Where do you start yoga?
With the proliferation of different yoga styles today, it’s easy to get caught up in the drama of modern marketing and pricing schemes. There’s over a billion asanas, pranayama, anatomy cues, historical references, “trademarked” sequences - all mixed with kombucha drinking, kumbaya-singing long haired hippies who promise you bliss on the yoga mat. This is an exaggeration, but there is so much more than what we can scratch off the surface, and the more convoluted the yoga world gets, the more it demands considerate discourse and proper engagement.
You find the right yoga for you by considering first, what the practice means, and what do you want to take out of it. There’s numerous literature that promotes widespread democracy of thought - Krishnamutri, for example, has promoted inquisitiveness towards any philosophical teaching we introduce to our lives. There are different ways to arrive at the best type of yoga for your life, but here’s a good starting point: Take the good from it, and try to assimilate the teachings on different parts of your life.
Intention is everything.
We need to begin by asking ourselves: What do I want out of this?
Now, if you do not have the time to actively read up on the different yoga types, or are only concerned with the hyped “benefits” of a yoga body - then that is fine, and we celebrate all of the people who come to yoga with this in mind.
However, it would be highly recommended to beget more meaning by actively seeking out tradition. It is the only way yoga will be real for you, than a pure play physical practice ( not different from any forms of physical exercises, i.e. zumba or tennis ). It is important to know that yoga is more than just the physical.
What you intend - will come to you. So know that each practice is different, each yoga is different, and keep on practicing with an open mind, without any expectation of reward.
Yoga - What does it traditionally mean
This is my humble attempt to write what I have learned through the years, although this is , by no means, meant to be comprehensive or all-encompassing.
We always hear that yoga translates to “union” - but exactly, a union of what?
In order to understand the translation of this, we can thank BKS Iyengar for providing the famous quote “The union of the individual soul with the universal spirit.”
The innate realisation of one-ness mentioned in the sentiments of “All is one, one is all” is echoed here. We are all part of the universe, and the universe provides an abundance of gifts, if we are open to receive it.
Yoga is also derived from “yoke” - coming from an old anecdote from the Rigveda, one of the foremost authorities of knowledge at that time.The word is defined as the act of “rigging” the horse to the chariot, whereas later years, it would mean transformation or union in and through itself.
Like a horseman with the chariot and the horse, we often confound ourselves with different areas that require training in order to reach a spiritual path - Uniting the mind, body and spirit, so that all are in alignment with one another.
Yoga, according to Patanjali, (chitta vritti nirodha) also means “cessation of the fluctuations of the mind”. - Which takes a long time to fully understand. According to his premise, our actions and encounters are laden with impressions, actively inherited in the past, adding up to the present moment. We are also laden with “fluctuations” or incongruence in our daily actions, thoughts, and spirit. Yoga, specifically Ashtanga ( 8 Limbs ) is the path to stopping these fluctuations so that the mind, body and spirit are one, and we are able to reach the fullest potential of our spiritual self.
Union - of all
This asks us to take a long hard look at ourselves and recognize the illusion that we are separate from the spirit. That this “yoga” practice is an ever-changing inheritance of the present moment. You - and your essence, is not separate from the other, or the universe around you.
It is also usually referred to as a method - Meaning, that there are components that make up yoga, and that this practice, when taken with an open mind, and clear intentions, will liberate you from a lot of the heavy burdens from life. Burdens that have manifested as illusions acquired in the past. It is also a method because a LOT ( dare I say, ALL ) of the learnings you acquire through yoga is accessed only if you put the learnings into practice. It is a discipline that is only learned through an active practice.
We consciously say “practice” because we all admit that there is no physical end goal - that the end goal is the practice in itself. Quite oxymoronic, but it will make sense when the practice starts teaching you to release the rational mind of expectations, and practice out of devotion and love.
Modern yoga now is only known through the physical properties of it - most prominently, the work of Asanas (postures). Asana means “comfortable seat” - which gives you a foray into how people are supposed to feel when they are enacting the poses. People should feel extremely relaxed and secured, as though they are seated in a chair. (Hence, it is not advisable to push the body to extremes : If you have a hard time breathing or exerting yourself in an asana, then it hasn’t fully began).
Asanas also have a “comfortable” aspect to it, when referenced through the context of a meditation practice. In a way, “asana” is being comfortable in Lotus, despite being in the same stillness for several minutes.
There are billions of variations of yoga poses; almost as many as the people practicing yoga itself. It is for this reason that it is almost impossible to master ALL of them in a lifetime.
