The wide world of yoga can be incredibly though ironically intimidating for the first-time practitioner. With just a few basic concepts, this post will help you narrow down the perfect class to fit your needs.
A Brief History
Yoga is an ancient Sanskrit word that across time and space has been translated to mean “rabbit-hole.” Okay, that’s a lie. Its generally accepted translation is “to yoke,” which is to say, “to join” or “to unite” but if you’ve ever googled the subject, you might agree that the first definition is very fitting indeed.
The long and short of it is this: Yoga is a philosophy comprised of eight main values. The most commonly recognized in contemporary Western culture is Asana- the physical practice, followed by (and sometimes in combination with) Pranayama [breathing techniques] and Dhyana [Meditation]. Each of the eight “limbs” of the same tree have their own plethora of stems, leaves, flowers, and critters thriving in their own environments, but for today’s purposes we’ll climb the Asana path.
The word asana refers to the physical postures we take in a yoga practice. The purpose is not to find a perfect handstand or a flawless pretzel, but rather to find a state of comfort and ease in preparation for deeper meditations. Most modern yoga studios primarily offer Yoga Asana, though in keeping with the rabbit-hole theme, this is its own vortex of names, lineages, styles, and variations- important distinguishing factors all depend on how far down you go. Some will find it most welcoming to teeter along edges, observing from afar- I like to call this the physical aspect. With time, you may find yourself poke a foot, a leg, or even a whole step down the hole- I call this the mental aspect. Finally, there are those of you that will take a great leap of running faith and plunge headfirst down the hole- to this I will attribute the spiritual aspect. All three are inextricably intertwined throughout the Yoga philosophy, but some more readily observable than others.
When it comes to physical asana, we hear lots of words: Vinyasa, Ashtanga, Power, Restorative, Gentle, Flow, Hatha, Yin, Set…the list goes on and on. How do you know which is right for you? There are as many styles are there are yogis in the world; everyone has their own unique practice. You may consider this a trail guide to the rabbit-hole, though it is not infallible, nor is it perfectly complete. It should serve as a very basic overview, using as little Sanskrit as possible, to drive home a simple understanding of how to choose your point of entry down this ever evolving mental, physical, and spiritual path that we call yoga. It is nearly impossible to construct a definitive guide that all studios, teachers, and practitioners adhere to, but let’s start with the building blocks- the cornerstones if you will- of today’s popular offerings. I’ll argue that there are four typical “food groups”
Hatha yoga is a series of poses that are different each time you do them and typically work towards a certain goal. A teacher might select certain poses for their physical qualities (such as Hip Opening), their energetic qualities (such as Grounding poses to calm the energetic body), or even something more etheric (yet always intentional). The pace is generally slow, but do not mistake this for easy; Hatha poses are held for a longer amount of time to allow the pose to show itself to the practitioner, over time going deeper and/or growing stronger. The poses each will have a noticeable entry and exit point, with little to no transitioning between the two.
Vinyasa (sometimes called Hatha Flow or Flow) is similar to Hatha in its sequence creation- poses will be different each class and generally have a theme, whether it be physical, spiritual, or energetic. However, the teacher will typically guide you through transitional sequences of poses with an emphasis on connecting the breath with the movement. Flowing vinyasa classes are a creative expression of the teacher in collaboration with the energies of the students and can often feel like a guided dance. Though there is a general feeling of beginning/warm up, middle/flow, and end/cool down, little else can be anticipated until you enter the room.
Set Sequence, generally from the Ashtanga, Bikram, or Barkan lineage, is exactly that- a series of poses that remains the same from teacher to teacher, studio to studio. Unless otherwise noted, most studios practice the Beginner’s or Primary series- which can be baffling if you are a true beginner! The postures included in both the Ashtanga and Bikram’s beginner series’ leave plenty of room for growth. Traditionally, these series are practiced on a daily basis in a one-on-one teacher/student setting. The teacher therefore builds a strong relationship with the student and is able to offer deep hands on adjustments and tailor the series to the students’ needs. Modern day adaptation has all but done away with the intimate practice of yesteryear, but even in a group setting a teacher will generally offer several modifications to make the practice accessible to all. It is not uncommon for seasoned yogis to practice the Beginner’s/Primary series for several years before being able to move on to “Intermediate." Set classes are great options for those new to yoga, building familiarity through consistency. This is also a great option for those practitioners that enjoy tracking their progress by practicing the same series over time.
