Yoga classes have begun to polarise. From the fast and sweaty vinyasa flow and Ashtanga yoga, to the restorative and Yin yoga classes that have emerged. They seem to be on two ends of a wide spectrum of modern postural yoga classes.
People turn to yoga for a range of different reasons. Perhaps you've come to it to feel stronger or more flexible, or you enjoy the heat and sweat that it can build. Perhaps you enjoy the stillness and calm that it offers, or the good nights sleep it gains you. You may have an injury or pain that you are looking to sort out, or perhaps you just want that elusive feeling of wellbeing. They are all good reasons to practice yoga, and finding the right approach for your practice is more than just the immediate feeling it leaves you with. Your practice should leave you feeling better than when you started, and progressively better in the long term.
You may be surprised that I even need to state this. But I regularly speak to practitioners and even yoga teachers who switch between two extreme styles of yoga practice in an effort to keep themselves balanced.
Taking a strong vinyasa class supplemented with a Yin or restorative class seems a simple contradiction in approach. It's nice to change pace and explore from time-to-time. But to pursue the challenge and energy which then leaves you needing restoration to enable you to continue this cycle seems worth reflecting on. It is a cycle we often undertake in life which we then replicate on our yoga mats.
Yoga practice is for the long term. It should support your primary aims as well as deepening your sense of internal balance with consistent practice.
The balance of yoga doesn't begin on the mat, it beings before you get there, with your intention and choice of how to practice.
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Life is busy and stressful but yoga can help give you peace of mind, health, strength and support. We talked about this and much more when I was recently invited as a guest on Steve Yabsley's lunchtime radio programme. So if you have 20 minutes, have a listen by pressing the play button below.
(Or find the full radio show on Listen Again here >)
I've recently been inspired by reading about minimalism as an approach to living. I've been enjoying how it reflects many values that I hold close, and that I've been cultivating through my study and practice of yoga. It has also inspired me to have a really good clear out of my home!
The idea of living simply with less to enjoy life more is one that has taken more prominence for me since becoming a yoga teacher. I teach viniyoga - yoga that is applied carefully and adapted to suit those who are participating. Viniyoga embodies a minimalist approach to yoga practice. It doesn't require a super heated yoga studio, or any special kit (no blocks, belts, bolsters or even mats required). Nor does it require a certain level of fitness or skill to participate. All you need is you, your body, your breath, and your attention. In fact this is why it initially appealed to me. I wanted to start practicing yoga at home but found the foam blocks, folding chair, bolster, strap and bricks used in class rather unwieldy and off-putting to home practice, and questioned how essential they really were. Upon discovering the simplicity of viniyoga I was hooked, home practice became encouraged, and there has been no looking back.
I often do use a sticky yoga mat, but at home I'm equally happy practicing on a carpet (or even floorboards if necessary as I did last week when I was away but it's a little less comfortable). I use my body's own weight to create resistance to help strengthen and energise as I practice the various postures (asana) of yoga.
Viniyoga has a minimalist approach to the repertoire of asana usually practiced. At it's core there are a carefully selected set of primary asana, each serving an important purpose. These asana are gradually explored in further and further depth, with a deepening emphasis on breath and focus and techniques around these as the practice advances. This makes it a very accessible form of yoga practice as you can deepen your yoga practice and continue to develop without the need for a gymnast's or dancer's body. Let's face it, if you started practicing yoga as an adult, that isn't a realistic ambition for most people.
And beyond the daily bodywork and breathwork to maintain and develop our health, yoga cultivates mindful compassionate living, minimising the dependence on material attributes in our lives so that we have space to spend each day in an enjoyable, meaningful way. A wonderful way to live with amazing potential.
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The debate is ongoing, should yoga be considered for the Olympic games?
Yoga competitions have been held for over a century, and there are many yoga practitioners who would support the competitive yoga movement. But equally many of the teachings of yoga philosophy, and many of the reasons some are drawn to the practice of yoga, work away from the notion of it being competitive.
Many people practice yoga precisely because you aren't in competition and it allows you space to escape from the daily struggle. You nurture the uncompetitive side of you, where you work at your own level, your own pace, challenging yourself to develop health, strength, mental and physical wellbeing and perhaps spiritual grounding and space. But there are many varied reasons for people to practice yoga, and for some it is largely athetic.