It is good to arm yourself with an attitude of openness and non-judgement, take the good from the practice and try to assimilate it in your daily life. The posture should be a good mixture of mindfulness, strength, balance, challenge. Even seemingly simple poses like Tadasana
( Mountain pose - Standing )
A word on Health Benefits
From an anatomical point of view, yoga strengthens the body through different means. It increases oxygen levels in our blood through pranayama, increases metabolism by activating various parts of our body - endocrine system ( being responsible for hormones in the body ), enabling flow of digestion, strengthens the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous system, cleans the lymph nodes, increases lung capacity, increases muscle strength,strengthens bones and supportive tissues of our joints and strengthens the core so corrective therapy can be introduced to the spine, calms anxiety, regulates hormones, stimulates the spine. I can go on and on about all of the wonders it can bring.
I also find, at least for me, that the practice introduces “balance” - and allows you to confront issues within yourself that you may not have noticed before. This balance goes from anything related to flexibility of muscle groups - to providing adequate training to support the spine.
The benefits are tremendous. But only if you are able to do the practice calmly and properly - preferably through the guidance of a teacher.
Yoga Class Names
I’m writing this from the point of view of a student of two disciplines: ( Hatha/Vinyasa ) and Ashtanga. I practice asana at least 3x per week.
Note that I am describing these classes within the context of Asana and what I have experienced in Singapore. These classes may also introduce brief periods of pranayama to complement the benefits of the practice.
Here is what I’ve learned from the popular use of terminology found in various studios I’ve attended:
Power Yoga / Power Vinyasa / Vinyasa Flow
“Vinyasa” is a set of postures that are linked together by the breath. They are traditionally responsible for creating internal heat very quickly ( Warm up with 5 Surya Namaskar A’s and B’s and you’ll know what I’m talking about.).
This internal heat is important for a variety of reasons : Warming up the body for more flexibility for the poses to come, Increasing oxygen intake through the combination of postures and ujjayi breathing, Revving up the metabolism for fat burning and muscle building ( through a combination of isotonic and isometric contractions of muscles - but don’t worry, this won’t necessarily bulk up the body like the Hulk.)
“Power” yoga as a term has been popularized by Bryan Kest (LA based teacher) who got inspired by the power that yogic discipline brings - clarity of the mind, strength of the body, alignment of spiritual practice to attain growth. ( His classes are super empowering, please do visit him when you get the chance to visit Santa Monica )
This type of practice is typically faster paced, so one movement is linked with each IN and OUT breath. Every sequence / class is different, and usually is crafted by the teacher depending on the levels of the student. This is traditionally done on a non-airconditioned, non-heated room, with only minimal props. Adjustments are encouraged but not necessarily required for big classes.
Hatha is derived from Ha+Tha - which translates to “sun” and the “moon”. As a result, the practice revolves around balancing energies of the body such that energy moves more freely along the spine, and consequently, the entire body systems. It is great for therapeutic benefits - posture correction, cultivating mindfulness, understanding the depth of an asana before progressing towards the next. The Hatha Pradipika is one of the most revered yogic texts in Sanskrit - that has detailed a series of postures linked with therapeutic benefits. However, in most classes we find today, we don’t ascribe to the exact same sequence - Modifications through props and postures are used to tailor the sequence for students’ abilities.
Good for people who want: Slower, more in-depth descriptions of Asanas (“holding” a pose for several breaths enables people to get deeper into the posture), encourage flexibility, introduce energy balancing by a good mixture of challenge and restorative postures that work through all movements of the spine : supine, prone, lateral, extension, flexion.
Zen / Restorative / Yin Class
Yin classes are typically very relaxing and restorative in nature. Derived from the Chinese word “Yin” - the sequence is typically designed to allow muscle flexibility through relaxation and letting go. Each posture is held for a few breaths, while practitioners are encouraged to be mindful of the present moment and condition of the mind and body. The aim of yin classes is to encourage students to let go of a lot of internal resistance of their bodies, and use the time to contemplate on peace and surrender.
Ashtanga has been called an all-encompassing form of yoga, as it describes tenets of rightful living, as well as physical properties like Asana and Pranayam. The typical movements in Ashtanga are sourced from the Ashtanga sequences - a “set” sequence that has been detailed ( specific number of poses, number of breathing counts, succession of one pose after another), taught by TKV Desikachar and Krishnamacharya, the father of Ashtanga Yoga, consequently the teacher of Patthabi Jois, Iyengar, Indra Devi, and others.
Ashtanga is the source of vinyasa-based movements (movements linked together with breath, creating internal heat of the body) and gradual introduction of challenging postures that build up one after the next. Through the design of the Ashtanga sequences, there is also a principle of posture and counter-posture, which creates a balanced effect on one’s spine and wellbeing.
Contrary to popular belief, Ashtanga was once used in yoga therapy to provide corrective measures to any ailments. It was said that Krishnamacharya used to give Jois a sick man, and as a test, was asked to “cure” him.
Most Ashtanga based classes now do “Ashtanga Led” - where everyone does the set series of postures together. But, there are also some Ashtanga classes that tailor efforts based on the student’s levels, so not all of the Primary sequence are usually practiced.
