For the new yoga initiate, it’s easy to just go to some gym where they don’t chant or meditate or start talking about some crazy code of honor or swearing off eating meat.
But sooner or later, it seems that when people do enough yoga, they start looking for something more than just the poses.
First of all, for any who are there already, great! That’s the First Big Mystery of Yoga: Yoga has lasted thousands of years because it’s much more than some stretching, some poses, and a couple breathing techniques. This next step is equally important, and it can get a little overwhelming: choosing the right school of yoga.
Choosing a yoga class to regularly attend can be difficult. It’s important to know what one is throwing themselves into, and as these current generations come into yoga without parental or peer guidance, those sanskrit words can look pretty intimidating.
Remember walking into the cafeteria and noticing that most of the people sitting at the tables looks remarkably like their neighbors (except your own table, of course)?
The yoga world is not above cliques.
Even Christianity is divided into denominations. Choosing neighbors can be the difference between hating yoga more than a kid hates Brussels sprouts and adult swim, and making yoga an integral part of life.
What follows are some rough analogies between the cafeteria cliques and those Sanskrit terms that will hopefully make choosing a yoga school of thought a little easier. Please bear in mind that, just as with cliques, these are sweeping over-generalizations, and for those within the yoga community, take them all with a grain of salt.
Vinyasa—the Honor Society
We all remember the Honor Society kids. The class presidents, valedictorians—the kids who exemplified what education “should” look like would be Vinyasa yogis. Vinyasa is the merging of the Eastern asanas (postures) to the Western aerobics. The term “Vinyasa” itself simply means “wise progression (of movement).” That class called “yoga” at the rec center? Chances are it’s what we would call Vinyasa yoga.
This is (arguably) the easiest class for first-timers to just walk in to, as teachers will regularly switch up their routines, so there’s no asshole three poses ahead in the sequence showing off his moves. Vinyasa’s physical practice is identified by a creative non-traditional structuring of poses sequenced together in such a way that they “flow” together. That’s it. It’s pretty easy to grasp, right?
Ashtangis are a rough bunch. Sometimes lovingly referred to as “fun-haters” by others in the yoga community, Ashtangis adhere to some of the strictest codes of honor within the realm of yoga. The word Ashtanga itself means “eight limbs,” of which asana (the poses) is only one.
The key idea in Ashtanga is practice, practice, practice. These are the folks who will be up at 5:30 in the morning to get an hour or more of practice in and stop eating anything after 4:30 PM. When this is taken to the extreme, they can become (in my teacher’s words) Ashtangarexics.
There are six yoga sequences primarily used in Ashtanga; the one you should know about is simply called “The Primary Series.” The Primary Series is not just stretches—there are movement sequences (called “vinyasas”) that chain the poses together very similar to calisthenics, making the sequence very aerobic. If you’re looking for the easy stretching class, don’t wander in to a led Primary Series (look for Restorative instead). For most of us, getting through the entire Primary Series may take as long as up to five years or more, practicing on average 25 days a month. That’s dedication.
On an added note, there’s a subset of Ashtangis that have a specific practice you’ll see called Mysore. This is for advanced students only. Think of it as a club, complete with secret handshake and everything. When you’ve been taking enough Ashtanga classes to get in to Mysore, your teacher will let you know.
At first glance, there’s not a whole lot that separates individual Iyengar practices from Ashtanga. This makes a certain amount of sense, as B.K.S. Iyengar and Sri K. Pattabhi Jois (the “fathers” of Iyengar and Ashtanga Yoga, respectively) had the same teacher. It is only when one commits to either school that the subtle differences between them emerge.
Where Ashtangis focus on doing the practice for a long time, Iyengar yogis focus on doing the practice right. If the Ashtanga mantra is “practice, practice, practice,” then the Iyengar mantra would be “technique, sequence, timing.” Rather than “rep it out” the way that jocks might, Iyengar yogis focus on perfecting their alignment with the aid of props: bolsters, blocks, straps and so on to achieve optimum results, allowing the elderly, the ill and the infirm to enjoy the benefits of physical practice just as deeply as their Ashtangi cousins.
