Yoga may be an ancient practice, but it’s never been so popular. As an industry, it was valued at $27 billion back in 2013, a figure that has skyrocketed in the intervening years. Sting digs it. Gwyneth Paltrow blogs about it, Lady Gaga tweets about it and Russell Brand says it helped him cope with addiction. I’ve dabbled in Ashtanga, dipped into Hatha, done a week or two of Vinyasa in India, and endured a few Bikram sessions. And for the past five years, I’ve been hooked on Iyengar. And I’m STILL a beginner. Here’s my personal take on the top five.
Today’s yoga is slightly contradictory. A four-thousand-year-old philosophy has been high-jacked by the ‘bums and tums’ brigade. In its raw form, it connects the mind, the spirit and the body. It aids sleep, balance, core strength and stress. But with popularity comes consumerism, profit and of course, confusion. What’s the ‘best’ yoga? And can I be a real Yogi if I’m also looking to get rid of bingo wings while toting the latest organic mat made of tree sap? I love this clip – called ‘If Ghandi took a Yoga Class’. It kind of summarises how far commerical yoga has gone from its philosophical roots.
Isn’t it the same as pilates?
That’s a great question to bug the crap out of both Pilates and Yoga teachers alike!
Yoga gets lumped in with Pilates, which couldn’t be more different. The latter was developed by an asthmatic German named Joseph, the son of gymnast and a naturopath, who died in 1967. Pilates focuses on conditioning the body – and is highly effective at doing just that. However, the physical ‘body’ bit of yoga is just one of eight steps or ‘limbs’ that goes to make up the entire yoga ‘tree’. The other steps are more esoteric, but really it’s their hidden benefits that most of us crazy bitches really benefit from.
I’ve boiled them down for you, (slightly paraphrasing from the original Sanskrit obvs);
- practice asanas
- do good
- be good
- just breathe
- calm the hell down
- be aware
- totes enlightenment
Apparently all seven steps combine to the final eighth step, ‘Samhadi’ which sounds like a fusion restaurant, but actually means something like peace, enlightenment or a state of ecstasy. When Elizabeth Gilbert took a year to find herself in the book ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ the pray part was in India, through yoga. Luckily for the plot, she had one final transcendental moment before she pushed off to Bali for a bit of romantic back-bending. Some have said she was high on Italian carbs, so it doesn’t count.
There are lots of reasons to love yoga.
- It’s more dignified than sweating it out in a spin class.
- A good class is like a double hit of valium.
- The clothes are comfy.
- You don’t need a lot of equipment or space.
- It’s great for your sex life, blood pressure, abdominals and stress.
- If you’re rubbish at home practice you can pick up video tutorials for free online.
After a decade on the mat (and off the mat in physio) I have learned one important truth.
Beware the bad teacher.
A bad teacher, or even an inexperienced good teacher can turn even a simple pose into a serious injury. A good teacher is very safety conscious and can spot your old injuries just from how you hold yourself. A good teacher can and will adapt a pose to all levels of ability in the room. And a really good teacher won’t bat an eyelid when you fart, fall over or cry for no reason.
ALL OF THESE THINGS WILL HAPPEN IN YOGA.
Yoga is a bit like wine. Once you get a taste, you learn relatively quickly what kinds you like, and what you don’t. There are a number of different types of practice, and it’s useful to know what they lean towards before you sign up. Some of the most popular types of yoga on offer are; Hatha, Ashtanga, Vinyasa, Bikram and Iyengar. Each type has their devotees and most are based on the same series of traditional poses, or asanas. There are dozens of other kinds of yoga, ranging from the playful, dance-like, meditative, sexual, restorative or even the American style ‘Power’ yoga, which is yoga without any of that hippie rubbish, and lots more brawn. Oh – and hammock yoga, which is really fun and deserves a whole other article (No pressure Suzie!)
Each type has its own feel. The earliest (according to Google) is Ashtanga. In a typical class, expect active poses, lunges, sun salutations and frequent downward facing dog. It’s a good, solid all-rounder class that also covers breath-work, meditation and more.
Good for: types who want both the physical and emotional benefits of yoga.
I found Hatha to be more meditative, with a lot of time spent on special breathing during the work. This includes humming like a bee, holding your nose, chanting, lying on the floor while being ‘kind’ to your body, as well as the usual standing, seated and back bending poses.
Good for: stressed heads, demented career types and homicidal stay-at-home mums.
Vinyasa uses synchronised breathing with sun salutations, done in cycles. You’ll sweat if you’re doing it right. Classes seem to be filled with sexy au pairs, forty-something triathlon dads and panicked looking normal folk wondering why the hell they’re doing plank pose instead of lying flat and listening to the sound of their own breathing.
Good for: stamina and tone.
Bikram has had a lot of press lately for various reasons. Top-line, think yoga in a sauna. Many love the slightly trippy feeling of working out at high temperatures. Fans are fanatical, devotees evangelical and doctors very sceptical. In heat the body does go that bit further –giving a deeper stretch. With the unavoidable sweating, fans say they can feel toxins leaving their body. Though it’s not toxins, technically – it’s just urine pooling on the shared mats. The Bikram I tried had only standing poses, and no inversions, which I love because they make great party tricks at the office Christmas party.
Good for: extreme detoxers. Don’t be surprised if you faint or puke.
Iyengar feels to me like the most instructional yoga, where the teacher literally coaxes you into the correct alignment. Cheat your way to the perfect pose with helpful props like belts, blocks, ropes, bricks and chairs. You could find yourself wrapped backwards around a chair, or hanging upsidedown like Batman. The props make it especially good for beginners, as a safe and simple way to learn the ‘shape’ of the correct poses without risk of injury. Be prepared for occasional chanting and breathwork. Don’t be surprised when you find out your teacher is at least two decades older than she looks. Do be prepared for the granny beside you to kick your ass.
Good for: Flexibility, balance, core strength, injuries, restorative.
So which one is the right one for you?
If there is one simple truth I can find – it’s that everyone is different, and each to their own. Really the best class happens when you have the right teacher. If you find a teacher you like, it doesn’t matter if they teach it naked, farting the alphabet in Sanskrit or if they do it in Lululemon pants sucking down a kelp smoothie. If they get you, and you get them, that’s all it takes. Then yoga goes from being a ‘crap it’s Tuesday, I’d rather drink wine’ to ‘hurrah! It’s Tuesday – I’ll drive through riots and floods to get there’. And suddenly, you’re finding balance and – somehow, joy, while smugly enjoying how toned your upper arms are.
All the best.
PS The teacher who finally got me to connect with my practice (including the farting/crying/groaning/laughing) was an amazing teacher called Lisa Bedford, a qualified neuromuscular physical therapist and Iyengar Yoga teacher. Her classes are run in various yoga centres around Ireland and you can find her on Facebook HERE.
PPS Still reading? Sheesh. OK – so if you’re still not sure what Yoga is Right for you…