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Yoga Sampler

Posted Apr 23 2011 7:07pm

One of the components of this yoga teacher training program is to complete a series of personally-selected classes. Initially, I was going to take a 4-week “Personal Practice Development Series”. In this option, a small group of students works with an experienced teacher from the studio; the goal of the series is to help each student deepen his/her own practice. However, early on in the training program I heard from various peers who had completed this option that the time they spent with their teacher was not very “hands-on”. That is, in their small group meetings the teacher and the students mostly talked about yoga, and didn’t actually do much yoga. Additionally, several teachers gave rather time-consuming homework assignments – but again, these “complete-on-your-own” tasks were largely based on theory, not practice.

I wanted my personal series selection to be very robust from an ‘experiential’ (i.e., hands-on/active) standpoint, so I decided to make a different choice. After a few months of looking for a good option, I found a perfect (for me) class series: Introduction to Aerial Yoga.  Aerial yoga uses a big fabric sling as a prop; the sling supports a person’s body weight, and also assists with balance. In using the sling, difficult poses are ‘easier’ to attain properly. Certainly I was interested in achieving better alignment in my poses; but really, I thought that doing yoga like an aerialist would just be really, really fun. And that’s one of the big reasons I started this whole yoga teacher training gig – to have some fun! (And to physically get better at yoga, as well as to better understand the correct way to do asanas, and to gain more knowledge about yoga as a whole.)

So I signed up for the aerial yoga series, and was really, really excited to start it. But the day before the first class, the teacher called me and told me that the series was going to be canceled due to low enrollment.

What? No!! :(

I was really disappointed.

And I had to return to the drawing board.

A third option for completing this requirement of the training program was to take a 6-week Beginning Series (i.e., weekly classes that meet for a month-and-a-half, that teach the very basics of yoga asana, usually to a small group of very novice students.) While there is definitely value in ‘going back to basics’ and really closely examining some fundamentals, I feel like I have already spent a lot of time doing that in the core sessions of this program. So while I think it would be an excellent idea for me to take a beginning series once a year as a refresher/reminder, I think I’ve already actually ‘done’ that for this year, via the bi-monthly training program core sessions I’ve completed over the past year.

Goodness, who knew that completing what was supposed to be a fun personal selection would turn out to be so difficult?!

The final choice I was given to complete this program requirement was to take 6 different drop-in classes – basically, just go to any six regular classes taught at the studio. Seeing as how this was the only option that remained, I guess it will be the path I select. I chose to approach this six-class-pass as a ‘yoga sampler’: I will experience six different styles of yoga, so that I can see which one(s) I might really like, and which one(s) I probably shouldn’t invest any more time in (or spend any more money on).

Here’s the rundown of how my yoga styles survey fared, and what I learned in the process:

1) Iyengar Yoga: The first Iyengar-based class I took was taught by a substitute teacher. The class wasn’t very good, but I thought maybe that was because of the teacher. (And I don’t mean any disrespect here; it’s just that since she was subbing, maybe she wasn’t as prepared as the regular teacher might have been…or perhaps Iyengar isn’t the sub’s preferred style of yoga [and so maybe she didn't have as much passion for it as the primary teacher might have had]…). So I actually went back to the Iyengar class the following week, and the regular teacher was teaching; and nope, I still didn’t like it. Iyengar-style classes focus a lot on meticulous precision of poses – and while accurate alignment and correct body posture/positioning are all good things, I found that the precision came at the expense of a dynamic yoga experience. An entire 90-minute Iyengar class can focus on only four or five different poses – and as no ‘normal’ human can hold a single pose for 15 consecutive minutes, many breaks and pauses were embedded in the class. As a result, to me the experience felt more like a detailed asana-study workshop than it did an actual yoga ‘class’. While I like attending workshops on occasion, I don’t them to serve as the primary means by which I experience yoga – I adore a more flowing-movement asana practice. So, no more Iyengar for me (for the near future, anyway).

