Friday, April 8, 2011

Yoga 101

As someone that has practiced/studied yoga for 9 years I thought it would be helpful to share some insight and information with you on various types of yoga, what a yoga teacher really thinks, and a few key things to be aware of. I do not claim to be a guru of any kind or the all-knowing-all-powerful queen of yoga, so keep that in mind, please. I speak from my teachings and my experience more than anything else.

The Lessons I've Learned
I have a great deal of respect for my teacher, Mary Bruce, not just because she's one of the most talented, amazing, and kind people ever, but because she teaches you from the heart. She gives you the ups and downs, ins and outs, anything and everything, so that you can form your own opinion of yoga. I highly respect someone who cares enough about you as an individual to want to enlighten you, but also want you to make your own decisions for what is right for yourself. The other thing I love about Mary is that she taught us "old school" yoga. She was the closest thing to learning it as it was meant to be taught as you can get. I respect her respect for the practice.

Some history...

Yoga was initially created by Patanjali, known as the "Father of Yoga", as a way to prepare the mind for meditation. It was never designed as an actual work out, although that is often what we in Western practice think of it as. The idea was to move the body, get the energy going and the breath deepened so that when you were done you could sit for hours and hours in deep, concentrated meditation. No buff arms or fab abs were part of the plan. It was all about the mind. Those were just bonuses.

Years and years and years later there was a little boy, B.K. S. Iyengar, who was very ill. He was riddled with various diseases including tuberculosis, typhoid, and malaria. When he was a teenager he moved to a town where a great guru helped him to heal himself through yoga. The more he practiced, the more he healed. Soon he had overcome all of his illnesses through yoga and the use of props, which in the modern day we now know as mats, blocks, blankets, etc. Yoga then became not only a tool for meditation, but a way to heal yourself.

Alignment is important. I have had a few way-too-real demonstrations of what a slipped disk can do to your body, as well as what probable hip damage can be done by walking, yes walking, incorrectly. The walking part is an easy fix - Next time you walk anywhere pay attention to the angle at which your feet turn. For hip health, and to avoid a hip replacement years from now, you should make sure your toes point straight out with every step. Not to the right or the left, but right in front of you in a straight line. I can literally spot people for miles who walk incorrectly. I was watching Limitless the other day and noticed Bradley Cooper walking with his feet pointed out and I flinched. That's how very effective and real the demonstration was in class. It truly is an easy thing to correct with a little focus and it will save your hips, so I highly recommend it.

Yoga is now mostly known as an awesome way to get a hot bod, but it's important to remember the true intent. We already live in the most fast paced, hectic country ever and making everything that way will not help us to relax and enjoy life. Just something to keep in mind. Sometimes we shouldn't change things to work for us, sometimes we should change ourselves to work for it, to gain the real benefits. I'm jut saying...

What A Yoga Teacher Thinks (or at least what I do)
1. We don't care if you fart in class. Nope, not at all. I know a lot of people worry about that, especially in Wind Releasing Pose, but teachers really, truly don't care. It does not phase me one bit to have a student let loose in class during a pose. In fact, it's what some of the poses are meant to do. That being said, I get it. I do. Before every class I would silently pray not to embarrass myself in any way, shape, or form. The prayer would include things such as  "Please do not let me make any kind of bodily noise at all, pull out the clumsy card while I'm trying to demonstrate, or forget what I'm doing and freak out."  So I understand, trust me, but as the teacher I don't mind if you do any of the above. I'm there to help you and to be a source through which you learn to appreciate yourself, not to judge. I try with all of my heart to check my ego, and my own concerns, at the door and be there solely for you.

 2. When I tell you to ignore the other students in class and pay attention to yourself, I mean stop comparing yourself to everyone else and just be you. It is not a competition of who looks the best in their yoga clothes, who can do the best downward dog, or who is the bendiest person in the group. I want you to breathe. I want you to quiet your mind and have 90 mins of you time. I want you to stay in child's pose all class long if that is what you need. I want you to feel that you are in a safe, comfortable, loving environment where you can do whatever it is you need to do for you. This is how all yoga teachers should feel if they're teaching you correctly.

3. Don't be afraid to Om with me. You're not on a tryout for American Idol and I wont kick you out of class. Besides, you really cant Om the wrong way, although there is an actual way to do it,  A(aaaa) u (oooo) m (mmmm), but really, not a big deal if you're not perfect. No need to be. Truth be told, everyone chanting actually sounds incredibly amazing and it increases the energy in the room. If you've ever been to a workshop where the entire class was Oming, you know what I mean. It's amazing! Just go for it.

4. Laughing in yoga is A-Okay. Smiling is even better. I know that when I practice I make the Serious Face. Sometimes I focus too hard. It always lightens me up when a teacher tells the class to stretch our face muscles up to the sky (smile). Closing your eyes in a pose is fine too. Sometimes it's the best way to get in touch with yourself.

