Designing a Yoga Class Around a Philosophical Theme

A Case Study

I smelled smoke. I felt heat. I couldn’t see a thing. My senses sent urgent messages to my mind, which quickly analyzed the data and delivered its conclusion: “You’re going the wrong way! Go the other way!”

I ignored my mind and continued to walk through the pitch-black room, slowly but steadily moving toward a fire I knew was hiding behind a wall that was somewhere in front of me.

The heat intensified. I leaned into the heat. Up above, I saw thin threads of fire flicker and vanish. Then, a sudden burst of flame billowed across the ceiling like an upside down ocean rolling in at high tide. I stood beneath a blazing canopy of rippling fire.

I wasn’t alone: there were a dozen Probies on the line with me. I let go of the hose and adjusted the aperture on my video camera as the men in front shot quick hits of straight stream up at the ceiling.

I used to work for the New York City Fire Department. My job was to produce training videos. The simulated fire above my head was part of a training exercise taking place in a building at the FDNY Training Center on Randall’s Island. My role was to record the performance of the Probies (Probationary Firefighters) for evaluation purposes.

The impression this experience left on my mind was that one of the first skills a firefighter has to develop is the ability to control the mind.

You may never have walked into a burning building but I’ll bet there have been times in your life when you knew that confronting a fire served a higher purpose than running from it.

Yoga is a practice that prepares us to confront the fire. But that’s not all: in yoga, we don’t just confront the fire; we set the fire.

A Tale of Fiery Determination

One of the assignments in my 300-Hour Advanced Yoga Teacher Training program is to design a yoga class around a philosophical theme. This assignment includes choosing a theme, delivering a brief ‘Dharma Talk’ to introduce the theme, leading a centering meditation that sets an intention based on the theme, and designing an asana sequence with yoga poses that connect the practice to the theme.

Susan, one of the teachers I’m working with in my Yoga Teacher Training program, chose tapas, austerity, as her theme. In the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, tapas is the first of the three elements of kriya-yoga, or yoga actions. Also translated as ‘self-discipline’, the Sanskrit word tapas springs from the root word tap, which means to radiate heat. In yoga, to engage in tapasya means to observe a level of self-discipline that will generate heat. This can, of course, happen during our physical yoga practice. On a deeper level, however, tapasya means to purify the consciousness in the fire of controlled senses. And of all the benefits of yoga, the purification of our consciousness is ultimately the most valuable.

For her Dharma Talk, Susan told a very sweet story about how visiting her ‘childhood tree’ sparked a memory:

“I grew up near a dairy farm, with woods between my home and the farm. I would walk through the woods to visit my friend who lived past the dairy in an old farmhouse. In the side yard beside a spring house there was a Weeping Willow tree.

I loved this tree. Big, shady, roots everywhere digging and stretching in and out of the dirt, reaching for nourishment, it stood next to the water flowing out of the spring house that made a little creek; I could almost feel the fire in the belly of that tree, determined to pull the resources it needed to live and grow.

I have come back to visit this tree over the years, and it seems to give me something that I need each time. This time it brought back a childhood memory. It also gave me new determination and resolve.

In the summer, I would get all of my chores done early so I could race out the door, through the woods, over the creek, past the dairy farm and down the road to my friend’s farm house. We had decided to build a boat from scraps in the barn. We were so excited and determined to finish this project. When we got it “finished” it was more like a barge with a sail than a boat.

The dairy farm had a pond that we decided to test it out in. We picked this contraption up over our heads with burning enthusiasm and walked to the pond. It was really heavy but we got it there, waded in to the cow muck, and this thing floated! We got on and started rowing with our barn wood oars and made it out to the center of the pond… before it began to sink.

We had to get off, our feet slipping down into the muck under the water, and pull our boat back to land. There was a bit of fear as well as excitement as our feet and legs got stuck when we tried to pick them up out of the muck, but we made it.

We carried our boat back to the barn, and that was where it stayed. But we did it: at least for a little while we got this thing to float.”

