Establishing a long-term hatha yoga practice is difficult.
Starting to do so as an over-65 senior is especially challenging.
Not that I am a stranger to yoga. After a few initial classes in the late 1960’s in Berkeley, I took private yoga classes with T. Krishnamacharya, the grandfather of the major current yoga schools in the West, while I was living in South India as a Fulbright Scholar.
But then came many years of a very sedentary lifestyle until a medical crisis 12 years ago reminded me that I had a body that needed some attention. I then began, at first very reluctantly, to take one to two weekend yoga classes at my local YMCA and vowed to myself that upon retirement I would develop a daily practice.
Always reflect carefully before making promises. I retired last year and found myself taking only one weekly yoga class and hazily remembering my dusty commitment to daily practice.
When I finally acted on my original intent, the process of implementing my vow proved more difficult than I expected as I found myself faced with an overwhelming number of nearby yoga studios and teachers. After all, I live in Berkeley.
How to go about choosing the six to seven classes per week that would work for me?
I decided I would sample a number of unfamiliar beginning yoga classes at local studios and then make a decision.
The result is this primer laying out the 12 main factors I considered important in making my decision which I now offer to you:
1. Style of Practice.
There are many forms of yoga currently being taught in the U.S., both those learned at the feet of teachers in India and those developed by Western acolytes assimilating traditional techniques and creating new forms of practices.
Although all of these may consider themselves under the general rubric of “hatha yoga,” the variations are tremendous: from relaxing positions held in stillness in restorative yoga to very vigorous athletic workouts found in power yoga.
Some classes include breath work (pranayama) and others leave more time for meditation (dhyana). Chanting in Sanskrit is an integral part of practice in some studios at the beginning and end of class. New students need to figure out what their bodies and minds need and this will probably mean trying out a variety of classes.
2. Philosophy of Teacher.
Each teacher is different, offering up his own interpretation of what the inner and outer practice of yoga is all about.
Some teachers dwell on integration of the body with the mind, others concentrate solely on physical alignment and some speak extensively about spiritual development.
All teachers take their training and shape it into their own. The variation is as marked as the difference among individual personalities.
Try a class with more than one teacher to understand how each teacher’s philosophy may fit with your needs.
3. Length of Class.
Classes are usually a minimum of one hour to one and one-half hours. But a vigorous one-hour class can provide more physical movement than an hour and a half class of a gentler form. Once again, it is important to try out different classes to find what feels right.
4. Size of Class.
Most studios need at least eight students in every class to survive. Many classes, such as those at the YMCAs, tend to be much much larger. Smaller classes allow the teacher to provide more individual attention to students, which can be important to beginners.
The amount of attention can also vary greatly among teachers as some walk around the room and assist with poses and some remain up front to demonstrate or talk through poses in detail without direct student contact.
5. Studio Space.
I have practiced in windowless spaces, rooms with and without mirrors, spaces with streaming sun or cold wintry drafts, wooden floors, carpeted floors, stone floors. Some studios burn incense, some have air conditioning and some are designed as hot studios with heat over 100 degrees. The environment can make a difference to your enjoyment of the practice so be aware of your subjective needs.
6. Sound Environment.
I have heard a tremendous range of sounds in classes from silence, gentle harmonium, live guitar, or recorded Sanskrit songs up to strong rhythmic popular music. Some urban locations have distracting outside noises.
What works for one person may not work for another. Check it out.
7. Changing Rooms and Shower Facilities.
This is an important issue for many people, especially those heading off to or coming from work. The variety here may also be great, from a shared hallway bathroom to attractive changing rooms with fully supplied showers and lockers. For those studios without individual lockers, valuables are often kept on shelves in the yoga room itself.
All studios require yoga mats and some supply them without cost while others rent them to you if needed. Some styles of yoga also require many different kind of props including rugs, straps, blocks, bolsters and sandbags.
If you try out a few classes and think you want to continue with yoga, buying your own mat is a very worthwhile investment. The choices of mats are wide and the subject for another article!
9. Diversity of Classes.
Some studios only offer one form of yoga, so although you may find differences among teachers’ styles, the practice will be basically the same. Other studios provide many different kinds of classes allowing you to mix and match as you please.
There are usually separate classes for beginners and for more advanced students with many classes designated as “all levels” which can work for beginners depending entirely upon the teacher and your own knowledge of the limits of your body at this point in practice.
Your fellow students can also impact your decision. If you are older and overweight you may or may not not feel comfortable in a class filled only with young ballerina types. Or you may or may not like being the only male in the class.
Each class also has its own personality.
10. Availability of Classes.
Make sure there are enough classes suitable for you throughout the week and at the times you are most likely to wish to practice.
This may turn out to be the determining factor in your decision. Most classes in urban areas are $12-18/class, which can add up fast.
Almost all studios offer discount passes for a set number of classes and many also offer a month-long pass for all classes and teachers in their studio which may become the best financial choice. Some studios offer lower cost community classes or classes paid by donation. The local YMCA is usually the best bargain if they have classes that are at the ideal times for you.
Be sure to ask about a free or low-cost introductory period to try out a studio and its teachers to find out which ones feel right for you. I signed up for at least five of those on this quest.
That old chestnut: location, location, location.
If the studio isnʼt easy and practical for you to get to, you wonʼt sustain your practice, no matter how much you love their lovely showers and fresh flowers. Be realistic so you can enjoy a long-term relationship with your studio and teachers.
So what did I finally decide?
I enjoyed classes with many great teachers but in the end Yogakula, a studio that is five minutes from my home and that offered classes at my level with wonderful teachers every morning from 8:30-9:30 won my heart and mind. And to cement my vow with my pocketbook, I purchased a year long pass.
I still can’t touch my toes—but I am now a dedicated yogini with a daily practice doing what feels right for my body at this stage of my life.
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Assist Ed: Elysha Anderson/Ed: Sara Crolick