Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Yogis and Yoga: One

Four weeks ago I began teaching - in addition to aikido - three weekly yoga classes. Sundays and Monday evenings it’s yoga and aikido back to back; Tuesdays, yoga at 6:30 a.m., aikido in the evening.

I wrote the piece you're reading right now two weeks ago, and it's only now, transiting Kuwait, that I've had the chance to get this posted. I am on my way to Thailand where I'll spend one week as a guest at yoga retreat on the southern end of Koh Samui, an island in the Gulf of Thailand. http://www.yoga-thailand.com/

Can you imagine yoga instruction in Iraq during the reign of Saddam? I am unable to conjure the scene. It is likely there was little to no yoga instruction in existence. If there was yoga going on anywhere in Iraq it was likely deeply underground. There are enlightened individuals in Iraq but such practice is not condoned in this region of the world.

What style of yoga do I teach? I’d have to know how much you know to be able to apply a “style” label. One staffer here asked me if I’m teaching hatha style yoga. Hmm. He was surprised when I told him the yoga most Westerners know is hatha (physical) yoga. Yoga is a traditional physical and mental discipline for uniting (from the Sanskrit root yuj, meaning to control or yoke, unite, as in an oxen yoke joining plow to beast) body and mind. The major branches are:

Raja yoga – meditation, control of the mind
Karma yoga – doing good deeds
Jnana yoga – study
Bhakti yoga – devotion
Hatha - physical asanas (postures)

The focus in hatha yoga is purification of the physical body which leads to the purification of the mind (ha), and prana, or vital energy (tha). Breathing practice, pranayama, is also included in hatha yoga. There is no standard, cookie-cutter hatha yoga. Yogis in India created varying forms of hatha yoga based on who knows what – their particular body type, the climate (altitude?) in which they practiced, and their own spiritual evolution.

Hatha yoga has moved to the west both by yogis traveling to the west and by Westerners traveling east, to India. Yogis of Indian origin have moved throughout the world, including North America. Many of the contemporary, popular “styles” of yoga are named after the yogi who devised a particular “system” (such as Iyengar, Sivananda, Integral, Bikram). Then along come the next generation(s) of teachers, western students who grow into yoga teachers (yogis, yoginis) in their own right. The big names in American yoga have opened centers of study which not only teach “regular folks” but also certify teachers (to teach their “style”).

My first Yogi ! (And his sidekick, Boo Boo)

This part, the phase of translating one yogi’s “system” into one’s own is the part which I think while fascinating leads to confusion. (This is not exclusive to yoga; it’s common in all expressive forms such as music, art, dance, drama – and, yes, very much so in aikido.) You may have two teachers who studied the same “system” of yoga yet you will experience different classes with those two teachers. And, like the arts, a yogi’s early teachings are liable to have evolved in his later teachings, so much so that those who studied under him during separate (early, middle or late) phases would have disparate experiences of the same teacher.

That is the way it is. Those of us who insist on categorizing and imposing order onto our world find such murky descriptors of yoga exasperating. Expect further confusion as yoga is popularized through marketing, advertising and publicity (another topic for me to write about another day). I regret the marketing of yoga in the United States because the practice has been adapted into the one-more-fitness-class-you-can’t-live-without mold.

Yet we want to know. What’s this one, what’s that one, why this, why not that? My short answer: stop analyzing, stop thinking, just try a class, a style, get a sense of whether it fits you, your body. You liked the class well enough to try it again? Keep going. An instructor is always good for the beginning phase of learning yoga, but once you’ve got the hang of it you can commence with your own home practice. My own practice deepened when I began my own sadhana (practice) on my time, my schedule, my way (and with helpful kitties to watch and lie on top of me during savasana, corpse pose, or final relaxation).

Below is a description of a few of the better known yoga styles with which I’m familiar. In my own practice I have taken what I consider the best from each of my own teachers (from yoga classes, ashrams and audio guides) and synthesize them into my own practice. My home practice is more rigorous and of longer duration than what I teach. What I prefer most of the time is Ashtanga (vinyasa, or flow), with partly Integral and Kripalu, especially when I can practice in weather (or climate) as hot as possible to stimulate profuse perspiration (say, Washington, D.C., in the summer a room without air conditioning – and Baghdad).


A serious workout for those who want it. Developed by K. Pattabhi Jois (Mysore, India), Ashtanga is physically demanding. Participants move through a series of vinyasa (flows), jumping from one posture to another to build strength, it is not a leisurely approach to fitness. I learned this style through Ganga White and Tracey Rich of the White Lotus Foundation. (“Power” yoga is based on Ashtanga; I have read that the word “power” was intentionally selected to appeal to fitness-driven Westerners. Sigh.) Ganga White, with Anna Forrest, wrote Double Yoga, the practice of yoga with a partner, often in mirror image, while maintaining physical contact. Contact with a partner allows you to use your partner as an anchor, a fulcrum, and a pulley to more deeply explore a stretch. Beautiful, beyond the beyonds.


Also called “hot” yoga, the system was devised by Bikram Choudhury. Originally popularized in Los Angeles, now spread throughout the world. The thermostat is set above one hundred degrees and a strict series of twenty-six asanas, done twice, are done to warm and stretch muscles, ligaments and tendons. If you know the routine, why go to a class (commute, pay) when you live in a hot climate? Image of poster on left depicts the routine.


Developed by Swami Satchidananda, the man who taught the crowds at the original Woodstock to chant "Om," Integral classes put almost as much emphasis on pranayama (breathing) and meditation as they do on postures. Integral yoga is used by Dr. Dean Ornish in his groundbreaking work on reversing heart disease. Swami Satchidananda (still alive) established my favorite yoga ashram – in a settlement named, I kid you not, Yogaville – south of Charlottesville, Virginia, on the east bank of the James River. The facility, grounds, and staff seem the most authentic I’ve encountered. Swami Satchidananda honors the eight major religions in a eight-petaled lotus (I admit, it appears as a nod to Disney in the bucolic James River valley) pavilion-shrine on the river, stating, “Truth is one, paths are many.” Inside, the main level of the pavilion consists of a velvety dark meditation room on which each one of the eight petals reveals a symbol of one of the eight major religions.

B.K.S. Iyengar developed the style of practice which pays intense attention to detail and the precise alignment of postures. Props, such as blocks, belts, rolled towels and chairs, can be used to assist maintaining an asana for five minutes or more. To undertake Iyengar practice you must begin at the beginner level, no matter how long you’ve studied yoga; you can only progress to other levels by completing the sequence of phases of study.


Developed by Swami Kripalavananda, sometimes called the yoga of consciousness, Kripalu emphasizes proper breath, alignment, coordinating breath and movement, and "honoring the wisdom of the body" - you work according to the limits of your individual flexibility and strength. Alignment follows awareness. Students learn to focus on the physical and psychological reactions caused by various postures to develop awareness of mind, body, emotion and spirit. There are three stages: Stage One, learning the postures and exploring your body’s abilities; Stage Two, holding the postures for an extended time, developing concentration and inner awareness; Stage Three, is like a meditation in motion in which the movement from one posture to another arises unconsciously and spontaneously. Ashram in Lenox, Mass.

Comments, questions, musings? Criticism, opinion, declaration? Wishes, blessings, prayers?

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~ Carol

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