Pick Your Yoga Practice: Exploring and Understanding Different Styles of Yoga

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The first book to describe the most prominent yoga styles in depth, including teaching methodology, elements of practice, philosophical and spiritual underpinnings, class structure, physical exertion, and personal attention.

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13 Chapters

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Chapter One: Yoga Explained

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No longer associated with the counterculture of the 1960s, when many Americans first turned to yoga in search of a drugless high, yoga has become a nationwide cultural phenomenon and a billion-dollar industry. If you don’t practice yoga, chances are you know someone who does. It seems that everyone, from athletes and celebrities to high-powered executives and politicians to stay-at-home moms and college students, is stepping onto the mat.

Modern yoga has evolved to become incredibly inclusive. Whether you’re religious, spiritual, or neither, fitness-oriented or less concerned with the physical, mainstream or more eccentric, there’s a yoga practice for you. Prior to the turn of the new century, yoga was never so widely available as it is today. Yoga is now offered in schools, prisons, churches, synagogues, city halls, senior centers, rehab facilities, gyms, hotels, and spas. Yoga studios have even become staples in strip malls across the country, and in large cosmopolitan cities like New York and Los Angeles, an overflow of yoga schools and centers offer sanctuary from the hustle and bustle of urban living. Starting as early as 5:30 AM and ending as late as midnight, yoga classes are held all day long, and they’re packed. And while studios aren’t as prevalent on the streets of small-town America, yoga is infiltrating rural areas via dedicated instructors who hold classes in small numbers wherever they can find the space. In short, people everywhere are practicing yoga.

 

Chapter Two: America’s Yoga History

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While yoga is most commonly said to be a five-thousand-year-old tradition, its actual date of origin has been the topic of much scholarly debate. It’s impossible to know exactly how old yoga is, and determining its age actually depends on what qualifies as yoga. Modern yoga, the context in which we practice yoga asana today, can’t be more than a hundred years old; furthermore, it wasn’t until the 1966 publication of B. K. S. Iyengar’s book Light on Yoga that hatha yoga began to gain momentum as a movement in the West. But modern yoga is only the latest incarnation of an extremely vast tradition that has expanded and evolved through the millennia.

Ancient Indian Roots

On the basis of archaeological evidence and etymological studies, most contemporary scholars agree that yoga’s roots can be traced back to the Indus Valley Civilization between 3000 and 1500 BCE on the Indian subcontinent. Throughout the region, thousands of terra-cotta seals have been unearthed depicting animals, plants, and mythological creatures, many of which are seated in postures reminiscent of traditional yoga poses. One in particular, the Pashupati Seal, portrays a horned figure surrounded by sacrificial animals sitting in a position very similar to the lotus pose. The seal is believed to be a symbol of the Hindu god Shiva. But these seals alone aren’t enough to convince historians that yoga was present in the Indus Valley; the most poignant evidence of yoga’s earliest existence is contained in the Vedas, the oldest scriptures on earth, produced by the Sanskrit-speaking Aryans responsible for the flourishing civilization of the time. It is in the Rig-Veda, the eldest and most important volume of the four Vedas, that yoga first materializes as a loose, unsystematic collection of beliefs and practices.

 

Chapter Three: Philosophical Foundations

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Yoga is both a philosophy and the scientific application, or practices, of its philosophical vision. Through the study and application of yoga we begin to understand our experience of the universe and of ourselves, as well as our relationships to everything. How those relationships and experiences are understood varies from one school of thought to the next, according to each school’s vision of how the world was created and our place in it.

        YOGA IS NOT A RELIGION

       Although deeply embedded in Hindu tradition, yoga is not Hinduism, nor do you have to be Hindu to practice yoga. Yoga is a methodology for personal and spiritual development, composed of different philosophical systems that prescribe a certain way of living and interacting with the world at large, with its own decree of morals, scriptures, physical postures, cleansing practices, and breathing and meditation techniques.

Today, three dominant worldviews have emerged to form the foundation of hatha yoga in the West: classical yoga, Advaita Vedanta, and tantra. Almost all modern yoga systems are rooted in one or more of these Indian schools of thought, creating context for practice and what can be very different class experiences: The worldview that a style ascribes to ultimately influences the nature of class, including the teacher’s attitude, how postural instructions are delivered, and what qualities of heart and mind are emphasized. And although the presence of a spiritual philosophy isn’t always overt in class, a basic understanding of the following three philosophical visions will help you determine a yoga style that supports your intention for practicing.

