What’s in a name?

I’ve recently started offering a new Hatha Yoga class at plan-B-fitness in addition to my Vinyasa Flow classes, and I’ve been getting a lot of questions about what these terms Hatha and Vinyasa mean and how the classes differ. If you have attended yoga classes with different teachers and in different locations, you’ve probably noticed that there are varied interpretations of some types of yoga (although other types are very narrow in their definition). This can be confusing, but it’s important to understand that yoga is a living, evolving art (and science), and that each practitioner (and therefore each teacher) brings his or her own experience and interpretations to the practice. The practice of yoga encourages personal exploration, and as such, it is by nature always changing and evolving as people explore new approaches. Therefore, my approach to Hatha and Vinyasa classes may be different from another teacher’s. In my view, it’s always most important to find a teacher and style that works for you – and also to be open to change in your practice. A teacher or style that is perfect for you at one point in your life may no longer work so well for you in the future. It’s important to remain open to the idea of personal exploration in your practice, including finding another style of practice or teacher if that is the right thing to do!

It may be helpful to understand that what we do in our yoga classes is only a part of the full system of yoga. The practice of yoga as described in The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali has eight “limbs” or areas of practice. These are:

    1. Yamas – ethical guidelines, such as nonviolence, truthfulness, and not stealing.
    2. Niyamas – observances or disciplines, such as cleanliness and purification, cultivating contentment, and studying spiritual scriptures.
    3. Asana – physical yoga poses
    4. Pranayama – breathing techniques
    5. Pratyahara – detaching from the senses – beginning to move towards meditation
    6. Dharana – concentration and focus
    7. Dhyana – meditation
    8. Samadhi – a state of spiritual bliss and enlightenment that involves transcending the individual self

Most yoga classes in the US focus on the physical practices of asana and some pranayama, with varying degrees of attention to the other limbs of yoga, and the different styles of yoga have varying ideas about how to approach physical yoga postures.

Hatha is a pretty general term. The Sanskrit word “hatha” can be interpreted as “forceful,” but the individual syllables also have their own meaning. “Ha” represents the sun (heating, motivating, externally-focused energy) and “tha” represents the moon (cooling, calming, internally-focused energy), so Hatha yoga brings these two energies into balance. Hatha yoga is the practice of asana and pranayama as described above, so most of the classes you take would be some form of Hatha. When you see the word “Hatha” on a class description, it usually means that the teacher does not follow any one particular style of yoga in the class. Hatha classes can vary widely. Unfortunately, the term “Hatha” doesn’t tell you much about the class, so if you’re looking for something particular, it’s a good idea to talk to the studio or teacher in advance to find out which classes are most suitable for you. Many studios and teachers provide a description of their Hatha classes and/or level designations to help you choose.


Vinyasa
 generally refers to a style of yoga that has derived from Ashtanga yoga. “Ashtanga” refers to a dynamic style of practice where poses are practiced in set sequences in a vigorous flow. Poses are practiced in one of several prescribed sequences, so true Ashtanga classes will be similar to each other. Ashtanga off-shoots such as Power yoga and Vinyasa yoga usually do not follow the Ashtanga sequences and therefore display more variation. A class labeled “Vinyasa yoga” uses a flow of poses where the practitioner moves from one pose to another without pausing, and movements are linked to the breath. Classes are usually built around Surya Namakar, or Sun Salutations. The “glue” that holds the class together is a series of poses from Surya Namaskar that is known as a vinyasa – usually starting in High Plank, and with the breath, flowing through Chaturanga Dandasana and Urdhva Mukha Svanasana (Upward Facing Dog), then Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward Facing Dog). Variations on this sequence have been developed, such as using Bhujangasana (Cobra) instead of Urdhva Mukha Svanasana. The sequence is usually repeated in between each set of poses and is done many times during a class. Depending on the teacher and level of the class, Vinyasa Flow classes can vary quite a lot in difficulty, including variations in the types of poses included in the flow, the speed at which students move through the poses, the number of vinyasas done, and the number of pauses in the class. Note that a Vinyasa Flow class practices yoga postures and breathing, and therefore is really a subcategory of Hatha.

All this might leave you feeling even more confused, so here’s a summary of what my Hatha and Vinyasa classes are like.

  • In Vinyasa Flow Yoga, I always do Surya Namaskar (Sun Salutations) and link other pose sequences with a vinyasa. I offer variations on the vinyasa to make it safer if you have injuries, are new to the practice, or just aren’t feeling it today. Ultimately, it’s up to you to choose the variations or ask me to explain them in more detail you aren’t sure how to practice for your body. This is a more vigorous practice, so take care of yourself and practice safely! In the world of Vinyasa Flow, I tend to teach a slower paced, more internally focused and meditative flow, and I am probably more alignment focused than many Vinyasa teachers, so I do take the time to talk about how to do the poses.
  • In Hatha Yoga, I will adapt the class depending on the students who attend and on what my theme or teaching point is for the day. Every class will be different! Some of my Hatha classes include Surya Namaskar (Sun Salutations), and I sometimes offer the option of taking a vinyasa for students who enjoy this practice. Generally speaking, we spend more time in each pose than we do in a Vinyasa Flow class, and we may use more props to explore different variations of the poses. There will be a variety of ways to transition from one pose to another beyond just the vinyasa, and we may even pause completely between poses instead of following a continuous flow.

