as if it is a question.
    4. Just as with all aspects of teaching, be grounded and present (embodied). While teaching, periodically become aware of your breath, your body, your thoughts, your voice.
    5. Consider the feeling-tone of your theme. Is it light, somber, joyful? Endeavor to support the feeling with your verbal pacing, body language and tone. For a theme of connection, for example, feel the energy of connection to your students, your sangha, and the divine. Feel that energy in your body and allow it to influence where you gaze and how you move and speak.

Teach to the Present Moment

In our opinion, it is distracting and somewhat annoying when a teacher seems to practically interrupt students’ concentration to give what can feel like a random speech or admonition that doesn’t feel relevant to the moment. As such, we recommend avoiding statements that cannot be tied to what the student is currently doing in the practice.

    • We advise taking the extra effort to speak to the teachings at a time that you can relate them in some way to what is happening. While some topics are more challenging to work with, it’s always possible to make the teachings feel relevant. We encourage you to be committed to helping students work with a natural tie-in during their practice.
    • For example, consider how your messages will best land, as students are engaged in various practices: a mindfulness meditation, warming up with a simple flow, practicing deep or challenging asana, practicing pranayama, relaxing into Savasana or other.
    • When applicable, such a simple practice as, “In this pose right now, what do you notice?” can keep the teachings relatable and practical.

More Inspiration

Experts Recommend Themed Classes

Linking Mind & Body

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! Turns out that using themes in our classes, when well-wrought and coming from our own experience, are indeed truly helpful and healing. – Elena Brower, Teachasana, To Theme or Not To Theme? link

Worth the Challenge

Teaching asana is often straightforward. You can memorize some great class sequences… But a theme is trickier to illuminate because the theme comes from the heart, the authentic you. Nobody ever came up to me after class and said, “Wow, touching my toes today changed my life.” Nobody. Not once. But I do hear this on occasion: “I really needed to hear your message today.” – Michelle Berman Marchildon, Theme Weaver p 5  link

Wisdom & Inspiration for Hungry Students

There is a way to offer some spiritual wisdom and inspiration to hungry students… I feel that the juiciest themes come from one’s own personal experiences. That said, we need to be cautious about turning our classes into therapy sessions. Students do not appreciate or learn from having to listen to us vent or share our problems all the time. Take some time to ponder whatever is happening in your life and then see if you can find the lessons that Life is asking you to learn from that experience. Study the teachings of great ones such as the Dalai Lama, Gandhi, Thich Nhat Hanh, Pema Chodron, Byron Katie, Maya Angelou, Jack Kornfield and Eckhart Tolle. Their wisdom is offered in a way that is succinct, timeless and powerful. – Desiree Rumbaugh, For Yoga Teachers Only link

Bring Inspiration Into Your Class

Following what you love and are passionate about can be a good way of bringing inspiration into your yoga practice. I have immersed myself in studying the Zodiac Wheel, and it is from this that inspiration for the Zodiac yoga practices has emerged. For you, it might be; gardening, or love, the Bible, poetry, herbalism, mythology, or politics, that lights your fire and stimulates your creative juices. Immersing yourself in what you love becomes a form of meditation. This creates a state of focus and absorption; whilst in this state you will find yourself more open to suggestion (perhaps from the ether), or from your own subconscious wisdom. What follows can be magic! – Jilly Shipway, Zodiac Yoga link

Topic Ideas

Hope, Stuffing Feelings, Consumption, Separatism & More
    • You may find that the 16-minute TEDx Talk below covers some topics you’d like to share as themes.
    • The speaker, Ally, began practicing yoga during her senior year at Columbia University. During the course of her 20 years of practice and 15 years of teaching, she has studied with Dharma Mittra, Bryan Kest (at whose studio she taught for over five years), Jörgen Christiansson, Baron Baptiste, Max Strom and Saul David Raye.


Much More!

We hope you found this excerpt from our Member site useful and inspiring. We go deep on the rest of the guidelines and more on teaching themes in our member site here.

The Themes & Readings section is just one component of the Plan & Sequence section which includes a large library of tools and resources.

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