 

Chapter Four: Ashtanga-vinyasa Yoga

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If we practice the science of yoga, which is useful to the entire human community and which yields happiness both here and hereafter — if we practice it without fail, we will then attain physical, mental, and spiritual happiness, and our minds will flood towards the Self.

— SRI K. PATTABHI JOIS, founder of Ashtanga-vinyasa yoga

Introduction: Steeped in Ancient Tradition

Ashtanga-vinyasa yoga is a dynamic, physically demanding practice that synchronizes the breath with every movement to produce internal heat as students move through a set series of postures. The method is a process of purification, heating the body and eliminating toxins and impurities through sweat. Over time, the result is a healthy, toned, and flexible body — the foundation for cleansing the sense organs and controlling the mind in order for Self-realization to occur.

The classical system of yoga is accredited to Sri K. Pattabhi Jois (known to his students as Guruji), who emphasized that the “Ashtanga yoga method is Patanjali Yoga,” which is to say that the popular style of yoga is the eight-limbed path of internal purification depicted in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. Beginning with the yamas (moral code) and niyamas (personal discipline), practitioners must progress through all eight stages of practice in order to achieve yoga, union with the universal Self. However, to be able to practice the first and second limbs, the yamas and niyamas, the body must first be strong and healthy, free of disease or obstacles that may destabilize the mind and sense organs. Jois, therefore, began by first teaching his students the third limb, asana. With asana he taught a specific breathing technique called ujjayi breath, one of the key elements of this system of yoga. By learning to regulate their breath, students can begin to stabilize their sense organs and still their mind. With strength, steadiness, and clarity of mind, students are then able and ready to contemplate and develop the yamas and niyamas as they move into the deeper stages of yoga.

 

Chapter Five: Iyengar Yoga

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Health is a state of complete harmony of the body, mind, and spirit. When one is free from physical disabilities and mental distractions, the gates of the soul open.

— B. K. S. IYENGAR, founder of Iyengar yoga

Introduction: Spiritual Yoga in a Physical Form

Characterized by precision, Iyengar yoga is a highly disciplined practice that uses the physical experience of the body to develop consciousness. Students pay close attention to the anatomical details of each posture — the specific placement and spatial relationship of the hands and feet, torso, legs and arms, hips, shoulders, neck, and head — spreading awareness to every part of the body. A true mind-body discipline, the method systematically cultivates strength, flexibility, endurance, and stability along with correct structural alignment and concentration. It is one of the most widely practiced forms of yoga in the world, attracting a broad range of people for a variety of reasons.

Developed by the yoga master B. K. S. Iyengar throughout his long and illustrious career, the Iyengar method is an innovative approach to classical yoga deeply rooted in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. However, whereas Patanjali devised ashtanga yoga to depict an ascending progression through the eight limbs of yoga, B. K. S. Iyengar sought to integrate all eight limbs into one practice. He took the physical form of yoga and pushed it into the realm of higher spiritual disciplines, believing students could learn to meditate and refine their awareness through asana and pranayama. Over fifty years of intense study and dedicated personal practice, B. K. S. Iyengar engineered a method of yoga that, through the physical practice of yoga postures, allows students to explore the highest stages of Patanjali’s ashtanga yoga (concentration, meditation, and complete absorption by point of focus, or higher states of consciousness). As students learn to hold their awareness in multiple individual parts of the body simultaneously, the concentration and sustained focus required to correctly align the yoga postures completely absorbs the mind in a meditative state, opening the gateway to higher states of consciousness. Iyengar yoga is thus considered a meditation in action.

 

Chapter Six: Kundalini Yoga

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Kundalini yoga classes are a dynamic blend of postures, pranayama, mantra, music and meditation, which teach you the art of relaxation, self-healing and elevation. Balancing body and mind enables you to experience the clarity and beauty of your soul.

— YOGI BHAJAN, PHD, founder of Kundalini yoga

Introduction: The Yoga of Experience

Kundalini yoga as taught by Yogi Bhajan is a highly spiritual and dynamic practice aimed at expanding consciousness and increasing physical vitality by accessing and integrating subtle life-force energy throughout the body. Less concerned with how this style of yoga looks, Kundalini yoga emphasizes the effects of its practice and the principle that “experiencing is believing.” The style is about direct, personal experience and awareness. Using movement, rhythm, breath, and sound, the practice effectively stimulates and shifts your energy — something you can actually feel in your body. That energy is your essence. The science of Kundalini yoga was developed to give you a direct experience of your soul, connecting you to your highest consciousness and divine identity within, so that you can realize your highest potential and fulfill your personal destiny.

