The High School Cafeteria Guide to Choosing Your Yoga Class. ~ Kevin Macku

Via elephant journal
on Jan 22, 2013
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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 new 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?

Ashtanga—the Jocks

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.

ashtanga-yoga-primary-series-posterThe 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.

There exists a subset of Ashtanga out there called Mysore. This is mostly for advanced* students. Think of it as a club, complete with secret handshake and everything. While most of us tend to hear “Mysore” for the first time and think it has to do with sore muscles (or was that just me?), it’s really just the name of the city in India where the style came from.

*In yogic terms, “advanced” does not mean “more flexible;” rather, it means more dedicated to a daily practice.

Iyengar—the Brains

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 the 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 Cool Expelled Kids

“The Scandal.” It happened years ago, but everyone still remembers. They can only refer to it as the Capital-S “Scandal:” someone did drugs or got hurt or hurt someone else or whatever, but it all got wildly blown out of proportion and the details were lost in the mix; 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 beliefs.

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 Kinda Hippy Vegan Crowd

Jivamukti Nyc teachers yoga naked for Peta
Jivamukti Nyc teachers yoga naked for Peta

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.

Bikram—the Preps

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.

BreatheMat @ BikramsMetrotown - RonSombilongallery (274)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.

Kundalini—the Goths/Witches

Source: via Danielle on Pinterest
Source: via Danielle on Pinterest

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 may actually totally 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 feminine 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 in class, when it starts moving, it feels like anything but “subtle.” This movement can have profound and powerful effects on a practitioner. As such, Kundalini Yoga is the practice I most strongly 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. Yin practices are known for having students hold 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.

solitudeYin’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 kit ‘n kaboodle (when not in the middle of their seven-minute shoulder-stand). It’s also 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, Karma 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.

KMTCK-4 WEBKevin 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/. Like his work? Kevin himself can be reached via Facebook or at [email protected].

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~

Editor: Kate Bartolotta


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Comments

56 Responses to “The High School Cafeteria Guide to Choosing Your Yoga Class. ~ Kevin Macku”

  1. Amy says:

    Clever, funny and thought-provoking. Nicely done!

  2. Abagini says:

    Great article. I find myself to be a blend of all. Teaching yin at a hot studio, being vegan, focusing on alignment, taking flow classes, and I still like the spinal warm ups from Kundalini. Also practice the 8 limbs from astanga.

  3. Vision_Quest2 says:

    Power Yoga – the wonks from the Drama Club …

  4. Cyndi says:

    Love. Love. Love. A little satire and self humility goes a long ways.

  5. edieyoga says:

    Lovely…..great sense of humor, great points of view….

    But I do want to say that I don't think Anusara is derived from Iyengar….John Friend studied it but the only thing they have in common is they are alignment based. The sequences are nothing like each other. And how the alignment is taught is distinctive….Anusara was not derived from Iyengar. It was informed by it you might say but they have nothing in common.

    Sorry, pet peeve of mine….thanks for humoring me. And of course, in your eyes I may be all wrong….Feel free to let me know….
    Be well. Namaste.

  6. Chris Guzik says:

    I think it's incorrect to say that Mysore style Ashtanga classes are for advanced students only. It is actually an appropriate way for absolute beginners to start – one pose at a time, taking ownership of one's practice from the beginning under the personal guidance of a teacher. Walking into a led class where you have to do the entire primary series while breathing in accordance with the teacher's count is for advanced students. A lot of studios offer "intro to ashtanga" classes which may be most appropriate for someone who wants to be walked through part of the series in a led format.

  7. Heidi says:

    Fun, helpful article! But – ooh – you're gonna get it from the Bikrams. Of the three months I attended, there was constant instructor-chatter about the physical benefits of breathing through your nose in a sauna. (Allah help you if you had the slightest concern that it might not be the right class for you). :-)

  8. Vision_Quest2 says:

    Which clique (or kula) are the old school hatha folks – the Superannuated High School Kids?

    Because man, every year a new crop of kids … but some "fail to graduate" if you know what I mean … (sigh)

    I don't identify with "The Breakfast Club" of the yin folks, because trendiness is becoming passé again …

  9. Tera says:

    great to laugh!! love how you say, "even aethiests" LOL so rude!!! i would say ESPECIALLY aethiets!!! we love deconditioning ourselves from limiting belief systems and yoga/meditation is the perfect tool to discard these kind of mental trappings.

  10. Vanessa says:

    Bhakti yoga= Glee Club :-)

  11. 1ofThoseAtheists says:

    Hi there! Fun article! I hope I'm not intruding; if I am please delete me. As one of the "Even Atheists" I personally have great difficulty finding a class/teacher that isn't either heavily focused on … lets say an alternative reality version of anatomy and physics, or else with the goal of helping Type A personality marathoner types avoid crippling themselves with too much running – I refer to them in my head as classes for hippies and classes for yuppies respectively. Nothing against hippies or yuppies, I'm just not one of either. Actually because some of my friends are hippies, I probably have more sympathy in that direction. Does one of the above styles (or others altogether, maybe) focus on the physical poses and flows without too much of the chakras and energy visualization stuff while at the same time not being weirdly competitive and jock-ish and/or more-yoga-than-thou? Maybe it's more about the teacher, though, and I just have to keep trying places. I had a teacher that I liked for years, though I don't know what school she came from – she just taught "yoga" (no qualifier) out of a church hall, but then I had to move, and I haven't found another class I can keep taking long term. Thoughts and suggestions welcome, and if I'm intruding or being offensive in some way I apologize. Thanks!