Anusara—the Expelled Cool Kids
Remember “The Scandal”? It happened years ago, but everyone still remembers. They can only refer to it as the Capital-S “Scandal.” Something happened: someone did drugs or got hurt or hurt someone else or whatever, but it all got wildly blown out of proportion; long story short, that cool kid you (thought you) knew wound up expelled; last you heard, they went to New York and were doing something that you secretly thought was awesome.
Anusara Yoga found itself scandalized when its originator, John Friend, fell into hot water. What matters isn’t what happened to who or who did what, but Anusara is now in a bit of a crisis. The new leaders are struggling to hold on to what are still valuable core values.
Anusara’s physical practice was derived from Iyengar’s, but the influence is now barely (if at all) recognizable. A focus on heart-opening postures and invocations edges their practice towards the more spiritual side of yoga—this makes them some of the most loving yogis out there, eager to share their warmth and care as if you were one of the family.
Just do everyone a favor and don’t bring up The Scandal.
Jivamukti—the Vegan Kinda Hippy Crowd
Jivamukti yogis follow similar physical practices as Ashtangis. These yoga cousins get along well, but instead of the beat-it-into-your-head practice talk, Jivamukti yogis instead are marked by an adherence to a strict vegan, animal rights and environmentalist philosophy and diet. Veganism is not a requirement to take a Jivamukti class; the physical practice itself can be just as fiery as the Primary Series, but following the philosophy can lead to a deeper experience.
Jivamukti speaks well to dancers and musicians; the teachers will often not take a pose while teaching a class, stressing the importance of being able to learn by listening and trying things out in one’s own body (do your Triangle, not the Triangle of the person who’s been doing it for 15 years). Classes will be full of inspirational music and often include chanting as well.
Added bonus: advanced Jivamukti yogis, from prolonged adherence to a vegan diet, tend to be great cooks. Even for non-vegans, eating their food is always a treat.
They’re hot (literally; Bikram classes are held in over 100-degree Fahrenheit studios). They’re popular. They drive all the fast cars and are seen at all the hottest parties. Bikram Choudhury’s 26-pose sequence is something of a controversy in the yoga community. Is it yoga? Is it even good for you? Well, there’s all kinds of articles on it. The best thing is to go to one and decide for yourself.
One should note: there are other hot yoga studios out there, and some places that just call what they do “hot yoga.” Not all hot yoga is Bikram Yoga.
Bikram yogis can be some of the most fiercely fiery folks out there. However, Bikram’s intentions appear to be focused on appearances; Bikram sings that if the goal is to have Madonna’s arms and a six pack, look no farther than his heated studios and sequences. Forget the chanting. Forget the Oms. Forget the thoughtfulness and mindfulness and all that spiritual bullcrap—wanna look great in some Lululemons? Bikram says he can get us there.
Remember those gothy girls that sat in the corner and probably cast spells over anyone who looked at them the wrong way? Those are Kundalini yogis, and here’s the secret: they actually may have magic powers. Perhaps the polar opposite of Bikram Yoga, Kundalini Yoga is a primarily feminine school of yoga, focused on breathwork, spinal flexion and the female divine.
Kundalini Yoga is possibly one of the most powerful forms of yoga practiced in today’s society. It won’t yield the same results as the more physical practices, but it is very difficult to have a prolonged Kundalini practice and not feel something. While we call it “subtle” energy, when it starts to move, it feels like anything but subtle. This can have profound and powerful effects on a practitioner. As such, it is the practice I most heavily recommend is practiced with supervision.
