Like the fabled princess who had to kiss a lot of frogs before she found her prince, getting started with the right kind of yoga can take some time. You may have to try quite a few classes before you find your perfect match.
This is certainly how it was for me, when I first stepped on a mat over two decades ago. I dropped into my first class solely to enhance my fitness levels and spent time dabbling in a few different styles before I found the yoga I love. And it took more time again before I had that "Eureka!" moment many seasoned practitioners talk about, where I floated out of class, feeling something deep inside, suddenly realizing that there was more to yoga than meets the eye.
More important than the style you start with is your teacher. That's the person who will ignite that passion for yoga in you if it's there to be found. There's a certain alchemy that happens when you know you're in the right space, with the right teacher, whether that's online or in person. Their voice, their presence, the way they move around the room - it all combines in a magical package that inspires you to keep getting on the mat. But it's highly personal. So don't dismiss yoga just because you don't like the first class you go to, whether it's the teacher or the style that's not for you. That's like saying you'll never listen to music again because you don't like jazz. A yoga teacher may have excellent skills and the best intentions, but they're just not your type. Above all, let go of any idea you may have that yoga is only for flexible people. That's like saying that exercise is only for fit people. Yoga is for every body type, not just the bendy. The right style of yoga will help flexible people build the strength they need, while stiffer body types will find they become more flexible. The renowned yoga asana and philosophy teacher, Richard Freeman, talks about "The Blessed Stiff People", knowing that their yoga journey can go deeper because bending themselves into pretzels doesn't come so easily. They must practice real, authentic yoga, connecting to the breath and focusing the mind to allow their body to find the pose.
Here's a very brief overview of some of the yoga styles you're likely to find on the timetable at your local studio, as well as guidelines to help you identify a good teacher:
Hatha is a Sanskrit term for all physical yoga practices involving the body and breath, but today usually refers to a slower-paced class based on classical yoga poses. The class style can vary greatly depending on the teacher but will often be a gentle class, accessible to all levels.
Ashtanga (or Ashtanga Vinyasa) Yoga involves a set sequence of poses (asanas) that are practiced in a continuous flow, linking movement with breath. Strong and dynamic, the style has a reputation for being tough and challenging, but a good teacher will make it accessible to anyone. In its truest form, Ashtanga is taught "Mysore-style", where each student works to their own level while the teacher quietly assists on a one-to-one basis. The room is largely silent except for the sound of the breath. You're encouraged to come to class as often as possible to memories the sequence and establish your self-practice.
Vinyasa Flow Yoga
Derived from both Ashtanga and Iyengar Yoga, Vinyasa Flow involves practicing the poses in a flow, linking movement with breath. There is no set sequence to a Vinyasa class, and the level and order of asana will vary according to the teacher.
In a Yin class, you will sit or lie on the floor for almost all poses. It's a slow, quiet, and profoundly meditative class where postures are held for several minutes. Based on Taoist principles, the idea is that holding the poses for an extended time targets the body's deep connective tissues and encourages the flow of "chi" or energy through the meridians in the body.
Razor-like precision on alignment is the hallmark of Iyengar yoga. Poses are held as the teacher carefully checks alignment, and the sequence varies from class to class. Props such as belts, blocks, blankets, sandbags, and chairs are used to help students find the optimum version of the pose for their bodies.
How to recognize a good teacher
- You feel nurtured, encouraged, and supported in the environment they've created.
- They may earn your respect over time, but they never demand it.
- You're never made to feel "less than", instead offered modifications and encouragement for poses you find difficult.
- Demonstrating a pose for the benefit of the student is fine, but a good teacher will also be keeping an eye on their students, not just lost in their own performance.
- They are not afraid to say they don't know when asked a question.
- You leave the class feeling good and eager to return.
The founder of Yin Yoga, Paul Grilley, talks about how every style of yoga needs to be experienced to be really understood. It's like the difference between reading a menu and tasting the food. Words can never quite convey what the food tastes like, and so much depends on your personal preference. So, if you don't like the first class you try, don't dismiss yoga as not being for you. Keep trying until you find a style you enjoy. And give yoga a fighting chance. Don't sign up for a six-week course only to skip a class three weeks in. Prioritize your yoga practice. Yoga will work its magic if you allow it to, but as with any new practice or hobby, you've got to stick with it to let that happen. In the Yoga Sutras, the sage Patanjali advised that for yoga to become firmly grounded within us, we must practice with sincere commitment over a long time. It's a truism that's lasted thousands of years.
You might also find that your tastes change as time goes by. If I had walked into a Yin class on my first try of yoga all those years ago, for example, I'd have fled the studio, possibly writing off yoga for life. My mind was way too busy to endure the long, slow, silent holds involved in a Yin practice. But now that the moving meditation of Ashtanga has worked its magic over many years, I love to practice Yin. It's a great complement to my flowing, dynamic Ashtanga practice. Someone else, though, might walk into a Yin class on Day One and feel right at home. That's why, when I'm asked what the best kind of yoga for a beginner is, my answer is always to say, "Well, it depends on the beginner", and take things from there.
Try a class, find a teacher. Give yourself time to fall in love with yoga. A regular practice can be deeply transformational, helping you know yourself better, so you can be happier, healthier, and more fulfilled. So be warned: yoga may end up changing your life, even if you only intended opening your hamstrings.
Ríonach O’Flynn teaches Ashtanga, Yin and Yoga Teacher Trainings at her studio in Delgany, County Wicklow, Ireland and in Uzes, France. Find out more at www.rionachoflynn.com
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