Yin yoga counteracts the rigorous practices of Hatha, Vinyasa, and Set Sequences. Again, not to be mistaken for easy, Yin yoga places a higher emphasis on the subtleness of the physical practice, drawing attention deeper into the mental practice- the hardest part of all! Poses typically utilize several props intended to allow the body to passively open into a pose over the course of three to five or more minutes. This is not a class you should expect to sweat in, but it will challenge your breath all the same. Unlike Restorative (see below) yoga, you are encouraged to keep activity in the body by utilizing counteracting muscles to help you find deeper expressions of the poses. Similar to Hatha, the poses are held much longer and with little transition from one to the other. In general, most yin classes will take place close to the ground with little to no standing postures. In Yin yoga, you can expect to see an increase in flexibility and joint range-of-motion.
*Restorative Yoga might be considered a Gentle Yin- generally comprised of three to four poses held for ten to fifteen minutes and designed to allow the body to truly let go. I like to think of it as a Savasana class- you will leave feeling like you’ve had a good week of sleep!
Choose Your Level
Once you have a grip on the four primary food groups, you might start to look for variations within each that indicate the Level of experience. It is known among the yoga community (and any teacher-student environment for that matter) that if there are at least two students in a class, there are at least two levels. Every body is unique, every experience is unique, every human is unique. We are all beautiful, exactly where and when and how we are. We have evolved a lifestyle that generally makes use of group classes, and therefore (unless noted), most classes are suitable for All Levels. That said, here are some key words to clue you in on what you can expect.
Gentle: typically indicates slower pace, lower heat (if any), and less intensity. Modifications often given to support special needs and injury rehabilitation. Gentle Yoga places a heavy focus on relaxation, comfort, and accessibility. It can often still include flowing sequences, but with simple postures, repetition, and plenty of time setting up. Used commonly in Hatha and Vinyasa styles.
Beginner yoga is different than gentle in that the targeted audience may be completely unfamiliar with the movements, the practice, the lifestyle- a blank slate! The class will also move slow and act as an introduction to the world of yoga. There are certain patterns from class to class around the world, and you will begin to learn them in a Beginner’s class. You will often see this offering in Hatha and Vinyasa classes. **NOTE: The commonly practiced Beginner’s Set Sequences are certainly more rigorous than what you will find in Hatha and Vinyasa Beginner's Series. That said, the Set Sequence is a wonderful way to gain familiarity through repetition, provided you honor your body throughout practice and take the opportunities you need to rest. If you are new to yoga, always feel free to chat with your teacher about your needs and expectations- that's why we're here!
Power: indicates a stronger class (which could mean faster but could also mean slower, stronger holding of poses), and may incorporate strength building exercises and/or more advanced postures. Used commonly in Vinyasa and Set Sequences. Expect a challenge, but know that modifications are generally available.
Level 2 is commonly used to indicated an advanced class, but not necessarily Power. The teacher may offer more advanced Asanas including inversions, binds, and arm balances. Familiarity with the practice is recommended as the teacher may skip the overview of more basic postures in an attempt to warm the body quickly for more advanced ones.
All-Levels: indicates just that- open to all! Your teacher has been through hours and hours of training so that they can identify and hold space for all kinds of yogis. An all-levels class will incorporate options to modify so that you can choose your own level of difficulty. Just about any Asana can be made harder or easier depending on your needs. At the end of the day, the practice is truly yours, and your teacher is just there to offer suggestions. If you know what your body is needing, you are welcome to satisfy it. If you aren’t sure how, chat with your teacher before class so they can help!
Asana for All
As you can see, modern-day yoga offerings are bountiful in options and variations, and this is just the very tip of a timeless iceberg of traditions and lineages. Whatever has piqued your interest in starting or deepening your practice- follow it! When in doubt, never ever hesitate to talk with a teacher. Though the days of guru-student are all but long gone, the tradition still holds and most teachers are happy to help navigate the territory. A vibrant practice will incorporate some or all of the aforementioned styles (plus many more), so it is encouraged to try a few and find the style(s) that best fit your needs. Namaste!