Thursday, November 19, 2009

Various Styles of Yoga - The destination is One the paths are Many!

If you are new to the practice of yoga it may be mind-boggling to try to navigate between the different styles of yoga while trying to decide where to start in the first place. After all what's the difference anyway? Isn't yoga just yoga!? I often have to field questions from new students who are overwhelmed and confused at the various styles in existence, so I thought I would write a little article with my thoughts on the topic in the hopes to help clarify. The following perspective is my personal experience and I am sure will heat up a large debate among yoga teachers and passionate practitioners of a particular style, but here goes nothing...

The REALLY, REAL different types of yoga are:
Raja Yoga - meditation
Karma Yoga - practicing selfless service, working without a focus on reward
Jhana Yoga - yoga of knowledge, converting knowledge to wisdom and self inquiry
Bhakti Yoga - practicing devotion to god and includes "Japa Yoga" - devotional chanting or mantra
Hatha Yoga - practice of asana (postures) to purify our body and mind

When we talk about "Yoga" in the West, we are typically talking about "Hatha Yoga." "Hatha" means "Ha" - Sun and "Tha" Moon. It is meant as a practice to cleanse the body of toxins and balance the duality of Sun (masculine / energetic / left brain) and Moon (feminine / receptive / right brain) energies within us.

To break it down further, the modern approaches to the practice of Hatha yoga consist of five main differences:
1: A dynamic practice of asanas: flowing, connected to breath, moving in and out of postures, limited use of props - if at all)
2: A static practice of asanas: holding postures for a period of time, working on alignment within the posture and using props)
3: A practice of always the same sequence of postures: these can eventually be memorized or even practiced at home
4: A varied practice with different focuses, whether it be on a philosophical theme or an area of the practice such as anatomy or building up to an advanced posture. Sometimes it can be taught intuitively by the whims of the instructor.
5: Pace of the practice: slow, medium, fast paced

Unfortunately we are plagued by a lot of different "Styles" which are not really styles but a variation of these differences. Sometimes all of the above can be named after the instructor, such as Iyengar or Bikram, which can also add to the confusion of too many names or appearances of style. To help distinguish some of the various styles and names that I have experienced, here it goes:

Ashtanga - Dynamic, the same sequence of postures, can be done slow, medium or fast pace
Vinyasa - Dynamic, varied sequence, can be done slow, medium or fast pace
Restorative - Static, varied sequence, very slow (holding postures, mostly reclining with lots of props for long periods of time, meant to be restful, rejuvenating, meditative
Hot Yoga - Can be any of the above 4 qualities just in a hot room
Power Yoga - see "Vinyasa", typically done very fast pace
Kundalini - Dynamic, mostly seated postures, can be done slow, medium or fast pace
Yin Yoga - Static, varied sequence, very slow pace, holding postures for a long period of time.
Mysore - Dynamic, the same sequence of postures, can be done slow, medium or fast, practiced on your own with an instructor circulating the room helping to adjust postures like they do in Mysore, India

Styles named after an instructor or developed by a popular instructor
Iyengar - Static, varied sequence, usually very slow pace
Bikram - Dynamic, the same sequence of postures, can be done slow, medium or fast, in a very HOT, heated room!
Anusara - Dynamic, varied sequence, can be done slow, medium or fast pace, founded by John Friend
Sivananda - Static, the same sequence of postures, usually slow to medium pace
Jivamukti - Dynamic, varied sequence, can be done slow, medium or fast pace, found by David Life and Sharon Gannon in NY
Integral - Dynamic, varied sequence, usually slow or medium pace, found by Swami Satchidananda
Kripalu - Dynamic, varied sequence, usually slow or medium pace

As you can see, most styles can be categorized in these basic ways, but they are ALL Hatha Yoga. Naturally there are differences in focus, approach and the personality of the instructors. I hope this little guide will help you to experiment and choose or try a type of practice that you are drawn to. I find that it's very important that you feel connected and hopefully encouraged and uplifted by the instructors you may find and the style they teach. This will be most evident by how you feel after class and maybe even throughout the week. Hopefully you will find an instructor and a style that makes you want to go to class or even practice more on your own.

In my personal practice, I feel it's balanced and healthy for me to vary my approach to yoga based on how I feel energetically and physically. The body knows what it needs if only we are able to listen to it. When I feel fatigue and need healing, I am usually drawn to a slow or restorative practice. When I feel energetic or even heavy and lethargic, I find a vigorous Vinyasa style is what helps to balance me, either releasing energy or invigorating me. It's good to also balance knowledge of alignment and anatomy with face-paced, flowing classes, so in my opinion a mixture of Vinyasa, Iyengar and Restorative from time to time are helpful.


Thursday, November 12, 2009

Going on a Yoga Retreat - It's all a state of mind

Upon organizing a yoga retreat next weekend, the idea of going on a retreat has been on my mind lately... Certain questions such as "what does it mean to go on a yoga retreat or to take a retreat in general?" have come up for me.

Just to say the word "retreat" almost sounds like we're trying to run AWAY from it all. Aren't we supposed to FACE reality, according to yoga? Sometimes the idea of going away from our lives, situations, responsibilities and daily living can also bring up feelings of the ego and thoughts such as "Am I being selfish or self-indulgent? Do I deserve a treat like this?"

Going on a retreat is very different from going on a vacation, where we may run off to do all of the above while trying our best to get some needed relaxation. Most of the time, even on vacations, we fall pray to the antics of our restless minds, and usually come home just as tired as when we left after scurrying from one itinerary to the next.

In my opinion, a retreat is truly about setting aside time to explore our internal landscape rather than just the external one. It's meant not to run "away", but to run inside and meet your Self. It could be an opportunity to simply allow ourselves to "be," to meditate, and give our bodies and minds a chance to stop running or "retreating" as it were, from being in the present moment. Oh yes, and also to give ourselves the chance to relax, away from the stress of daily life!

A retreat can also be a great way to focus on making positive changes in our lives in various areas such as:
Our practice: It can reinvigorate our yoga practice or inspire us to start a daily practice once we get a taste of making it a part of our day.
Our diet: It can inspire positive lifestyle changes including eating a healthy diet or even different diets such as vegetarian or vegan in some cases.
Our minds: It can inspire our mental attitude toward a positive light so that we return home well-rested, invigorated and inspired to make positive changes.
Our hearts: Most of the time we are asked to be there for others, but we can only give if we also allow ourselves the chance to rest and rejuvenate so that we can come back and give that much more! It's very important that we are also compassionate to ourselves.

If these are the intentions and the results, then going on a retreat is a wonderful chance to make our lives and the lives of the people around us better and is hardly a self-indulgent act in such a light. When it comes time to make changes in our lives, it is also helpful to be surrounded by like-minded people who have similar intentions. Going on a group retreat is a great way to receive the positive support of others. This can be very encouraging and inspiring. Conversely, If you already have a supportive group in your life and are constantly surrounded by people, including friends and family, then going on a solo or silent retreat might also be a good experience to receive the alone-time you might be lacking.

In any case, it's best to be honest with yourself and ask your heart what it is you truly need in your life right now. The right retreat, in a place you find appealing, with an instructor you are drawn to, can be just the right medicine for whatever your heart desires and oh yes, it's a lot of fun too!

Namaste, Jennifer