2) Tantra Yoga: Tantra yoga is about overtly integrating most (if not all) of the 8 limbs of yoga into each class experience. So in addition to asana (pose) practice, the tantra yoga class also included pranyama (breath work), a focus on select yamas/niyamas (ethical guidelines), and a small bit of meditation. I liked that the class attempted to inform students that there is more to yoga than just poses; and I appreciated the gentle transition into (and out of) the class with breath work and meditation. If meditation were something I was looking to cultivate (and if I didn’t already have a daily meditation practice of my own), I think I would really appreciate this style of class. However, I do engage in 20-30 minutes of meditation every morning, so what I’m looking for in a yoga class is more active breath/body connection (via asana practice) than what sitting meditation provides. I think a tantra class would be good to attend when I’m feeling really mentally scattered and want to re-establish mindfulness/body-and-breath connection in a more physical way; but I don’t think this is going to be my preferred weekly yoga class.

3) “Hatha” Yoga: To clarify straight away, all yoga is “hatha” yoga. “Hatha” translates to “yoga” – so “hatha yoga” literally means “yoga yoga”. One of my personal pet peeves is when people say they do “hatha yoga” – because really, they aren’t saying much, except that they do yoga. But that’s my personal issue, and I own it. So, okay – yoga yoga it is.

I took a 75-minute intermediate-level class from one of the teachers in the studio; and I learned that when it comes to ‘hatha yoga’, each class is largely dependent on the teacher’s own personal preferences, style, and demeanor/mood. Whereas in a tantra or an Iyengar class a student has a general sense of what they’re likely getting in to before they walk in the door, with hatha yoga the class structure and content is really unknown. One teacher may love standing poses and not do much with inversions, another teacher may be all about poses that require balance but not much strength…one teacher may spend a lot of time chanting and breathing (and as a result spend less time on asana practice), whereas another teacher may focus exclusively on the physical body and not attend much to the emotional or spiritual body…and on and on. So – when it comes to hatha yoga, finding an instructor that teaches content one agrees with, in a style that one likes and appreciates (or at least respects), is mostly a process of trial-and-error.

The hatha class that I took was fine – the teacher spent adequate time on centering at the beginning of class, yet still provided ample time for asana practice. She taught a good variety of types of asanas (i.e., some poses that develop strength, some that focus on balance, some that are more challenging, and some that are relatively ‘easy’), and possessed adequate knowledge of alignment. But for me, something was missing from her style. She was fine, but she was ‘just’ fine – I didn’t feel anything super-special, or overly inspirational, or awesomely-appealing in her class. It was a nice class, but that’s all it was – just “nice”. So it was good for me to attend this session, as I now know what I can expect from this instructor – but I likely won’t be going back to this class. There are other teachers in the yoga environment around me that are a better fit for me.

4) Vinyasa Yoga, 75 minutes: Vinyasa yoga is similar to hatha yoga in that the structure and content of a vinyasa class are loosely defined (i.e., it’s assumed that a lot of dynamic movement will be included in the class), but each session is still open to quite a lot of subjectivity by the teacher. So again, finding a “good” vinyasa class usually involves a lot of shopping around, and is a very subjective and personal assessment.

I got really lucky in my vinyasa taste-test; I found a terrific class on the first try. The teacher was demanding-yet-understanding, confident-yet-not-cocky, and incredibly knowledgeable in both asana alignment and yogic philosophy. That last bit is particularly important to me, for two reasons: 1) Because I am so incredibly flexible, I really can twist and contort my body into nearly any position or posture that is asked of me. So I need to trust (and indeed, I need to know) that the teacher fully understands and has mentally internalized proper pose alignment, and that he/she will guide me only into positions that are safe; 2) My yoga practice is as much about mental and emotional health as it is about physical challenge; as such, I seek (and really, I need) yoga teachers who teach classes from the holistic yoga perspective (i.e., I desire teachers who focus not only on breath and body alignment and congruence, but who also call attention to and demonstrate respect for the traditions and beliefs of authentic 8-limbed yoga).