5. Some great books are Light on Yoga and The Bhagavad Gita. I really enjoyed the latter as it helped me understand life in general. The teachings go beyond religion and speak to everyone as a whole. There are a lot of eye opening things to consider in it.

Types of Yoga (and my personal opinion on them)
Hatha: This is a term that really encompasses all types of yoga. A lot of classes are called Hatha. That can mean different things to different people, but it is not really a type of yoga as much as it is just yoga itself. Clear as mud, right? When anyone asks what type I teach I say Hatha. For many of the other types you actually have to be certified in that very specific name brand of yoga, where as I studied yoga in itself as a whole and did not focus strictly on one form.

Vinyasa: Again, this can apply to different types of yoga, but vinyasa is yoga with breath work and flow. I adore vinyasa classes because I prefer to flow. I like one movement to feed right into the next, where it's almost like a dance, so smooth and easy.

Iyengar: This would be based on B.K.S. Iyengar's teaching of healing using props. You tend to hold poses longer to increase healing benefits. I've only taken one class when I was studying and thought it was good. I think it can be helpful if you're focusing on healing and not just for fun/breath work/exercise.

Ashtanga: Also known as Power Yoga at many places, where the form of the class is based on Ashtanga principles. This is a class where you do poses that require strength and it is quite intense. I like it, because I like challenges and arm balancing poses, but I fall on my face a lot. Not gonna lie.

Kundalini: This is another class I've only taken once and truthfully do not have all the details on. It's main focus is breath work more than movement, from my experience.

Anusara: This is a heart centered practice. It's based on the concept of opening your heart physically and emotionally. I'm a big fan because it focuses on alignment of the body to keep you safe and sound. There is no forcing yourself into any move. It ensures that all parts of the body line up safely in the pose to avoid risk of injury while still gaining maximum benefit.

Yin: In Yin you tend to hold poses for long periods of time and focus on continual stretching. Again, only had one class of this and realized it's not really for me, but know many people that love it.

Restorative: One of my favorites. Blankets and other tools are used to prop you up in poses that are meant to be held anywhere from 5 - 20 minutes or more. Restorative poses are done sitting or lying down and focus on healing, calming, and relaxing the body. I have never met a restorative class I didn't like. It does sound similar to yin, but I find them to be widely different.

Bikram: I saved this for last for a reason. In Bikram you practice in a room heated to about 100 degrees, give or take. The idea is to let the heat help you bend/flex easier to gain maximum benefit while detoxing through the intense amount of sweating you do. I like the idea of detoxing immensely, but that can also be done in a sauna, so keep that in mind. What I have a concern with is the injury factor. Let me explain.

I've done Bikram before but three weeks ago I decided to sign up for a 30 day Bikram yoga challenge. Me and my enjoyment of challenges. Anyway, the first class was great. I was melting, but enjoyed it. The second class was irritating and by the third class I had to get up and leave because I was too mad to practice. The madness was due to the teacher repeatedly saying, and I quote, "Your back should be hurting" and "If your shoulders don't hurt you're not doing it right."

Phrases like this were repeated over, and over, and over. Maybe it's just the one studio were I live and not all Bikram teachers, which I hope is the case. I honestly don't remember them saying that years ago. Regardless, my 30 day challenge turned into a 3 day irritation. This was a few weeks ago and as much as I wanted to come home and blog my little heart out, I held back until now, when I could be much more calm and collected.

I know tons and tons of people who love Bikram. I'm not trying to put it down at all. My entire concern lies in the teachers telling you to hurt yourself, since that goes against everything yoga is based on. To me it feels like the code of yoga is being broken and I personally can't be a part of that.

Additionally, I have concern with the very serious possibility of one injuring themselves unintentionally. I know exactly how far my body can go. Yes, in a heated room I can make it go farther, but should I? If the only way I can get it to do that is in 100 degrees then I probably shouldn't be doing it in the first place. The benefit of having studied with a teacher who emphasizes on alignment is knowing when to back off so you don't end up messing up your body. It's an advantage I have that most may not. I have concern for any students who are in a Bikram class and push further than they should without knowing when to back off so as to avoid injury. I have concern with teachers telling them to hurt themselves even more. The injuries don't always show up right away either, which is tricky. So there's my soap box.

Bottom line for any yoga practice: Be careful with yourself.

This is the only body you're going to get, so take care of it the best you can. Honor yourself. Never let someone next to you, or heck, even teaching, decide what is best for you. Not even me. You innately know what you need. In all facets of life we push, push, push ourselves. All other forms of working out are strenuous. If you can, let yoga be your quiet place where you remember what it's like to be yourself without judgement, worry, or doubt. And always remember that pain is a warning. Take heed of it. Your body tells you exactly what it needs, the key is to listen.

No go forth my little yogis and yoginis and have some fun!

Any questions? Shoot me a note.

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