  12. kmacku says:

    This is one of those cases where Mysore style is actually kind of right there. Again, I was agnostic before teacher training, and the Ashtanga-based practice is very physical. I could list all of the reasons here, but here's someone else's take on it: http://www.elephantjournal.com/2012/08/10-reasons

    If you arrive after the opening invocation, there's no chanting, there's no gods, there's no spirituality. It's you and your practice, and your teacher will give you only the poses that are right for you to have (the ones your body is right for). You will not start, stop, or practice the same pose as anyone else at any given time, so you don't have to worry about anyone looking better than you in "your" pose, nor some egocentric teacher who wants to get the whole class (or its one shining star) into Bird-of-Paradise Pose.

    As the discussion above has implied, finding a good Mysore instructor is half of the battle, but if you can find it, you can get yourself into a great physical practice that's custom-built for you, but still has the backing of generations of tutelage.

    Anyone who just teaches "yoga" is likely teaching Vinyasa-style yoga, which is markedly absent of a discernable "style". The trouble with calling it Vinyasa yoga is that it really does come down, again, to teachers. Every teacher in Vinyasa is going to be different—some don't even om before/after class, some talk about the gods during, some have you dance during class…it's very difficult to know what you're going in to.

  13. HeatherM says:

    Funny article and good title. "HIGH SCHOOL CONFIDENTIAL" would have been good too.

    But….don't you think you are making a lot of general comments here about a lot of practices? Hm, Don't you think it is difficult to really access a practice until you have ventured into it? Re: "Ashtangis are a rough bunch", "At first glance there’s not a whole lot that separates individual Iyengar practices from Ashtanga".

    Studied folks in these traditions would not agree. I certainly do not. The means is the same but the end is different. That is, the techniques are only the end point to a greater means. The techniques in each of these practices are quite different.

    "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."

    This may be true but only partially. I say this because today people are offered so many choices they bounce around from one style to another and one teacher to another (sort of like the flavor of the week syndrome). Most serious students of yoga will agree that having stayed with one primary teacher served them the best and well rather than going from pillar to post. In yoga, the teachings are to help you not just follow the whims of the mind but to learn to watch them rather than become a puppet to it.

    Yoga does not go outward it goes down and deep…even dirty, if you will!

    "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."

    Right on! That's why I do not and will not buy into the thing about Ashtanga-yoga being for everyone. What about the student who had 5 knee operations, the guy with a slipped disc (all those forward bends will kill your back), the woman who weighs 210 lbs and the list goes on.

    As Swami Rama said, 'there is no superior path….it is inferior to think so."

    Yeah, try out everything, but also give it a fair chance, taste and trial. One shot is not enough!

  14. Joe Sparks says:

    Whatever yoga or exercise regimen one chooses, safety for one's body should be the number one concern. Some poses or exercises do not make any anatomical sense and should be avoided.

  15. Rose says:

    This reminds me of YogaDawg's piece that he did years ago compairing yoga styles with high school cliques only with more depth with a lot more bite.
    http://www.yogadawg.com/styles.htm

  16. Beej Galvan says:

    This was hilarious! Some things never change!.. happy to be a cool kid living on the edge..I was doing that when I was 14 too, thank Goddess.

  17. […] The High School Cafeteria Guide to Choosing Your Yoga Class. ~ Kevin Macku […]

  18. kimberlylowriter says:

    Ha, ha! Just read this.

    Funny, I am an Ashtangi and I avoid athletics and jocks like the plague in high school.

  19. Viriam Kaur says:

    Awesome! Loved it! Laughed and nodded a lot, thanks for your hard work putting all of this together! And….the Kambucha with Chia is AWESOME, Thank-you Kenvin.
    Sat Nam, from an Ashtangi, Iyengar-e, turned Kundalini Yogini :)

  20. alybeangal says:

    Haha! I love it! Quick question, did you forget Kripalu?
    I really enjoyed this though, inspired me to expand beyond Yin and Vinyasa!

  21. Dechen Karl Thurman says:

    From the title, I thought this was going to be a cliche boring article. Yet this writer found a way to distinguish the styles and the "cliques" based on their positive traits so it doesn't come across as favoring one style or knocking another. I like to respond to criticisms of the western yoga scene as high schoolish with a "Hell yeah!" The highschoolishness is a testament to the rejuvenating side effects of a yoga sadhana, or daily practice.

  22. Alya says:

    I enjoyed this a lot, mainly because, in spite of being
    a “brainy” Iyengar teacher from Manila who always strives to do it right, I hate it when arrogance or self-righteousness get into the picture. Let’s all enjoy the practice, too, challenges, frustrations and all. And yes, if you’re happy and respectful of all, the school really won’t matter. Best regards and keep writing.

  23. Learning to swim is a very daunting task. I recently overcame my 20+ years of swimming. I have sat on the sideline and watching everyone else have fun, but me. I tried taking several swimming courses over the years, This video is my testimonial to the current swim course I am in.

  24. mcat17 says:

    I like bhakti yoga

  25. Melina says:

    Great post. I was checking constantly this blog and

    I’m inspired! Extremely helpful info particularly the remaining part :) I care

    for such info much. I was looking for this particular information for a long time.

    Thanks and best of luck.

  26. I enjoyed this article very much as my own yogic journey has led me through Iynegar, Vinyasa, Bikram and Yin. I've found them all supportive and/or transformative at different times. However, I've never studied yoga or taken any training so having the different "schools" laid out like this was helpful.

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