Next, Susan connected the burning enthusiasm she and her friend had for building their boat to her theme, tapas, which she defined as ‘fiery determination’. She spoke about how pushing ourselves, even gently, out of our comfort zone in order to challenge ourselves to go a little deeper, to reach a little farther, or even to slow down when we’re tempted to ratchet things up, is an important part of our yoga practice.

Then Susan found a few creative ways to integrate this theme into the class. To get everyone centered on the theme, she taught the Garuda mudra: a positioning of the hands with interlocked thumbs for developing perseverance, commitment, balance, and discipline.

She had everyone hold the mudra in front of our Manipura Chakra, the energy center at the solar plexus that’s associated with the element of fire, where we burn the illusions of the false ego in order for our true ego to emerge. When balanced and activated, this energy center is the seat of self-confidence and determination.

From here, Susan lead the class in chanting the Vedic mantra ‘Om agnaye namah’, which is an invocation of transformation through fire. Next, she lead the class through a yoga asana sequence that emphasized twists and backbends in order focus on the relationship between the fire in the belly and the radiance of the heart, on how the fire of self-discipline has to be paired with kindness and love in order for the practitioner to fully benefit from the practice of tapasya.

Resolute Determination and Spiritually Guided Intelligence

I really liked how Susan put this class together: she told a compelling story that her class could relate to, she brought authentic mudras and mantras into the mix, her asana sequence connected the physical practice to the relevant metaphysical energy centers, and her music playlist reinforced the essence of the theme. During the practice, she also offered up little sound bites about ways we could take this theme off the mat, effectively extending the practice into our daily lives.

I also thought she packed a lot, maybe a little too much, into a single class. It’s tempting to throw every connecting thread we can think of into a class design. One of the things I teach in my teacher training programs is that sometimes less is more, that you can pick one theme for an entire month and then add elements each week in order to drill deeper into the theme over time. This makes it easier for practitioners to assimilate the message and gives them motivation to come back every week as you take them deeper into the theme.

But my main concern with Susan’s class design was her emphasis on ‘fiery determination’ rather than ‘austerity’. The traditional definition of tapas is ‘austerity’ in the sense of observing a heat-generating level self-discipline. It takes determination to maintain self-discipline but the heat-generating austerity and the determination to tolerate the heat are two different things.

It seemed to me that Susan had combined two words with different meanings – austerity and determination – to come up with what sounded like a well-integrated theme. But something was missing: the element of renunciation that places tapas in the context of yoga.

Yoga is the stilling of the fluctuations of the mind. The mind is the faculty of discernment between attachments and aversions, which are two of the five obstacles to yoga. Thus, in the context of yoga, the observance of tapas consists of self-discipline in the matter of renouncing the attachments and aversions that spring from the mind.

The effort to control the mind in the face of the mind’s opposition to being controlled produces friction. And friction produces heat. Thus, the obstacles to yoga are burned up in the fire of tapasya, but only if you can stand the heat. And that takes determination.

Therefore, the endeavor to control the mind requires two things: resolute determination to control the mind and spiritually guided intelligence to tell us why we should make the effort in the first place.

In Sanskrit, the combination of resolute determination and spiritually guided intelligence is called vyavasayatmika buddhih. Here’s an example of how they might work together:

Let’s say that you like wine and you’re accustomed to drinking wine from time to time. And let’s say that you’re also starting to take the practice of yoga to a higher level and you hear that temperance, which is associated with the observance of austerity, results in greater clarity of perception, which in turn takes us a step closer to the experience of our true nature, which is the ultimate goal of yoga.

You conclude that consuming alcohol, even in relatively small quantities, pulls your consciousness in the direction of mental fuzziness rather than mental clarity so, despite the fact that you enjoy a little mental fuzziness from time to time, you decide, in the interest of deepening your yoga practice, to stop drinking wine.

There’s just one problem: you like wine.

Or, to be more accurate, your mind is convinced that you like wine.

Now, here comes the hard part: we become yogis; our minds do not.

Can You Stand The Heat?

