The Gift of Gratitude: How to Apply a Theme to a Yoga Class

yellowbirdOur teacher started class by placing the heels of her hands together forming a small cup shape. Next she softly brought her fingers to touch leaving the middle space open. She said, “Anjali mudra is like holding a little bird between your palms”. The image was so light and childlike. I could imagine holding a delicate yellow feathered creature and leaving as much room as possible for air and space. My yoga teacher, Julia, continued on with her Thanksgiving class. She said “imagine that instead of holding this little bird you are holding a precious gift, an offering to yourself”. She looked into her folded hands as if making sure she didn’t lose her own yellow feathered friend. She sealed her hands protectively around what she was holding in her mind’s eye. We were then invited to bring our hands to our hearts and give our own imagined precious gift to ourselves. As we bowed our heads she said “Anjali mudra is the gesture we use to offer a gift of gratitude, to ourselves or to someone else”.

Anjali Mudra

Our class began with our decided gifts held closely to our hearts. We were instructed to give our attention to something we wanted to have in our lives, a personal offering to ourselves. We were reminded to hold and be with our gift and offering each time we brought our palms together. This gesture was woven throughout our practice as a touchstone back to our intention, a way home to what we hold precious and close to our hearts.

The theme was gratitude and the teaching itself was something to be grateful for. It was its own offering. As students, we were offered a gift by the suggestion of using gratitude in our practice. We were invited to offer ourselves something by following direction and trusting in our instructor’s guidance. I often enjoy Julia’s classes because she masterfully brings themes to life as she teaches yoga. Whether through images, suggestions, ideas or questions we journey with a chosen theme and our own meaning. As a new instructor, I find teaching a theme and weaving it through an asana practice a true challenge. As a student I am inspired when a bigger idea transpires during a yoga class. I value it as a refined talent in an experienced teacher. A yoga teacher can offer a variety of classes and themes, but stepping into the possible deeper influences of yoga takes courage and skill. Yoga beyond breathing and movement is what the teacher brings alive. When a teacher weaves the mental, emotional or internal aspect into the physical practice it adds the element of “why” we do yoga, rather than” how” we do yoga.

Using a theme provides a vessel of opportunities for both teacher and student. A theme like gratitude might give a teacher an opportunity to invite students to try a familiar pose in a whole new way. Warrior three for example might be done with outstretched palms giving a blanket to a homeless person. Posing a new and different image might touch each student differently. The ideas and images may simply tempt students to try something new. A theme may give rise to presenting a new word, concept or experience. For example,  when breathing, choosing to combine the inhale with receiving and the exhale with giving might allow students to explore their minds and physical form in a meaningful and different way. A teacher may choose to influence a student’s form by suggesting to move mindfully, quietly, or proudly or even as characters from the Toy Story movie. In that change of physical expression, it may stimulate a change in connection with their minds and hearts. The extra “sauce” of a class is the addition of experience, trust and talent. To me there is a difference between a class with a theme and a class without. A thoughtful theme can be the gravy on the mashed potatoes, so to speak, when it comes to a great yoga class.

I continually observe and study how teachers build on themes in classes. It is a desired skill I am trying to learn and improve. It seems two things lend to the success of themes working in classes. One is the teacher’s intention or ability to connect with and deliver the theme. Whether the theme is gratitude or something else it is the offering of the teacher. The other thing that seems to bring magic to themes is the extra something that is above and beyond. There is creativity in what things the teacher does or says. To me, this appears that they are authentic in who they are and what they are sharing of themselves to the class. Here are a few ways I have seen our teachers in the studio using gratitude as a theme during this holiday season. These are not holiday specific and other concepts could easily be interchanged throughout the year.

How to apply a theme to a yoga class:

  • Ask students to bring to mind three things that they are grateful for at the beginning of class. After class, have them recall them again.
  • At the beginning of class, have students bring one thing to mind that they want to focus on, walk out of the class with or take with them into their day. Ask them to recall that one thing at the end of class.

    Uttarabodhi mudra
    Uttarabodhi mudra
  • Use a mudra (like the Anjali mudra example above). A mudra or gesture can have multiple meanings and ways to connect the physical body with the mental/emotional body. Another example to easily incorporate is the Uttarabodhi mudra,where all fingers are intertwined with the index fingers pointing up, to give or receive something they desire or simply to concentrate their focus. Or, perhaps extending cactus arms to cast a wider net of giving and receiving. There are many possibilities with shapes or mudras enhancing a theme.
  • Light a candle for something you are grateful for or invite students to light them prior to class.
  • Speak words of gratitude during class; thank you, appreciate, welcome, acknowledge, giving.
  • Stop in the moment; invite a checking in of the senses. Ask pertinent questions. What is there to be grateful for? Gratitude (like words related to other themes) are often experienced in the moment of the pause or inquiry. Let the students have time to be with their inquiry and internal answers and let them be in relationship with them for a few extra breathes. These are often the moments where students experience presence, mindfulness, curiosity and healing
  • Invite possibility. By focusing on something we are grateful for we may invoke a sense of opportunity that may not have been previously considered or it may provide hope that was previously not present.
  • When speaking use examples with images. Protecting a small box wrapped in glistening tissue paper is different than holding a box. Paint students a descriptive picture.

The best offering a teacher can give is to show up real, ready and resourceful. Students want the best of you so they can find and see their best in themselves. Perhaps we, as teachers, see our themes as that delicate yellow feathered bird held gently in our palms as an offering to our students. We offer ourselves and our yoga to them and we imagine our little birds, our gifts, being held in their hands and brought to their chests and received with gratitude into their hearts.

Dr. Erika Putnam

By Dr. Erika Putnam

Dr. Erika Putnam is a chiropractic physician by trade, a writer at heart and a yogi by fate. She has practiced chiropractic for almost two decades and owns a yoga studio in Idaho. The two practices connect structural stability with the true core of well-being. As a doctor, she brings a hearty helping of nurturing nerdiness to her classes. Her venue is a colorful mix of teaching. She teaches anatomy to students at yoga teacher trainings, yoga for medical professionals’ classes, and creative writing classes with yoga-inspired exploration. She pines for a view of the Montana skies and the smell of Idaho mint from her road bike. Pedicures in the shade of Rocktoberfest are her favorite self-care indulgence.