The Problem with Themes in Kids and Teen Yoga Lesson Planning - Shanti Generation

The Problem with Themes in Kids and Teen Yoga Lesson Planning

confused boy with funny facial expressionThemes in and of themselves are not necessarily problematic. When themes are derived from the real-time lives and experiences of our students, they can serve well. Even mythical story themes involving archetypes and morals have a place in the scheme of a curriculum. However, when themes are random and disconnected from our students experiences, they can actually be distracting from the potential learning experience.

In my early days of learning to teach yoga, I remember clearly the words of Lisa Walford, senior Iyengar teacher. Lisa said, “There is nothing random in a well taught yoga class.”

Here are a few guidelines to keep in mind when utilizing themes.

1. Theme vs. Context  For several years, I trained teachers in the Yoga Ed curriculum created by Leah Kalish and Tara Guber. The most brilliant piece of that curriculum, in my opinion, is the distinction made between themes and context. Themes are the heart of the lesson, the message you wish to communicate to your students. Effective themes center of qualities of being and conscious characteristics. For example, developing courage, cultivating compassion and nurturing concern for the environment are all meaningful themes for yoga class. The context in which you bring the theme to life is the framework. For instance, arm balances are a powerful context to develop courage. Partner yoga poses cultivate compassion. Concern for the environment can be nurtured in the context of interconnectivity, perhaps with a lesson highlighted postures and practices associated with ocean life.

In contrast, though, think for a moment about a yoga class whose theme is ocean animals. The class is sequenced to include fish, dolphin, whale, boat, etc. While this may sound fun, it stops short of providing a whole yoga experience. As a new kids yoga teacher, many years ago, I found myself floundering with themes, which were not really themes at all. They were fun stories and frameworks for themes.

With just a little more thought and planning, the lesson can come alive. When we look underneath the theme for the real intention in the lesson, we will often find a meaningful layer sure to deepen the experience for all.

2. Emergent Themes I was incredibly fortunate that my first kids yoga teaching job was at a pre-school with a master teacher/director, Dr. Gloria Walther. She guided me in developing a pedagogy of yoga for early childhood. Noticing that I was allowing my teaching to be dependent on so-called themes (randomly chosen contexts that created a through line for the lesson), she helped me to understand that true themes would emerge from the lives of the students. The changing of the seasons, the experiences of the students lives, their questions, their desires, their interests all provided plenty of thematic material. There was no need for me to materialize a theme for the sake of it.

Gloria, also a Professor at UCLA, shared a story with me of one of her adult students asking why she didn’t use themes in her pre-school curriculum. In her special, gentle way, Gloria illustrated her point. “How can I decide in advance on a theme, when the interests and ideas of my students are new everyday?” she said. I got it. Yes, if my mind is already settled on a theme that has no relation to the experience of my students that day, I am missing an opportunity to connect yoga with the lives of my students. This does not mean there is a total absence of structured curriculum. The curriculum is a foundation, but it is not so overly planned to exclude the participation of students ideas. In fact, one of the most helpful tools for me as a yoga teacher is insight into the curriculum students are learning outside of yoga class at their school. Gloria shared with me the same calendar curriculum she sent home with parents so I could make meaningful thematic connections.

3. Students Needs First I recall as a new teacher getting very excited about thematic lesson plans only to be disappointed when students just wanted to do the same thing we did the previous week. I quickly learned that when students, especially young children, request practices over and over again, it is  my job to say “yes” and follow their lead. Children need to review and repeat new practices many times to develop skills. When students request the same practices, it’s a sign that you’ve chosen developmentally appropriate content.

4. Educate not Entertain  Sure, a circus theme can be fun, but fun is not enough. If it’s a birthday party, go ahead. If students are reluctant to try yoga, yes, make it a super fun play date to pique their interest. Beware, however, of becoming their entertainer. If kids are unable to find some quiet and stillness in yoga class, if they are dependent on your constant management, are they really learning yoga?

