Most asked question of the month: OMG! What is the difference between all these styles of yoga?
A Sankrit combination of ‘ha’ – many times translated as ‘sun,’ and which signifies the pingala, one of the major energy channels of your body; and ‘tha’ often said to mean moon, signifying the second major energy channel, the ida. (The other major channel is the central channel, named the Sushumna). A yoga class that is Hatha yoga implies a certain level of physical, intentional effort which is said to cleanse the body of toxins and blockages. The term hatha is relatively inclusive of many styles of yoga.
You can read the Hatha Yoga Pradipika – a ancient foundational text covering the core practices of hatha yoga – on line. It’s also available in bookstores.
Kripalu style yoga emphasizes three “stages” of yoga experience. The stages progress on their own as you practice over time.
In the first stage, postures are willfully engaged (meaning you decide to be in the posture) and are usually held while you take one to three breaths.
In the second stage, the practitioner begins to notice “pranic urges” a sort of inner guidance that let’s you know what might be the next appropriate movement (which may or may not be a posture) to free up the flow of life force in your own body. This may be different for you than the person next to you if you are in a class, so when you are in a Kripalu class you will often hear encouragement to follow your own practice. This isn’t an invitation to tune out and do your own thing as much as it is an invitation to bring your attention deeper, toward the responses you may be feeling to the sequence of postures you’ve already engaged. In this second stage, often practiced as a moderate class at Kripalu, postures are typically held longer, 5 to 7 breaths, in order to allow time for self observation.
In the third stage, the movement and postures are spontaneous rather than willed.This stage may arrive suddenly, or may never be experienced at all, by even a devoted yogi. A stage three experience may last a few moments or hours. It is NOT a goal of practice to “do” stage three. If it happens, it’s a spontaneous action of life force flowing freely where it may have been previously blocked or constrained.
Kripalu yoga is often considered a gentle style of yoga because of its emphasis on attending to personal experience. This makes it ideal for people who experience health conditions which require learning to discern when activities are too much (or not enough) for you specifically. Rather than doing what you are told, you learn to do what is right for you, in the moment.
My Kripalu teachers are Naresh Ron King and Yoganand Michael Carroll. There are many fine Kripalu teachers throughout the country and you can locate one from the Kripalu website.
In many styles of yoga classes, the postures are offered in sequences, i.e., deeper postures are asked for after postures which warm up muscles or joints have been practiced. In Vinyasa stye yoga classes, the sequences are not static, but dynamic. To use a metaphor it’s like the difference between looking at a series of photographs and watching a movie.
Vinyasa features postures that flow from one to the next with the breath in the same way that classic sun salutations do. And like sun salutations, a flowing sequence may be repeated over and over. So while in a Kripalu class you may do Vrksasana (triangle) once or twice to each side, in a vinyasa class a flow that includes vrksasana may be repeated three to six times to each side and then added to another flowing sequence as well.
Because of this, vinyasa can be a vigorous, athletic style of yoga. It is also typically graceful, developing balance and flexibility in motion. Many practitioners describe it as dance-like, but this does not mean sloppy or casual. Instead, vinyasa brings a sense of alive focus and helps the practitioner overcome rigidity.
As you inhale you move to one posture, as you exhale you move to the next. The transitions between postures may themselves have vinyasa movements, such as inhaling the arms over head and then exhaling them into a new postural position, and these transitions may be repeated several times to deepen focus and warm the body.
Again, many styles of yoga have vinyasa variants, often called Power Yoga, and there’s even a variant called Slow Flow.
I have done very gentle vinyasas with people who suffer pain, limited range of motion, and post traumatic stress, including a remarkable group of military vets. The built-in pranayama of vinyasa helps people “stay in their body” in a way that sitting still for pranayama does not always support, and it eases tension, relieving pain and anxiety.
My own vinyasa teacher is Shiva Rea. She has many dvds available and teaches widely, so you may be able to take a class with her when she is traveling.
Most yoga classes will ask you to pay attention to something called alignment. Alignment may help to protect vulnerable joints or it may increase the effort and focus necessary to enter a posture, assuring the practitioner the possibility of the full benefit of engagement. Without any attention to alignment, there is little opportunity of experiencing the movement of your prana, or life force.
In Iyengar style practice, the focus on alignment is very explicit and often quite detailed. It develops body awareness and intense commitment to self observation. In an Iyengar style class the postures are held longer – three minutes, five minutes, even fifteen minutes or more depending on the level of practice. The goal is not athletic but rehabilitative. Deeply held body posture patterns are revealed as fatigue sets in, especially during early years of practice. The awareness of consciousness itself is rehabilitated from fear, sloth or dullness as it becomes possible to explore your own range of responses to the sensation of remaining in a posture over a longer period of time.
Many deeply held ideas we hold about ourselves are similar in nature to body posture habits. As we discipline our physical potential for commitment and awareness, we also reform our ideas of who we really are, as well.
The signature text of Iyengar practice is Light on Yoga by B K S Iyengar. Even if you don’t elect to take Iyengar style classes, you may find this book a prized companion in your personal practice. Mine is dog eared with love and full of little sticky notes.
My Iyengar teacher is Kofi Busia, may the universe bless his soul for his patience with my headstands.
The following two forms are those with which I am least personally familiar and I welcome mail from those of you who would like to help guide choices (so darlings, I’m saying, no marketing or unfriendly, competitive remarks!)
Although many yoga styles offer sequences that vary from class to class, in Ashtanga the practice is of the same series of postures each time. Over time, the practitioner advances from one form, or series, to the next. Although alignment is important, I’ve been told by my yoga friends who practice Ashtanga that there is more of an emphasis on getting there one way or another, allowing the body to adapt and open in response to the demand placed upon it. Those I know who prefer Ashtanga describe it as a strong physical practice with equally strong benefits.
By the way, variety is not everything. I have gone years at various points doing exactly the same sequence of postures and have found the discipline and the lack of distraction an extremely compelling practice. Don’t dismiss Ashtanga out of hand just because the series are consistent. If you find doing the same sequence boring, it may be exactly what you need to get yourself out of mental dissociation and back into your body.
Like Ashtanga, Bikram yoga offers an unvarying sequence, 26 postures and 2 pranyamas, with the addition of practicing in a heated 105 degree room. (This is true of some other forms of Mysore yoga. Mysore yoga mats are often rug-like to absorb sweat.)
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Outside Chance: The Yoga of Possibility December 12 – 14, 2008 @ Kripalu
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