The practice that most of us see in classes, on DVDs and in our home practice, is athletic. Physical exercises to stretch, strengthen, develop stamina and stability. This is the visible side of yoga, the performance of yoga
postures (asana). The rest of the yoga teachings are largely invisible, not aimed at spectators. Teachings about attitudes, lifestyle, reflection, breath control, meditation. To sit cross-legged and see who can regulate the breathing well, or become realised and enlightened might not make great viewing!
Yoga is different things to different people, and none of them need conflict. For some it is physical development
and mastery, discipline, challenge, and these could all be aligned with developing the competitions of yoga into more formal Olympic Sport. It would be interesting to consider how the rules might differ from the rules of
gymnatics. The development of yoga asana has been quite influenced by the physical culture of gymnastics so there is certainly cross over that would need to be carefully defined.
The commercial side would have to be considered too. Yoga is big business, Bikram yoga has packaged and presented yoga into a neat and simple kit that has been rolled out globally and which affords him a forecourt full of Rolls Royces and diamond encrusted Rolexs. The posture sequence would surely complement his copyrighted sequence as he is in the
forefront of promoting it as an Olympic Sport. So the motivation of Yoga as Sport and who governs the sport would need to be considered.
There are pros and cons of course.
- Making it into a mainstream sport could encourage participation which then may lead practitioners beyond the physical into the deeper teachings. Many have discovered the joy of yoga practice through the appeal of an athetic practice.
- It could also work the other way, simplifying it and reducing it to a sport, losing too much along the way.
I'm not a supporter of the Olympic Yoga movement. More and more people are discovering yoga in their own way and it seems to have momentum of its own. The practice of yoga is already more athletic than anything else in most classes. Yet the teachings and experience of a fuller yoga practice speaks for themself. Olympic yoga could easily put off those who aren't competitive.
The idea of competing to be 'better' than someone else at yoga is exactly what Patanjali's Yoga Sutras, one of the essential ancient texts depicting the teachings of yoga, warn against as one of the pitfalls along the path of self development. A dead end that could take up all our energy until we realise too late that we have missed the point.
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I'm regularly asked to help people choose a Yoga class that will suit them. There are lots of styles, and flavours on offer in Bristol, so here are a few pointers and guidelines to help get you started:
1) What do you want to achieve?
Different styles of yoga offer different degrees of either physical or mental challenge and disclipline. What are you interested in initiially? Do you want to get fit, lose weight, become more grounded and centred, reduce stress and tension, aches and pains, relax more, have a physical or emotional injury, explore something personal beyond everyday life? Your personal goal will help direct which class would be most suitable. See the styles of yoga below to see where you might want to start.
2) Try the class
There isn't really any substitute for trying the class to see if you enjoy it as it is such a personal experience. Even if your friend loves the class, it just might not suit you. Try a few classes if you have the time, different types and different teachers. Most teachers are happy for you to come along and try their class and see if it is right for you. You are much more likely to stick with it if you find a class and a teacher you are happy with.
3) Enjoy the class!
The class should leave you feeling refreshed, relaxed, energised, calm, settled and more positive. An overall good feeling that should speak for itself. If you start to feel unwell or are in pain, feel frustrated, unsettled, uncomfortable, competitive, agitated, then perhaps the class doesn't suit you or try talking to your teacher.
4) Feel comfortable and confident in the teacher
You should feel comfortable in the class, and confident in the teacher so you can immerse yourself in the class. You should feel able to ask your teacher questions (before or after class usually or get his/her attention during the class) to help support you. As a beginner, or as you begin to deepen your practice and potentially encounter obstacles, a supportive and experienced teacher will help you work through these.
5) Challenging or relaxing yoga class?
Should you take a more challenging, intense or difficult class or a more gentle yoga class? This is where classes vary the most and finding something that suits you and suits your lifestyle is really important...
