As a yoga instructor I often find myself explaining what yoga is and is not, and having to explain why there are so many different styles of yoga and the differences between them.
The different types of people I find myself explaining these differences to also come in numerous varieties; the person who has never heard of yoga, beginners who have interest in physical health, spiritual aspirants who seeks enlightenment, advanced practitioners looking to deepen their practice, and teachers who may or may not know anything about yoga.
For the novice or person contemplating attending a yoga class, the variety of styles can be overwhelming and confusing. And for a person who has never heard of yoga, the idea that they must be able to touch their toes is daunting.
If yoga were as simple as touching ones toes, then we would all be enlightened and in shape.
Anytime I encounter a person who exclaims that they cannot do yoga because they can’t touch their toes, I laugh and normally bend my legs to touch my toes, or grab a stick and poke my feet with it. The popular concepts of yoga advertised in photographs with models who have gumby-like flexibility overwhelms people who can most benefit from yoga and has more in common with image and marketing.
Most styles of yoga that have names are brand names, with different approaches to yoga.
Some of them have the classical components of yoga, and some are merely exercise classes that are called yoga and have more in common with aerobics or weight lifting. And while every style of yoga can have the depths of yoga a person looks for, every style can also be completely lacking in what a person seeks from yoga.
The attitude and perspective a person brings to their yoga class is what they will find.
The person who looks for strength and flexibility in a yoga class will find that. And the individual who seeks for spiritual fulfillment may also find that.
A class is as complete as the student who shows up to the class that is best suited for them, combined with the knowledge and experience of the instructor who may or may not have the ability to support and sustain the students who arrive in class. Some yoga instructors share yoga, and others are exercise instructors, and it is up to the student to know what they want to find, and to keep looking if they have not found it.
Fortunately, a classical text of yoga exists that clearly explains what yoga is.
The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali clearly explains in its second sutra that “Yoga Chitta Vritti Nirodaha.“ Which translates that yoga is ceasing the modifications of the mind, or stopping the identifications of the mind, or being liberated from the cycles of mental action.
I put this into action with the belief that an authentic yoga class will calm and sooth the nerves and assist you in knowing the truth of yourself, and to be at peace with who you are.
The medical community agrees that stress is the source of all sickness.
And people attend yoga classes to become healthy and to find a sense of balance and well-being.
If the yoga class is stressful, then it will have zero health benefits. And a bigger influence than the style of yoga is the approach to yoga the instructor takes. The attitude of the person leading the group has the biggest influence on a class than anything else. And for the beginner, that first yoga instructor will shape their perspective and attitude towards yoga for years, if not their lifetime.
The secrets in yoga are not in body, breath or meditation, but in yamas and niyamas.
Every swami and Indian guru-teacher will explain that yamas and niyamas are the invisible and spiritual application of ethics to oneself and to the world. They give guidance in how to calm the mind and nurture the spirit.
Since the source of stress has more to do with the mind and its emotions, to be relieved of stress requires facing those sources of stress and the patterns of beliefs, actions and attitudes we harbor that create stress.
The first yama is called ahimsa, which translates as non-harming or non-violence.
Classes that are competitive in nature, that keep pushing a person to go beyond their physical or mental edges, will tone the body, and often times aggravate the mind. When we are looking at people on other mats and feeling bad about our own body and self-image, when an instructor keeps adjusting our bodies to go beyond its strength and flexibility, then there is no peaceful and soul-nurturing ahimsa, and violence is being enacted. In the classical sense, it is not yoga.
Trust your intuition.
The hardest thing for a beginner to yoga is to trust their intuition about classes and instructors.
Because yoga is new, we often embrace what is presented and don’t question the motives, attitudes, personality and styles of communication that a yoga instructor presents. But it is most important to find a class that suites your needs, and it is a simple truth that in yoga, less is more.
The less stress, the less competition, the less pushing, the less drama, the slower the class … the more benefit, the more discovery, the more that the beautiful soul we all are unfolds and shines from within.
What is yoga but the blossoming discovery of the living spirit we are, a delving into mystery.
If you want to go to yoga to touch your toes, the spirit behind that is one of self-improvement and self-discovery. You can go further.
If you want to relieve yourself of the stresses of life, yoga can be a support in learning how to do that for yourself.
If you want to do yoga to be enlightened, classical texts say that it can happen. If you want to go to yoga to learn how to deepen love, yoga can also be a big encouragement.
But behind it all rests the simple explanation that yoga is stopping the identifications and the cycles of the mind. Which means that what we believe yoga is or is not, must be set aside so that yoga can be experienced. Most especially when on the yoga mat.
In the confusing world of yoga marketing abides a calming truth.
Yoga is an ancient practice used by people for millennia to better themselves and their life. If your yoga practice is doing that for you, then you have something special to be appreciated. While it may not be everything yoga can be, it is the spark of yoga that can become a guiding light for you to shed the stresses of life and better love and be the truth of who you already are.
And if you are a beginner to yoga, or considering going to that first class, I admire your courage and spirit, and encourage you to go take that first step. I’d suggest finding a calm, slow class with a patient, calm and experienced instructor.
The community keeps tabs and talks about yoga instructors, you can find somebody who suits your needs with a little bit of research.
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Assistant Editor: Melissa Petty/Editor: Bryonie Wise
Photo: Jessie Photographie