Themes 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.