I intend this post to be a first in a series which hopefully deals with the question “How to find a yoga teacher?”. To do this I believe some background is required. I believe a good place to start is with the different flavors of Yoga that are “on the market” – in this case when I say Yoga I am referring to the physical aspects of Yoga (since this is where you are most likely to start).
Yoga was resurrected during the early twentieth century by Krishnamacharya – and some mystery veils how he came to acquire his extensive knowledge. He had 3 prominent students each of which became associated with a “system of yoga”. Pattahbi Jois is the father of Ashtanga Yoga (a popular form in the west), Iyengar is the father of Iyengar Yoga (another popular form) and Desikachar (who is Krishnamacharya’s son) who taught/teaches a less popular “brand” that was known as Viniyoga. Of the three, Desikachar spent the most time studying with Krishnamacharya (Jois & Iyengar spent a relatively limited period of time under the tuition of Krishnamacharya) and is therefore closest to his teachings and considered his successor (being his son helped too!). A key quality of Krishnamacharya’s teaching was adapting a practice to the practitioner. I will expand on this point later, but one implication of this is that each of these three prominent teachers was introduced to Yoga in a way that was relevant to them. Inevitably, that selective process resonates through their own practice and systems of teaching.
My teachers and I are a part of the Viniyoga heritage.
Ashtanga yoga is well known for it’s intense physicality. It is composed of fixed sequences that are graded by difficulty. The sequences are like a “dance” taught and practiced rather uniformly with an emphasis on the overall flow of the practice. It requires stamina, strength and flexibility. It is a very dynamic practice.
Iyengar is also considered physically intense. It uses a wide range of asana (postures). Much attention is placed on minute details and specifics of the postures. It’s focus is a more static practice – spending time in each posture.
Viniyoga is considered a soft yoga. This is a result of a core Viniyoga approach to physicality – to make the postures accessible to the practitioner. Viniyoga generally utilizes a smaller set of postures but uses many variations and modifications to adapt postures to the capabilities and needs of a practitioner. Viniyoga is therefore very useful in therapeutic situations in which limitations of the practitioner need to be taken into consideration. The intensity of a Viniyoga practice rests heavily on the combination of breath and asana. Viniyoga utilizes (depending on the practitioner) a combination of dynamic and static postures, generally a Viniyoga practice will take you (over months and years!) from a more dynamic practice to a more static practice (static is generally considered more intense then dynamic).
Unless you are a fit and flexible individual (like dancers or athletes) you will be hard-pressed to start with a classic Ashtanga Yoga practice. Inevitably some teachers have created variations on the system to make it more accessible to more practitioners, though strictly speaking it is not Ashtanga.
Iyengar is a system in which one can be a beginner and gradually evolve towards a more intense, full & classic practice. Yet, Iyengar teachers were taught and practice strictly classical variations of postures – paying attention to many minute details. For many people the classic postures are either inaccessible or irrelevant (not very useful). You can practice a variation that is not relevant for your body for many years with little to no progress.
Viniyoga is a starting place for everyone – because each individual is the starting point of the practice. A Viniyoga teacher will be able to guide you through variations of a posture to find one that is accessible and effective for you. In Viniyoga group practices you will see that different people are using different variations of the same postures – this is inherently built into the system.
In Ashtanga breathing is a second priority to movement. The focus on flow and intensity of the movement usually leave little space for breathing. You may get very little or even no guidance on breathing (other then a reminder to do it) – it is usually a natural development of the practice. Because of the intense physicality of the practice – the breath is short and erratic.
In Iyengar Yoga breathing is given more emphasis but it is also secondary to the physicality of the Asana. Ultimately the use of breath depends on the preferences and priorities of the teacher.
In Viniyoga breathing is a dominant aspect of the practice. I was taught and believe that a practice is not Yoga unless there is a systemic use of breath. Breathing generally manifests in two areas of practice:
- It is used in ALL the physical practices (exceptions exists, and are usually a result of adapting a practice to an individual who cannot access breath – though this is very rare) – there is a specific and systemic relationship between movement, posture and breath. It takes time, practice and gradual development to master breath and movement.
- Pranayama – these are breathing practices that are executed in seated postures, usually applied at the end of a practice . Like postures, breathing practices have many variations and can be adapted to individual needs and capabilities.
The two form a subtle growth and development cycle – physical practice prepares the body for Pranayama practices which in turn extend the breath and create more space and length for exploring physical postures in more depth.
Yoga can be practiced artfully with attention to detail. To the best of my knowledge all three systems of Yoga preach and practice precision, but they each have a different focus and as a result different effects on a practitioner.
Ashtanga places focus and attention on the precision of the overall flow of a practice. Precision in each and every posture is secondary to the continuous flow. Each posture is visited briefly, though numerous times (the overall sequence is repeated numerous times). If you are fit and able to contain the practice with ease (!) then you may have an opportunity to pay attention to more minute details of each posture. If not then you will be skimming lightly over the postures which are therefore not likely to develop much. You can get an overall improved sense of the flow, but unless you are really in great shape – specific postures will not be explored in depth – there simply isn’t much time, and in what little time there is you will be out of breath and unavailable for further exploration.
Iyengar places very much attention on details and precision of physical postures. There is relatively more time to spend in each posture in exploring subtle aspects. Generally Iyengar teachers will provide loads of information and tips on how to fine-tune your practice.
Viniyoga places much attention on precision in execution of breath, postures and the relationship between them. Precision is highly adapted to each individual. A Viniyoga teacher selectively brings attention to details that are relevant to and support the practitioner. Precision gradually grows as mind, body & breath adapt to the practice.
I think its useful to remember at this point that Yoga is ultimately a science of the mind and that precision needs to be measured in that context. You can obsessively practice many physical aspects of Yoga – with no or even detrimental effects on the mind. This is one of the key qualities and opportunities that Yoga creates in a physical practice – it can be used and abused.
Generally you will find much demonstration by teachers in Ashtanga and Iyengar classes. Ashtanga relies on you following the flow as demonstrated by the teacher – this means that most of the time at least part of your attention and your body will be involved in observing and following the teacher. In Iyengar, the ambition to do postures precisely in their classic form invites demonstration either by the teacher or by physically capable students (under guidance of the teacher).
You are less likely to see a Viniyoga teacher demonstrate postures. In Viniyoga the teacher will be trying to lead you to your limits not to hers. Learning by example is a powerful and effective tool, so in Viniyoga attention is placed on giving you the right example. A teacher may give examples by demonstrating with the assistance of students – not necessarily the most capable ones – but those whose limitations may best exemplify how to use variations to make a posture accessible.
There are many more flavors and brands of Yoga. Sivananda comes to mind as a system that places emphasis on ritual. Bikram Yoga invites you to practice in steaming sauna conditions. Kundalini will promise to awaken your primordial energy. You can do Yoga naked. You can stand around with a bunch of people and laugh your head – and they call that Yoga too.
It is up to you to make a conscious choice of what you want to bring into your life, your heart, your body & your mind. More on that soon.
You may also want to read about taking your first steps in Yoga