If you are relatively healthy and fit, then a more physically demanding, vigorous class would be fine for you. However if you have a really busy, full-on lifestyle and are a fast-paced person, then perhaps consider exploring a more calming, supportive Yoga class that will help balance your life. You might find yourself typically attracted to a strong, intense Yoga practice (e.g. Bikram yoga, Vinyasa Flow yoga or Ashtanga yoga), but you might find this just perpetuates your pace which ultimately might be unhelpful. People often find themselves burnt-out. Consider trying a different class and see what happens! You might initially think this is boring, but your personal challenge might be to stick with it and discover the hidden depths, rather than the obvious and immediate challenge of keeping up.
If you have an injury or medical condition, then a smaller class where the focus is on safe alignment and modifying the practice to suit each person in the class is recommended, with a well trained teacher who understands your condition.
If you are a bit sedentary, perhaps not too motivated or feel lethargic, why not try a more energising, vigourous class that challenges you and switches your pace. Ensure you work within your physical abilities, especially at first, but this could be a great Yoga practice for you.
6) Well trained teachers
Yoga is a huge and ancient subject. There is much to study and as yoga teachers we are always learning more. Along with the many Yoga postures, there are many breathing techniques that are learned over time, Yoga philosophy, anatomy and physiology, and lots more besides. We recommend at least two years teacher training to even begin to get to grips with the basics and be able to teach and adapt the class safely to suit the participants. Organisations such as the British Wheel of Yoga provide accreditation to meet this standard. (They are the only Yoga body to be approved by Sport England).
7) Yoga that fits your schedule
Regular practice is really important to gradually develop and deepen the benefits and practice safely. Finding a Yoga class that is convenient for you to get to, and is at a time that you can usually make, will give you the best chance of sticking with it. Also finding a teacher that can recommend some home practice that
8) Types of Yoga Classes
Here are a few 'types' or flavours of class to help orientate you. They are all Yoga and all dealing with the same things but might feel different and focus on slightly different aspects when you try them. So this is just a rough guide, feel free to add more descriptions below to help others choose a class...
~Hatha Yoga Classes~
Classic yoga postures which also incorporate a focus on the breathing. Variations on postures include staying in postures, or moving into them dynamically but more slowly. Classes can range from challenging to more gentle and relaxing so try the class or check with the teacher to see what they are teaching. They usually suit all levels from beginners so good for everyone. Most YogaSpace classes are Hatha Yoga or this next one, Viniyoga.
~Viniyoga Classes~ (what I teach)
Classic Yoga postures which you move into and out of dynamically with the breath, gradually building up to staying in the postures over time. Small classes where the teacher will help adapt the postures to suit the students and will offer optional challenges as you progress. Focus on breathing and gradually deepening and developing the breath to intensify the practice when the student is ready. Good classes for all levels including beginners as they are small classes adapted to suit you. Well trained teachers :-)
~Iyengar Yoga Classes~
Iyengar Yoga offers physically challenging classes where you hold classic yoga postures for a period of time to develop good strength. Strong focus on alignment, making use of equipment such as belts, blocks, bricks, chairs etc. to assist you in getting in to the posture. Less focus on breathing until a couple of years class attendance. Usually well trained teachers.
~Ashtanga Yoga Classes~
Ashtanga Yoga is a set sequence of dynamic movements which you learn over time and will work through each class. A physically demanding practice with focus on moving steadilly with the breath. Physically demanding and a longer class usually (1.5 - 2.5 hours). Good for physical stamina and an intense experience. Go carefully, especially at first.
~Bikram Yoga Classes~
Hot Yoga classes, offering a set sequence of 26 postures practiced in a hot (super-hot!) humidified room where students sweat and work hard in each pose. Often beginners will sit out some poses and just enjoy the intense heat and humidity. Teachers have learned a set class formula which Bikram Choudhury developed and has taught to all his teachers during their 9-week intensive teacher training programme. An intense experience and strong practice.
~Vinyasa Flow Yoga Classes~
Dynamic movements linking poses together and flowing the movements with the breath. Often a physically challenging and focusing practice which requires some coordination to join in and keep up. Variable teacher training, some good but some can be trained in only a month or few months so recommend finding out.
Try a class or a few classes and see how they suit you.
Please add more class descriptions or suggestions below to help others in finding the right class for them.
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