 

Chapter Seven: Integral Yoga

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Integral Yoga is a flexible combination of specific methods designed to develop every aspect of the individual: physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual. It is a scientific system which integrates the various branches of yoga in order to bring about a complete and harmonious development of the individual.

— SRI SWAMI SATCHIDANANDA, founder of Integral yoga

Introduction: Truth Is One, Paths Are Many

Integral yoga is a comprehensive system that combines various yoga disciplines, asana practice, pranayama, meditation, mantra repetition, spiritual study, and selfless service, to develop every facet of an individual and his or her life. Classes are designed to address all layers of our being (known as koshas in Sanskrit), from the physical to the intellectual to the emotional, energetic, and spiritual, resulting in a relaxed body and calm mind. Students are gently guided to turn their attention inward and explore the effects of the postures and various yoga practices, bringing them more in touch with their body and mind, as well as their emotions and movement of subtle energy and, ultimately, with the deeper and more authentic aspects of their true Self. Transforming the whole person, Integral yoga aims to help students access the place of peace and happiness that resides within every individual and to live consciously from it.

 

Chapter Eight: Kripalu Yoga

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Kripalu is the first traditional yoga ashram founded on the guru-disciple model to transition to a new paradigm of spiritual education. This paradigm is designed to provide tools that help individuals access their inner wisdom and find support for their ongoing process of growth and spiritual development. Kripalu honors all traditional and contemporary spiritual teachings that support the individual’s direct experience of spirit.

— KRIPALU WEBSITE

Introduction: A Living Spiritual Tradition

Kripalu yoga is a comprehensive and compassionate approach to self-study that uses asana, pranayama, deep relaxation, and meditation as its primary tools for promoting physical health, calming the mind, opening the heart, and developing deeper levels of self-awareness. The method is inquiry based. Prompted by questions such as What are you feeling right now? What is your body asking for? How might you create more space and softness in the pose? What is your heart saying? Where is your mind’s attention? students are continually guided to pay close attention to the internal urges, sensations, thoughts, and emotions flowing through them throughout class. The practice begins and ends with acceptance, a willingness to acknowledge and embrace all parts of the self in the light of consciousness. The aim of Kripalu yoga is for you to know yourself on a deeper level by cultivating a more intimate and tangible connection with what lies within. The method itself facilitates an inward journey of self-discovery.

 

Chapter Nine: Bikram Yoga

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Your mind is your number one enemy. When you come to my class I guarantee you, for 90 minutes you will forget who you are, what is your name, whether you are man or woman, what you are doing here; for the first time since you were born your mind will be totally free, meditated from the rest of the world: I take you to another galaxy.

— BIKRAM CHOUDHURY, founder of Bikram yoga

Introduction: Welcome to Bikram’s Torture Chamber

Consisting of twenty-six postures and two breathing exercises done in 105-degree heat with 40 percent humidity for ninety minutes, Bikram yoga is going to challenge you on every level of your being. Quite unlike any other physical experience, the practice demands everything you’ve got: all of your muscles, strength, concentration, and willpower. Physical, mental, and emotional stress pours out with every rivulet of sweat, leaving you completely relaxed and “energized from the inside out.” The sequence of twenty-six yoga asanas, selected by Bikram Choudhury, systematically works every part of the body from “bones to skin,” bringing fresh, oxygenated blood to every internal organ, vein, gland, fiber, and other tissue in order to restore and maintain optimum health and maximum function of all bodily systems. In ninety minutes, Choudhury promises, his scientifically designed series of twenty-six poses will strengthen, relax, reshape, restore, and heal “all of you,” as long as you follow his instructions and give 100 percent of your effort.

 

Chapter Ten: Jivamukti Yoga

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Jivamukti yoga incorporates traditional yoga practices into a modern lifestyle without losing sight of the ancient, universal goal of liberation. We believe that liberation is possible even while living a modern urban lifestyle anywhere in the world. We believe that the ancient teachings and techniques of yoga, as laid out in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, the Bhagavad Gita, and the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, are as valid and exciting today as they were over five thousand years ago.

