How to pick a Yoga class
There are so many styles of Yoga to choose from, and so many studios and teachers, that finding your sweet spot in the Yoga landscape can be tough. For many it is a gamble, where you pick a class at random and see where it takes you. That's not a bad option to be very honest, but being aware of a few facts might help you find your way a little easier. A little history:
"Many modern schools of hatha yoga derive from the school of Tirumalai Krishnamacharya, who taught from 1924 until his death in 1989. Among his students prominent in popularizing yoga in the West were K. Pattabhi Jois, famous for popularizing the vigorous Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga style, B. K. S. Iyengar who emphasizes alignment and the use of props, Indra Devi and Krishnamacharya's son T. K. V. Desikachar who developed the Viniyoga style. Desikachar founded the Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram in Chennai, with the aim of making available the heritage of yoga as taught by Krishnamacharya.
Another major stream of influence was Swami Sivananda of Rishikesh (1887-1963) and his many disciples including, among others, Swami Vishnu-devananda - founder of International Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Centres; Swami Satyananda - of the Bihar School of Yoga; and Swami Satchidananda - of Integral Yoga". (Thank you Wikipedia)
Styles of Yoga:
In truth, there is no "style" or any particular tradition of Yoga. There is just Yoga. Yoga is defined in many ways but the way I like to define it is "equanimity of mind". The Yoga Sutra is the book at the side of my mat, and it mentions nothing of religion, sweating, core strength, vegetarianism...it's just all about Yoga.
The first thing you need to do before picking a class is to figure out why you want to begin (or return to) a Yoga practice. Have five reasons and try to prioritise them for yourself. Use that list to guide you through the forest of possibilities, so that you stay true to yourself and are not seduced by advertising, or something other than what you are after. Don't judge your reasons either, there is no bad reason to start a Yoga practice. If you want to lose a few pounds and that's top of your list, then that's where you begin. If you have no interest in meditation, in philosophy, in chanting, and you just really want a strong stomach for the first time in your life...that's ok. Desikachar says that taking up a Yoga practice does not require you to give up smoking, become a vegetarian, becoming a Hindu or a Buddhist or changing anything else about yourself. Come as you are and work from there.
Hatha Yoga, Ashtanga Yoga, Vinyasa, Viniyoga, and more all really at the heart all the same thing. Even within the styles of Yoga you will find that there is a variance in how it is taught according to the teacher that you have. Really, all Yoga is essentially Ashtanga Yoga anyway, because the eightfold path is at the heart of the practice of Yoga. If you go to an Ashtanga class though, you will experience a beautiful sequence taught to you one Asana (pose) at a time. If you go to a Yin Yoga class, it'll be different each time and amazingly gentle and inspiring. I often see Vinyasa Yoga on timetables, and "Vinyasa" means "the correct placement" or "to place in a special way". It basically means that we're not just hanging out in postures and dropping into one from another. It's accurate, careful and done with great awareness. In that sense, then again, all Yoga is Vinyasa yoga.
There is no right or wrong here in terms of what you pick to do, just be honest with yourself and be sure that it's what you need right now in your life. If one class hasn't worked for you, try another teacher, a new studio, a different style. Your teacher is out there somewhere.
I have my own ideas of what I think Yoga is and also how I like to teach Yoga to students. I don't however think that my way is the only way. I personally loathe Bikram, but know that many others get a lot of benefit from attending those classes. There is no right and wrong, and as you grow as a Yogi, your views will change. You will be plenty flexible enough to change your mind when you need to. Try not to judge the styles you try or the teachers, but focus on what is working for you and be honest when it's not. If it isn't, walk away and try somewhere else. It's nobody's fault, it just isn't what you need right now.
You must be able to breathe calmly and evenly. If your breath is staggered or laboured, what you are doing is too hard. You will not achieve Yoga by doing whatever it is. You also won't achieve a strong and flexible body either, because you leave yourself open to injury. Ask for a modification or go to a different class. Ideally the teacher should be able to modify the posture for you, until you are ready to open yourself to it in its entirety. This is not you being defeated by the practice, but rather one of the first lessons of Yoga: compassion and humility.
Yes, you do need a teacher. Buying a DVD to learn Yoga is the same as buying a DVD on Skydiving to learn how to jump out of plane. In the same way as a skydiving instructor will be able to guide you through all the safety requirements, through the technicalities, through the necessary training, and through the fear, a Yoga teacher does much the same for you. You can really hurt yourself physically and also emotionally by doing these practices in the wrong way. You do need help, believe me.
