FAQs about Yoga
...a lifestyle practice. It teaches us how to notice and respond with awareness and compassion to any and every incident that presents itself. For instance, in a yoga class, we challenge ourselves to maintain stillness, presence of mind, and fluid breath while holding an uncomfortable pose. This learning infuses our body, mind and spirit with a memory that can serve us well at the office, or at home with our partners and kids. When something irritating, scary or uncomfortable happens, we can access our visceral memory of handling that uncomfortable situation with grace, breath and presence of mind. For an inspiring read, check out Yoga and the Path of the Urban Mystic by San Francisco yoga teacher Darren Main (one of my first teachers). It details the eight limbs (ash-tanga) of yoga in very accessible format.
Many styles of yoga have evolved over the years, with their roots in the same set of asanas (poses) and a shared fundamental intention - to prepare the body for experiencing higher states of consciousness. Where they diverge is in approach to points of focus, breath, alignment, and the length of time the poses are held. They also diverge in terms of the use of props, music or chanting and the teaching of yogic philosophy. Below are some general definitions and descriptions of (Westernized) Yoga classes in the Bay Area:
Hatha Yoga. This is an umbrella term for all forms of yoga. "Hatha" listed by itself, as opposed to "hatha flow," usually refers to a slower paced class that focuses on breath, and holds the asanas (poses) for a bit longer than the flow classes. In terms of content and level, it will vary from teacher to teacher, and class to class. Integral yoga and Iyengar yoga are both generally non-flowing classes. This is the broadest descriptor for a yoga class; it can mean many things.
Flow, Hatha Flow, Power Flow, and Vinyasa. These are all variations on the theme of sequencing asanas (poses) together with the use of breath. I like to call it "meditation in motion." Poses are typically held for 3 to 5 breaths and music is frequently used to enhance the flowing, dance-like experience of the practice. Ashtanga and Anusara are both flowing forms of yoga.
Restorative Yoga. In restorative yoga, attention is paid to allowing the body to release all tension by surrendering into poses for long periods of time (up to 15 minutes each), with the assistance of many props. Restorative classes provide a very therapeutic environment for the body, mind and soul. Some forms of restorative yoga include gentle stretching in addition to the long-held resting poses. Others, like Judith Lassater's Relax & Renew yoga, focus entirely on tension release, without the action of stretching. I recommend that every yoga student infuse their practice with restorative yoga from time to time. It is blissful, and an important antidote to the pace of life in the Western world.
Ashtanga Yoga. Ashtanga yoga originated in Mysore, South India under the teachings of Sri Krishnamacharya as taught to Sri K. Pattabi Jois and others (including B.N.S Iyengar - my teacher in Mysore) in the early 1900s. It is a rigorous flowing sequence of asanas taught with almost exclusive focus on the breath.
Anusara Yoga. Anusara founder John Friend has done a beautiful job of integrating a heart-centered approach to practicing yoga with very useful techniques for finding and maintaining alignment (using his "Universal Principles of Alignment"). The classes can either flow or not, but - because the use of heart-centered language helps the student connect mind, body and spirit - the experience tends to be quite meditative.
Iyengar Yoga. Focusing strongly on physical alignment, this form of yoga blossomed in Pune, India, under the teachings of B.K.S. Iyengar, student of Sri Krishnamacharya. It's a form of yoga that is wonderful for all beginners, and for any student looking to enhance their own practice with precision in healthy body alignment. Poses are held for longer periods of time and props are a major component to assist students in finding good alignment.
How do I choose a style that's right for me?
Over time and with consistency, yoga encourages personal growth on many levels: You'll gain physical strength and stamina, energy, flexibility of body and mind, and mental clarity, to name a few. So find a studio that's convenient to your home or workplace, making yoga easier to integrate into your routine. Start with a style that sounds interesting to you, and try it for several classes. Then try another style. Notice how you feel during and after each class. Some classes will be inspiring, leaving you with a feeling of elation and calm. Some will be difficult, but will leave you feeling strong and grounded. Feeling fatigued, discouraged or dehydrated after a class is a bad sign. Some classes will stir-up some of the "muck" in your life - muck from issues which have been hiding inside your heart and tissues that no longer serve you. As you explore different styles and teachers, you'll be drawn to choosing the "right" one(s) for you based on your own growing self-awareness.