I am critical of yoga lessons that center of random themes because I have witnessed their limiting effects in my own teaching practice and in others I’ve mentored. I’ve seen new and seasoned teachers get caught up in themes only to find themselves frustrated and unsatisfied in their teaching practice. I am also critical of kids yoga teaching styles that emphasize fun as the main component of yoga lessons. Fun is important and meaningful when a result of developmentally appropriate play. Of course, play is the job of young children. We can play and have fun in yoga while still attending to the core components of safe, integrative yoga practice. I love to see children pretending to be trees in a forest. Let’s also make sure their upper foot isn’t resting on the knee or sickling inward. Pretending to be a frog jumping through a pond? Fabulous! Let’s be really quiet while we hop as not to wake up the snakes.

With mindfulness towards the life affirming aspects of yoga, we can make our kids and teens yoga classes alive with fun and intrigue, as well as deeply meaningful to their daily lives.


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Yes, yes and triple yes! Thanks for so eloquently sharing your wisdom, as always.

    Thank you, Lisa. Sharing is my passion. I am so glad to have the likes of you reading and affirming;)


I appreciate the clear distinction between theme and context, and the push for meaningful, sustaining, enjoyable practice rather than random goofing off. I think I’d be apt to rely more on the person connections with individual kids that you mentioned rather than their curricula at school; that curricula is most definitely chosen randomly, unless the children happen to be in an educational setting that similarly privileges their life experiences. Kids’ real loves and real learning and real connections are far more often made when their time is their own and their choices are honored.

    I agree, Teresa. More of kids time needs to “their own.” That’s where the real learning happens. Thank you for sharing. Cross-curricular content can help create meaningful connections between school life and mindful life, but that does not trump the power of relatedness.

i LOVE this abby ~ so well said. as a kids yoga teacher for over 16 years i have witnessed how themes can be contrived & generic. though i do believe a theme is a great frame for a class, i always allow the children to lead the way. for me, it is the deeper teachings of YOGA & mindfulness that must present during the class, despite whatever the theme is. love & gratitude sister.


    You are the master of the well done theme, Jodi!


It has taken me a few years to understand this, as it is contrary to the training I received. Slowly, I am understanding how I want to teach. Thank you for the clarity of your article.


I have only been teaching for a few months but I am a believer of asking the kids where the want to go and creating a theme around that.


    What kind of inquiries do you find most effective to determine what your students are interested in? What questions do you ask?

      What matters most to you?
      Who inspires you?
      Name something from nature that represents how you feel in your life right now.
      Share one thing you would like to change about the world.
      What kind of music do you like?
      What’s your favorite flavor ice cream?!


This was SO refreshing to read. I am hesitating to do a Halloween ‘theme’ class as I think it is a cop out and a bit lazy to do the same ole thing. It is easy for instructors to latch on to themes but lack content and I am afraid that will happen with Halloween. So I am looking a bit deeper and discussing concepts such as Masks and how they provide an opportunity to be something else but that it is a bigger symbol of hiding and what that means. How do we come out from behind the mask. Ghosts- fun but scary sometimes. I am taking this to discuss fears and how to manage them with breath and mindfulness. I also broke a SuperHero “theme” into parts- what is Super about you? How are you a Hero? Heroes happen every day…. etc. I find my teaching more focused now and simplified. The themes are merely a jump off point and not the full experience. THanks for reading!


This article is so wonderful. I am a new kids yoga teacher and, as we learned in my teacher training, have been doing many themed classes. However, I’ve been finding quickly that I very much want to teach the deeper messages of yoga to the kids. The challenge now is how to do that. Do you have any specific examples or tips, particularly for the age group 5-10? I find it difficult to incorporate the play/fun aspect of class with more serious yogic principles in a way kids can grasp. Any help would be much appreciated!


    Maggie~ your comment was lost in translation and I am just seeing I never responded. How is your teaching going today? How has it evolved? Any questions at this point I can offer suggestions on?

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