Here are a few things to keep in mind:

  • If you’re brand new to the practice of yoga, have lots of questions about the poses, are recovering from injury or a hard workout, or are feeling very fatigued, Hatha might be a better choice.
  • My Vinyasa classes are slower paced and focused on alignment, so they are OK for relative beginners as long as you are fairly fit and injury-free.
  • Always, always listen to your body and don’t do anything in yoga class that hurts or feels wrong. You can always rest in Balasana (Child’s Pose) or any other pose, and you can always ask me for alternatives to the sequence we are doing. Anything I say is simply a suggestion, and you are in charge of your own practice. Remember: there is no destination or final pose to get to, and you should never try to push yourself beyond your limits in the practice. Everything we do in yoga is just an exploration.
  • Please let me know before class if you have any injuries or other physical conditions that might affect your practice, including if you are pregnant. If you need to speak in private, just let me know.
  • I also welcome questions, feedback, and requests! Please come a few minutes early and let me know what poses you want to do today and whether you want a more or less vigorous practice.
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Balance

Credit: I Nengah Januartha (Flickr Creative Commons)

If you’re new to yoga, you may notice that balance is a challenge. While some seem to soar effortlessly, you wobble and fall. At some point you may notice that the rest of your life is out of balance too. What happens on the yoga mat is often a metaphor for how we live the rest of our lives, which means that learning to balance in our yoga poses can help us find a healthy balance in everything we do.

How do you learn to balance on the mat? Well, you practice. You keep striving. The factors that can help you create balance in your physical body are many. With asana practice, you strengthen your muscles – not only the major muscle groups, but also the small stabilizer muscles that help steady your joints and keep you upright. You calm your mind, not getting caught up in your thoughts, and to support this practice, you focus your gaze and your attention on a fixed point (drishti). You learn the muscular and energetic actions needed for balance, such as grounding down through your base and pressing into the earth to create a lightness and lifting sensation, or hugging your legs in towards the midline to create stability. Through practice, you find your center of gravity and learn to align your body with it to find balance with minimal effort.

If yoga is a metaphor, then we can transfer the lessons we learn on the mat to the rest of our lives. How can you learn to balance your life off the mat?

  • Like those little stabilizer muscles that grow stronger with use and keep our joints steady, there are many small activities that we can do throughout the day that keep us steady and on track. It might be remembering to take a slow, deep breath now and then. Planning meals in advance so that there’s always good, health food available. Scheduling time each day to do something fun, even if it’s just reading a book for five minutes. These habits become strengthened with practice and can go a long way towards creating balance in our lives.
  • Practicing meditation and breath awareness, even for just a few minutes a day, can help us become aware of our thoughts so that we can detach from them, even in the midst of our busy lives.
  • Just as we find a drishti, a point of focus, in each pose, our lives need a point of focus. We need goals, dreams, objectives, and priorities in order to help us make choices about how to spend our time. By keeping our attention focused on stillness in the midst of chaos, we may be able to find more balance in our lives.
  • Staying grounded is important. There are a lot of ways you can stay grounded off the mat. Breath awareness and meditation support this feeling, but also having routines is grounding for some people. For others, it’s taking time to connect back in, whether that’s by taking a walk, playing music, doing yoga, painting, or any number of other activities. Finding what grounds you and making space for that in your life is an important part of balance.
  • The equivalent of hugging your legs and hips in towards the midline of your body might be keeping your energy focused on what is important. Although we’re often taught in our culture to see multitasking as a good thing, for many people trying to do too many things at once can throw your life off balance. Learning to say no to some of these things, or at the very least organizing your life in such a way that you can do one thing at a time can be an important part of finding balance for some people. What is most important to you? What can you let go of in your life?
  • Finally, building all these aspects of balance into your life can assist you to find and align with your center. Who are you at your core? Who do you want to be? What makes you happy? What are your goals? Are the things you’re choosing to do in your life aligned with those goals?

Over the past several years, my yoga practice has supported me as I move towards a greater sense of balance in my life, on and off the mat. Just like physical balance, life balance takes work – and it’s so worth it!

Eight Misconceptions about Yoga

There are a lot of misconceptions out there about yoga. This may be in part because we have such a wide variety of practices that are called yoga today, each with a slightly different focus. Some people are purists and believe that only practices with a long history can be called yoga. Personally, I feel that yoga is an evolving system, and each individual person needs to decide for herself which practices (new or old) resonate and feel genuine. The Buddha said, Doubt everything. Find your own light. The key questions to me are: does the practice help you be happier and improve the quality of your life? And does the practice increase your sense of connectedness and alignment of mind, body, and spirit?