SHARON GANNON and DAVID LIFE, founders of Jivamukti yoga

Introduction: Ancient Teachings in a Modern Context

Jivamukti yoga is a physically dynamic, intellectually stimulating, and emotionally inspiring practice that is grounded in the universal goal of yoga: enlightenment, or spiritual awareness that leads to the realization of the oneness of being. The method emphasizes the living spiritual tradition of yoga, bringing ancient yogic practices and teachings alive in a contemporary setting and applying the profound wisdom to daily life while fusing old, new, classical, and innovative spiritual and social beliefs and attitudes into a syncretic approach. Classes are in the vinyasa-style of practice (linking breath with movement as you flow through a sequence of postures) and incorporate chanting, meditation, pranayama, and deep relaxation as well as a heavy injection of philosophy, poetry, music, and devotional prayer. A complete spiritual practice, the style attracts students who are looking for a good workout plus more of what the comprehensive yoga tradition has to offer in ways of emotional, mental, and spiritual well-being, to create an inspiring community of individuals seeking liberation in this lifetime.

 

Chapter Eleven: Best of the Rest

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The vibrant American yoga scene is in continual flux, pulsating with new styles and teachers, contemporary innovations and interpretations, and a myriad of students and communities. Aside from the widely known systems depicted in the previous chapters, there are traditional guru-based styles that have been around since the 1970s and never reached mainstream popularity, some that were once thriving and have since faded into the background, and still others being born and moving into the spotlight every year. Listing and describing all of the yoga systems and styles on the market today, many of which don’t fit neatly into a cubbyhole, would be nearly impossible. In this chapter you will find ten more styles, giving you a well-rounded view of the yoga being practiced in the West. Still others are not discussed here, such as Rod Stryker’s Para yoga, Cindi Lee’s Om yoga, Kali Ray’s TriYoga, and Jill Miller’s Yoga Tune-Up, not to mention the innumerable types of vinyasa flow classes.

Sivananda Yoga: Five Principles of Yoga

 

Endnotes

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Introduction

Page xi “the ‘virtuosity in becoming yourself’”: Chris Calarco, “Class Theme and Contemplations Week of 5/8/13,” Chris Calarco Yoga (blog), July 1, 2013, chriscalarco yoga.com/2013/05/class-themes-and-contemplations-week-of-may-6-2013/.

Chapter One. Yoga Explained

Page 16 “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities . . .”: Mary Jaksch, “How to Live Life to the Max with Beginner’s Mind,” Zen Habits (blog), July 1, 2013, zenhabits.net/how-to-live-life-to-the-max-with-beginners-mind.

Chapter Two. America’s Yoga History

Page 22 “Yoga is the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind”: Ann Pizer, “Yoga Chitta Vritti Nirodha,” About.com, May 22, 2013, Yoga.about.com/od/yogaquotes/qt/Yoga-Chitta-Vritti-Nirodha.htm.

Page 24 “are but various phases of one eternal religion”: Pravrajika Vrajaprana, “A Vedanta Way of Life,” Vedanta Society of Southern California, May 22, 2013, vedanta.org/2001/monthly-readings/a-vedanta-way-of-life.

Page 25 In America is the place, the people, the opportunity . . .”: Holly Hammond, “Yoga’s Trip to America,” Yoga Journal, May 22, 2013, www.yogajournal.com/wisdom/467.

 

Index

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Abbott, John, 37

Abdul-Jabbar, Kareem, 37, 142

AcroYoga, 190–91, 205

Adi Mantra, 84, 101

Advaita Vedanta, 44–46

aerobics craze, 37

Agni (Vedic deity), 19

ahimsa (doing no harm), 155, 162–64

Ajna Chakra, 89

Allen, Norman, 177

American literature, Bhagavad Gita in, 21

American Viniyoga Institute, 29, 173

American yoga teachers, xii, 38

Amrit yoga, 124

Anahata Chakra, 89

ananda (happiness beyond provisional conditions), 6

Ananda Ashram (Monroe, NY), 156

Ananda yoga, 170–72, 204

animal rights, 154, 155, 163, 164

Aniston, Jennifer, 143

Ann Arbor (MI), 36

Anusara yoga, 184–87, 205

Anusara School of Hatha Yoga, 185

apprenticeship programs, 158

Aquarian age, 82

Arden, Elizabeth, 30

Argentina, 31

Art of Yoga, The (Gannon and Life), 156

asanas (yoga postures), 8, 9–10

       in Ananda Yoga, 171

       in Anusara yoga, 186–87

       in Ashtanga-vinyasa yoga, 50, 51, 53–55

       in Ashtanga yoga, 43, 66

       in Bikram yoga, 140, 141, 144–45, 147–50

       defined, 44, 163

       in Forrest yoga, 180

       in Integral yoga, 105, 109, 111–12, 115

 

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