Fun fact: In the olden days, they practice the Full Primary series every day (1.5 hours ) and do devotional work in the afternoon, whilst sometimes practicing again on sundown!
Mysore Style, on the other hand, is self-based study ( under the mentorship of a teacher / guru ) that was inspired by Patthabi Jois, as this was the way it was learned in the old days. Mysore style requires the student’s dedication and attention to memorise the movements, and is only introduced to new postures when the teacher feels they are ready to do so. The entire Primary sequence is typically finished within 1 hour and 30 minutes, but can also extend to shorter or longer hours, depending on the student’s availability and the teacher’s advice.
Because people practice on their own, people will be at different levels of experience and different points of the sequence when they practice - But all will be in the quiet solitude of a shared space and energy.
A brief note on Hot Classes / Bikram / and the likes
I have an unpopular, controversial view about this. I do not support Hot classes in hot, humid Asian countries. ( Although, with yoga packages and class timings, sometimes you don’t have a choice but to attend them anyway). Any class that has a temperature beyond the healthy human temperature (37 degrees) is considered quite risky.
The answer lies in primarily how the body works.
- Breathing Reason
When we exercise, our bodies encounter increased heat, leading to the importance of “breathing” properly ( i.e. Not panting, using the Nose, ujjayi breath so the oxygen is absorbed in similar temperatures of the body’s internal system). When we heat our bodies, it becomes even more so difficult to breathe, causing panting, shortness of breath, nausea. Pair that with all the humidity around you, the sweat sauna environment makes it almost impossible to breathe.
I’ve never quite believed that “nausea” is OK, and completely ‘normal’ - after all, your body is giving you signals that there is something wrong. It is the body’s signal that there is a lack of oxygen, and this deficiency is not good in the long term.
- Heat Reason
Have you ever cooked a chicken in an oven? Notice what happens?
After cooking it in an oven, the meat tenderizes, and if you’re lucky enough the meat falls off the bone. It might sound great on a chicken, but imagine that this is exactly what we’re doing to our bodies again and again.
The connective tissues of our joints weaken, calcium is depleted from the bones, and we become fragile even before old age. And because we switch from hot rooms to cold rooms, the back and forth effect of these rapid changes in temperatures also affect the quality of our muscles. It is known that you become more flexible in hot rooms, but also far more prone to over-exerting yourself (or over-stretching), causing more bad than good.
There are more reasons, but it is safe to say that I am not yet fully convinced of the validity of Hot yoga to be considered a proper type of yoga.
I've also practiced Bikram yoga in the past - And if you may have noticed, the man has been burdened by a lot of controversy in his private life. The sequence in itself works all the major groups in the body, and aren't necessarily that Intermediate(which makes it accessible to people). However, their teachings on Breathing and Postural analysis deeply conflicts with some of my learnings in Ashtanga. So, apart from the avid discomfort, I have learned to simply stop practicing that form of yoga.
Kirtan, Bhakti, Kundalini
Kirtan, Bhakti, Kundalini yoga are types of devotional practices, usually done with song and dance. Kundalini, specifically is done with the aim of spiritual awakening, or awakening the “serpent” in one’s spine. It is believed to clear blockages in order to reach higher spiritual planes. The premise of these practices have roots in vibrational energy - hence Mantras play a big role in the practice. They are designed for healing and celebration within a community space.
Aerial yoga, Rope yoga, Acrobatic yoga
These types of yoga are usually a variation of Hatha and Vinyasa with introduction of tools and acrobatics.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with wanting to incorporate tools in the practice ( Iyengar was a big proponent of using props and modifications), but I believe students should be mindful of their individual training needs and aspirations. If the tools allow the body to progress, that is wonderful. But we shouldn't let it become a crutch because we rob the body’s ability to train for proper strength to do the postures correctly and strongly. (Hence, my discomfort with using cloth ropes to hold a person upside down on Headstand. It robs the person of the chance to properly train core, arm and shoulder muscles to create a stable base for themselves, on their own.)
Acrobatic yoga allows practitioners to access their bodies in a wider range of movements that won't be possible without the help of another person; so I think it is still very beneficial in cultivating strength.
Choose the appropriate one for you - you can consider these variations as “additional spice” to Traditional yoga routines.
As yoga students, we have to commit ourselves to lifelong learning of the traditions that have shaped and breathed life into today’s practice. It is this lifelong exchange of learning and understanding that makes the lineage come to life, this is what makes yoga more than just a promise to one’s self, but something tangible that can be taken off the mat and into everyday life.
Whether you’re practicing for a few days or trying to establish a home routine ( which I will talk about in a separate post) there is always something to absorb from a meaningful, well balanced practice.
The most important thing is not to worry about whatever it is that you’ve done in the past, or worry about the future. The perfect time to start is always now.