When choosing your teacher, the most important thing is really your connection with them. I have studied with some very famous and wonderful teachers who I felt I just didn't connect with. Find the right teacher for you by trying as many as you need to until you are satisfied that you have found the right person for you. You should respect them and you should feel respected by them in return. You should feel a connection to them. A connection is the feeling that they understand you and your needs, and that you also trust them completely to guide you. Know also that you will perhaps need a change of teacher at some time. That's ok too, and don't be afraid to chat about that with your teacher. I'm not the right teacher for everyone, and I know that I am for some.
"The teacher within" is something you will hear about at some point. At the end of the day you are the hero of your own life, and your can have many guides...but you will discover that there is a teacher inside of you. Even for those who have discovered the teacher within, a teacher from the outside is useful too. Brene Brown says that a therapist who sees other therapists is just a therapist with a higher BS monitor. My Yoga teachers are very much like this for me.
There are many teacher training courses out there and there are no real standards either. This makes it harder for you to pick a good teacher, but on the flipside it opens you up to many different types of teachers. I know some courses will put someone through a teacher training program when they have less than a year of Yoga practice under their belt, and will do so in a matter of weeks. There are no shortcuts though, and you will see the quality of the teaching will be affected. Trust yourself to sense that. If something doesn't feel right or sound right to you, ask. If you are really not satisfied with the answer, seek it elsewhere.
These days I tend to attend workshops more regularly that I do classes, but when I do I appreciate it when the studio is local so I don't have to travel far, and it's important to me that it have a light and easy going atmosphere. Like everyone I appreciate good customer service and I think that a Yoga studio especially should be walking the talk.
You will have your own ideas about what you want and don't want from a studio. Keep in mind though that it doesn't necessarily reflect the quality of teachers who teach there. Many teachers work at more than one studio, and in most places I have found teachers that I loved going to and others that I just didn't. Try a few different things and see what works for you.
I have attended classes in school halls, on beaches, in churches, in community centers, in parks, in ashrams, in plush studios and very austere ones. It doesn't really matter to me so much, I have appreciated them all immensely.
Buy a good quality mat of your own, because it's hygienic to have your own and environmentally responsible to buy one that will last you. Bring a hand towel, it will be useful for mopping up any sweat, or tears. Bring a water bottle, but don't have a tummy full of water before practice, and only drink if you really need to during the class. Drink plenty afterwards if you feel you need it. We are usually working on building some heat into the body, and by drinking cold fluids you extinguish it. Wear comfortable clothes that you can move in. You do not need to buy any specialist clothing from any specialist Yoga clothes supplier. Shorts and t-shirts work pretty good. I've even practised in my PJ's and they work fine too.
Introduce yourself to the teacher when you are new to a class. Let them know how much experience you have and if you have any injuries questions or concerns. Ask someone else which way the class faces if you are unsure, or where you should place your mat. Usually this is made pretty clear, some studios have tape that indicates a mat space. Be open minded. You may be invited to chant, or to do some other thing that breaches your comfort zone. Give it go, you might like it. If you don't like something, talk to your teacher about it at the end. Ask yourself why you didn't like it. Do not judge other students, the teacher, or yourself. Take it all in one breath at a time and let it all out again. Don't look around the room and compare yourself to other people. This is totally unproductive. You are working with a different body to everyone else. There can be no competition here.
You should question things though. If something doesn't ring quite right with you, enquire, do some research, read, learn and make up your mind. It's ok to disagree with something, this is your journey. Be respectful in your disagreement, but be honest and true to yourself. I have many friends from many different walks of Yoga and I count myself lucky to have them in my life, although we don't agree on everything.
My friend Maria says "don't wait to find the perfect studio, the perfect teacher, the perfect equipment, the perfect time...to start going to a yoga class. So many times it happens to me that...and I never start doing what I want-need to do. Simply...just drop in. Then if you don't like something you can always change it. And after trying one and another class, yoga style and teacher, if you are open enough, you will realize that everyone has given you something useful for your practice...in or out of your yoga mat."
Things I wish I'd known before I started:
- The postures don't really matter in the long run, but in the short term they will help
- The Yoga practice I need will change as I change
- Practice, practice, practice...just for the sake of the practice
- Using props is not being defeated
- The practice is embodied: you have to walk the talk to feel it
- Being flexible and strong is not a prerequisite
- Neither is being calm
- I will look silly sometimes and that's ok
- Some postures will take me years
- The breath is where it's at
- My compassion must include myself
I wish you a lot of heart on your Yoga journey. It is worth the time, it is worth getting up for, it's worth sharing, it's worth all the effort, and all the resources invested in it. You will eat humble pie and you will learn to savour it each bite at a time. You will love the things it unlocks for you, and how shiny your life becomes as a result. I wish you courage, and many wonderful supportive teachers. Enjoy!
Here is Philip Askew, who never fails to inspire me (and no, after 10 years, I still can't do it all!):