Back to the misconceptions. There are many articles about this online, but I thought I would list and respond to a few ideas I often encounter that I consider to be misconceptions.

  1. I’m not flexible enough to do yoga. ☯ In fact, flexibility isn’t a prerequisite for doing yoga ~ it’s a result! When I started my yoga practice, I was a distance runner with tight hamstrings who couldn’t even close to touch my toes. Through years of practice of yoga poses (asana), I have gradually begun to regain my flexibility. If you aren’t very flexible, yoga asana is a great practice for you!
  2. I need to lose weight/ get in better shape before I can do yoga. ☯ If you are overweight or out of shape, some yoga practices might be inaccessible to you. However, there are lots of yoga practices which are accessible wherever you are with regards to your physical health and which can be incredibly beneficial. There is chair yoga for seniors, and yoga for people in wheelchairs. There are students and teachers who specialize in health challenges ranging from arthritis to MS to depression. For example, A Gentle Way Yoga in La Mesa specializes in plus size yoga and gentle/ adaptive yoga for health challenges. If you do have health/ weight/ fitness challenges, it is important to find the right class and teacher where you feel comfortable and supported in your practice.
  3. Yoga is the practice of physical yoga poses. ☯ Yoga can include the practice of physical poses or asana, but it is not simply an exercise class. The ancient system of yoga involves eight “limbs” of practice, which include the physical postures as well as breathing techniques, concentration and meditation practices, and a system of ethical behavior. The word “yoga” comes from the Sanskrit word for “to yoke or unite”. It is often described as any practice which helps us become balanced and connected with our deepest sense of self. Depending on the practitioner, yoga may be expressed through volunteer work, through song and music, through study and thought, through physical poses, through meditation, or a combination of these.
  4. Yoga is not really exercise. ☯ In contrast to the previous point, some people are reluctant to try yoga because they don’t think it will be “enough of a workout”. The 2010 Yoga Insight survey found that half of men who have never practiced yoga believe that it isn’t really exercise. If you are looking for a physical challenge, a vigorous vinyasa flow or astanga yoga class may be exactly what you’re looking for. Yoga has a wide range of benefits, from relaxation and stress relief to building strength, flexibility, and endurance. The fittest people I know are yogis ~ and while you are getting in your workout, you may be surprised by what other benefits you encounter, these tangible physical, mental and emotional benefits for a start, and maybe some other things (eg. making you change your career ~ like me!)
  5. Yoga is just for women. ☯ Yoga was originally developed in India by men for men. Women are relatively new to the practice, but certainly a lot more visible in the yoga wave sweeping the so-called “West”. However, I’m happy to report (anecdotally – I have no stats to back me up here) that I’m seeing more and more men in yoga classes here in San Diego ~ men of all ages, fitness levels and levels of yoga experience, and in a variety of studios too. And I think they are finding that yoga is manlier than they ever imagined because they are repeat customers. 🙂
  6. Yoga is a religion. ☯ Yoga does have spiritual elements, but it is not part of any one religion and can complement any religion, or none. If you are concerned about yoga practices conflicting with your religious beliefs, see if you can find a yoga class taught by a member of your religious community, or start one! While some yoga teachers do incorporate spiritual language into their teaching, many others do not. As with any other aspect of practice, it’s important to find the right teacher whose style resonates with you.
  7. There’s only one right way to do yoga, and if you can’t do it right, you can’t do yoga. ☯ There are so many different systems of yoga. Personally, I believe that any true system of yoga should be inclusive and embrace individuality, allowing for individual strengths to be drawn upon, individual challenges to be safely addressed, and individual discoveries to be made. There are certain alignment problems during practice that can be dangerous and certain poses are not safe to do if you have certain conditions, so do take the advice of a trained teacher seriously! However, trust your instincts. If you feel a teacher is being unnecessarily dogmatic and that doesn’t work for you, find another teacher. It doesn’t necessarily mean that teacher is wrong, but it does mean that you aren’t connecting with the teachings he is offering.
  8. Oh, you’re a yoga teacher. You must be able to pretzel yourself into all sorts of crazy shapes. Can you put your foot behind your head for me? ☯ I can’t put my foot behind my head. I’m only just starting to be able to fold forward in Upavistha Konasana (wide-legged forward bend). I have a terror of arm balances and inversions which I’m just starting to get over. I have never kicked up into handstand. I am learning to be compassionate with myself, to accept myself in my own body and mind, to let go of judgments and expectations that I will be different, little by little, to be where I am. That’s yoga. The effect it’s had in my life is so much greater than the ability to put my foot behind my head. Maybe I’ll be able to do that, too, some day… but that isn’t the point. Not any more.

What do you think? Do you agree that these are misconceptions? Have any others you’d like to share?