The vinyasa teacher I had the opportunity to take a class from was a wonderful fit regarding all of the above; I felt genuinely elated after leaving her session. I will certainly attend her classes again, even after this teacher training program ends. (Indeed, I have already been back to her class several times.)  :)

5) Vinyasa Yoga, 60 minutes: The yoga studio recently introduced a new class concept: “Yoga On The Go.” The premise is that some students are too busy for a full 90-minute or 75-minute class, and want more of a “gym”-type class than a yoga studio experience. I was curious as to how a 60-minute class would function (and feel) differently than a 90-min/75-min class, so I attended one. What the heck, right? :)

Again, each class experience is very dependent on the individual teacher leading the session. For this class, the teacher was actually someone who had just completed the same teacher training program I am in – cool! It was very interesting for me to take a class from a newly-minted teacher (as compared to the very experienced instructors I have had the benefit of learning from thus far). Yet, for being “new”, this teacher was very, very good. I was very, very impressed.

As far as the class logistics, the primary difference between this class and a longer version vinyasa class is that the centering (at the beginning of the session) at the savasana (at the end of the class) were both pretty darn brief. No real instruction was given regarding breathing, except for the reminders to breathe, preferably using ujaii breath. The poses included in the class were generally middle-of-the-road asanas (so, no super-challenging poses, because there simply wasn’t enough time to get into them and/or explore them safely). In effect, it was a very ‘average’ type of class; exactly what I would expect if I took a yoga class from a standard corporate gym. If I am ever *really* pressed for time, or if this type of class is all my schedule will allow during a given week, I would consider taking this type of class again – but it wouldn’t be my preference, and certainly I wouldn’t make these my “home base” classes.

6) Ashtanga Yoga: Finally, we come to the last class I experienced in my 6-class yoga sampler: Ashtanga Yoga. While I hadn’t overtly “planned” things this wait it is actually very fitting that this class was the last one in my hand-crafted series: holy crap was this class wicked difficult!

The Ashtanga class I completed was “the primary series” – which is an established set of poses , done in a very specific order, in a very specific way, held for a very specific number of breaths. In other words, every Ashtanga primary series class is the same, no matter who teaches it, no matter where they teach it. If you take a primary series class, you know exactly what you will be getting.

Only, I had never experienced the primary series before, so I actually didn’t know what I would be getting. Boy, was I in for an adventure…

The primary series is certainly an “advanced” set of poses, assembled in such a way that they make for a very challenging class. But that’s cool – I’m a semi-advanced yogi, and I like challenging classes.

Um, yeah…

I had a very fun time in the class, I really did. I had never done a few of the poses we were instructed to complete in an actual yoga class before (I had learned about all of the poses in various core sessions throughout my teacher training program, but had never seen a teacher use them in a ‘real’ class) so it was fun for me to twist, bend, explore, and play. However. Towards the end of the class (i.e., near the last 20 minutes or so) I felt myself starting to get rather fatigued. By the last 10 minutes of class, I was pretty much spent. As I gingerly made my way into the final pose (savasana), I could feel gentle trembling in my arms and legs; my limbs had turned to jelly. An hour after the class ended, I felt soreness enter many of my muscles. By mid-afternoon (the class went from 8-9:30 am), I was struggling a bit to stand from a seated position, or lift my arms above my head. Um, yeah; this class kicked my butt.

Indeed, I was out-and-out sore for a full three days after the class.

But it was awesome. And I know if I keep at it, I will be able to do amazing things. So I’m definitely going back.

But probably not for another week or two. ;)

So, there it is: my yoga sampler journey. At the end of it all, I’m really quite pleased with how this segment of the training program turned out. I got to try many new things, and I learned a lot in the process.

And there are still a few styles of yoga I have never experienced that I would like to try. I definitely want to get to an aerial yoga class – and hopefully sooner rather than later. “Slow Flow” and “Urban Flow” are two classes that have interesting descriptions – I’m curious about these home-grown styles as well. I’m also intrigued by Jivamukti; even though the tech session on this topic was disappointing, I’d still like to give the class a fair shake. So even after I graduate from my training program, I want to continue to try new things. While I might be a teacher on paper, I’m really a learner at heart.

Stef


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