The mind takes its cues from the senses. The senses only know what they like and what they don’t like. So when the senses send a message to the mind that says, ‘we like wine. We want wine’, the mind responds by sending a message to the intelligence: ‘figure out how to deliver wine to the senses.’

But your intelligence is what made you aware of the fact that you are not your mind or your senses: you are the person who is conscious of the likes and dislikes of the mind and senses. And your spiritually guided intelligence knows that attachments and aversions are obstacles to yoga.

Buddhi is a Sanskrit word for spiritually guided intelligence or the power of discernment that distinguishes between actions that are spiritually uplifting and actions that are spiritually degrading.

So, your spiritually guided intelligence sends a message back to the mind that says, ‘drinking wine may feel good in the short run but in the long run it will undermine the higher purpose of making progress on the path of yoga so I’m not going to fulfill your request.’

Now the mind is caught in the middle: it hears one message from the senses and another message from the intelligence. The conflict between the message of the senses and the message of the intelligence causes friction in the mind. And friction generates heat.

Now the question is, ‘can you stand the heat?’

You can if you have vyavasayatmika buddhih: resolute determination.

Our first impulse may be to just put the fire out by caving to the demands of the senses. But when we do, we extinguish our determination to rise above the demands of the senses. The Bhagavad-gita speaks directly to this point.

“Resolute determination to achieve the perfection of meditation never arises in the minds of those who are bewildered by the desire for affluence, power, and sensual pleasures.” – BG 2.44

In this verse, the Sanskrit word samādhau indicates steadiness or equilibrium within the controlled mind. When the mind is unwavering in its focus on the self, it is said to be in the state of samādhi, the spontaneous trance of self-realization.

This condition is unattainable for one whose mind is distracted by the prospect of material sense enjoyment or bewildered by the influence of such things. The practice of yoga is intended to liberate the mind from the domination of the senses by placing it under the jurisdiction of spiritually guided intelligence.

The Same Theme From Different Angles

I wanted to give Susan feedback to help her make an excellent class design even better. So I asked myself, ‘what is her story really about: austerity or determination?’

The austerity in Susan’s story was her obligation to finish her chores before she could go out and play with her friend, with the heat-generating friction arising from the desire to play – sense enjoyment – in opposition to the obligation to do chores – the renunciation of sense enjoyment.

But the emphasis of the story was on their resolute determination to build a boat from scraps, carry the boat to the pond in spite of its weight, and pull the sinking boat out of the pond in spite of the difficulty.

Since her story focused more on their determination to build a boat rather than on the austerity of performing her chores, I thought a different Sanskrit word or sutra might be a better fit for her theme. The Sanskrit word virya, which means ‘vigorous endeavor’, appears in the first chapter of the Yoga-sutras of Patanjali.

“Faith, vigor, memory, spontaneous absorption in the self, and discernment precede the state where only subconscious impressions on the mind remain.” YSP I.20

Visiting her childhood tree sparked a memory drawn from an impression on the mind of how Susan and her friend had faith that they could use scraps to build a boat upon which they could sail across the pond and how, with fiery determination, they built their boat.

Similarly, if we have faith in the ultimate benefits of yoga then that faith can inspire the fiery determination we need to build a yoga practice strong enough to carry us across the ocean of material existence into the realm of pure spiritual awareness.

No sooner had I shared my thoughts with Susan about how this sutra might be a better fit for her theme than I received a class design from another teacher in my Yoga Teacher Training program that referenced this very same sutra but in an entirely different way.

Susan’s colleague told a story that looked to the future rather than to a memory, employed a sun mudra as a symbol of vital energy rather than the Garuda mudra as an invocation of balance, and she designed a sequence that was completely different from Susan’s.

There are as many ways for yoga teachers to integrate a philosophical theme into a yoga class as there are yoga teachers to lead a class. We all have unique personal stories, experiences, and insights into how the teachings of yoga play out on our yoga mats… and in our lives.

How would you design a class around the theme of ‘fiery determination’?

Special thanks to Susan Malkus for inspiring this post and giving me permission to use her story.

Photo credits: Daphne, Francesco Ungaro, and Joseph Greve on Unsplash.

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