Yin—the Coffee Klatch
Yin Yoga is the physical practice that asthmatics, smokers or otherwise un-athletic people can fall in love with. It is known for holding poses for a long time to deepen stretches. Fear not, no one is going to balance in Garudasana (Eagle Pose) for ten minutes. Expect a gentle warm up to get in to the body, and from there, a lot of ground work where body weight slowly—over the course of three to seven minutes per pose—adds to and deepens stretches.
Yin’s physical practice is based more on centering the mind for meditation than showing off athleticism. It’s not uncommon for students (or teachers) to mentally check out for minutes on end, making this a great class for dealing with anxiety. However, Yin yoga should not be taken any more lightly than the other physical practices. While yin does not have its yogis performing handstands and jump-backs, the poses can become incredibly intense as they deepen over time. Throw on the latest volume of Buddha Bar and zone out for an hour!
Perhaps it’s part of the practice, or just the people who favor it, but Yin yogis seem to be some of the friendliest, chattiest bunch in the whole kitten kaboodle (when not in the middle of their seven-minute shoulder-stand). It is possible that because of their focus on meditation, Yin yogis tend to make the best listeners.
Biased bonus: Yin yogis usually have the best musical selection out there. Steal their playlist.
This is all meant to illustrate that there is not one single, simple path to Enlightenment, Peace or Happiness. Sorry.
However, there are some things I have noticed in my research that appear to be more universal:
1) There is not a single school of yogic thought, not one in all of my experience, that forces its students to adhere to a specific religion. There are mentions of the gods and the texts of Hinduism and Buddhism, yes, but these are not integral to the practice; they supplement an education that is more physical in nature and are only there to explain some questions that pop up. Devout Christians, Muslims and even Atheists can still practice (and gain benefits from) yoga.
2) Doing yoga does not inherently make someone a better person. We have a term, “Bhakti yogi,” which signifies people who don’t practice anything related to yoga as we recognize it in the West, but by their own moral and ethical actions fulfill what we could consider a healthy yogic lifestyle. Yogis are still humans. They cry, they shout and sometimes they fart in public; they are no better or worse than anyone else on this planet.
3) Everyone within a class is different. Just as there were the occasional jerks in the coffee klatch and the goth kid who opened up (but still sat with their friends), not all Ashtangis are fun-haters, nor all Bikram yogis materialistic sociopaths, nor all Jivamukti yogis vegangelicals trying to force tofu and kombucha down everyone’s throats. These are huge, sweeping tongue-in-cheek generalizations meant to help make those big foreign words look a little less intimidating.
Ultimately, the school does not matter.
There’s a great line in the movie Ip Man, where the martial arts master who would become Bruce Lee’s teacher says to a rival, “What matters is not the school, but the person.” Our next great philosopher yogi could come from the heated halls of Bikram after a revolutionary enlightenment. A man may find himself drawn by the seductive coils of Kundalini yoga. The leader of Anusara was not above scandal.
What matters is finding the class that serves, fuels and makes you come back to the mat time and time again, and what’s wild is that that may change from day to day or teacher to teacher. I love the fiery practice of the Primary, but when I subbed in for a Restorative class, preparing for it gave me one of my favorite practices, ever.
So when someone says such a way of yoga is the right way, or (even worse) the only way, that’s a big giant red flag that you should not be practicing from that teacher. Your yoga should be—must be—the yoga that’s right for you, and sometimes, the best way to find out what that is is to get your asana (that’s a yoga pun) down to the studio nearest you and just try out everything.
Really though, try the kombucha.
Kevin Macku is a 20-something fledgeling yogi with a love of words. He is a trained actor who occasionally appears in local movies and on stage. His preferred methods of expression are based in movement: Suzuki’s Training for the Classical Actor, Viewpoints and Butoh to name a few, all of which benefit from the practice of yoga. In the midst of a rigorous physical practice, he discovered he was undergoing a spiritual transformation, and began to document the experience. These entries can be found at http://doafy.posterous.com/. Kevin himself can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Editor: Kate Bartolotta