How should I choose a teacher?
Choose a teacher(s) who inspires, and attend to practicing safely in the group setting, at a studio that's convenient to your home or workplace. Try not to be too dogmatic. It's good to check out new teachers and styles. If you show up to a "favorite" class and there's a substitute teacher, open your heart, unroll your mat, and try it out! You might learn something totally new and glorious.
How many days per week should I do yoga?
For beginners, my general rule of thumb is to practice at least every other day. This will allow your body time to rest, but not to return to lethargy. You'll build strength and flexibility more quickly and the practice will pull you in. More experienced yogis can practice daily, though it is recommended to practice gently or not at all during the full moon. A little bit of daily practices goes a longer way than a long session only once a week. Try getting on your mat for just 15 minutes a day!
Is it okay to practice yoga during menstruation?
In traditional times, women would completely refrain from practicing yoga during menstruation. If you prefer to practice, however, I recommend practicing gently, with an understanding and honoring of your body's needs and energy level. Inversions should be avoided, however, so that the natural downward flow of fluids is not discouraged.
Is it safe to do yoga while injured?
Clearly, this depends on the kind of injury. In spite of your zeal to practice, sometimes laying low is the best solution - to give the body time to restore itself. However, if you plan to practice, let the teacher know that you're dealing with an injury. Most teachers can help you figure out alternatives to poses or sequences that could otherwise exacerbate your injury.
How did you get involved with Yoga?
My path to yoga was long and winding. It started with Tang Soo Do (a Korean martial art) at age 14, which sustained me until I left for college where myriad other physical activities kept me busy until settling in San Francisco in 1993, when I happily returned to the martial arts. I taught basic Karate techniques and self-defense to children, and got inspired to search for a dojo. During my search, I stumbled upon San Francisco's burgeoning Capoiera scene and fell in love with the fluid motion of this Brazilian martial dance. Unfortunately, an increase in my nearly chronic back pain inspired a friend to invite me to her yoga class - and that's all she wrote. Relief from the pain after a single class sold me on the efficacy of Yoga for my body. I never went back to Capoiera, never found a dojo, and have been practicing and studying yoga ever since.
Which form of yoga do you practice and why?
I started out practicing Ashtanga, and found the moving meditation to be perfect for my spirit, but not so great for my shoulders and knees. So I went in search of different teachers and different styles of yoga. Since then, my approach to practicing and teaching yoga has been a complete integration of my own experience, listening to and attending to how I feel at any given moment. I love to integrate my knowledge of fluid Anusara and Ashtanga yoga, with quieter hatha styles like Integral and Kripalu, and therapeutic styles like Iyengar and restorative yoga. Since 1997, my practice has shifted to include a greater focus on subtle energy, and lesser focus on musculature. These are key aspects of Adi Yoga and Kundalini Yoga, which I learned during my seven year Tantric Study Program.
What are the benefits of a private yoga session?
Private yoga sessions can be just the right step towards stabilizing you in your practice, whether you're new to yoga, or already a dedicated practitioner.
New students receiving one-on-one support can become familiar with the basic poses presented in group yoga classes, Sanskrit terminology, the proper manner of breathing to support a healthy practice, and flow sequences typical of many yoga classes. Furthermore, students will begin to understand their own body's strengths and limitations, and will learn ways to modify poses to ensure a safe and healthy practice, whether at home in front of a yoga video, or in a classroom full of other students.
Dedicated practitioners will receive verbal and physical adjustments for proper alignment (in many cases unlearning poor habits resulting from long-term attendance in large classes), more specific attention to drishti (focal point), and injury prevention techniques that aren't always available to students in larger class settings. These dedicated practitioners will also have an opportunity to fine-tune their use of pranayama (breath-work) to enhance their asana practice.
People with injuries from yoga or elsewhere, or with limitations resulting from conditions such as scoliosis or sciatica, can benefit enormously from solo time with an instructor. Students learn modifications to suit their unique capacities, so that they may join a larger class with enough skill and knowledge to stay healthy and feel great throughout and beyond each practice.