By Elissa Lash
Yoga — it seems like everyone’s doing it. But what is it, and why should you jump on the yoga bandwagon?
Simplistically defined, yoga is an ancient science utilizing the physical, mental, and spiritual energies in a series of exercises to free the body and mind of discomfort and disease, enabling the student to sit for meditation.
Yoga, which literally means, “to yoke” or unite, originated in India in the 2nd century B.C. Modern yoga students come to class for a variety of reasons ranging from strengthening and toning the body, to increasing flexibility, to stress relief. These benefits are all available from even a semi-regular practice, but many practitioners find that yoga classes offer them much deeper rewards.
Maybe you’ve tried one class and didn’t love it, but your friend, doctor, or significant other is pushing you to give it another chance. Or you’ve never tried yoga and you’re curious, but intimidated because you can’t touch your toes, or you don’t have the right clothes or a mat. Maybe you have a specific need or condition you’d like to address using yoga but don’t know which class would be best.
Don’t fret. There is a yoga class and teacher out there for you. Martha’s Vineyard has an impressive array of yoga types, teachers, classes, and spaces, and our small island is a wonderful place to begin or broaden a yoga practice. There’s even a website listing every yoga class available on the Island (marthasvineyardyoga.com). This easy-to-use site lists the teacher, type, and location of all Vineyard yoga classes and provides maps to the various studios and gyms — as well as giving regular updates on class cancellations and changes.
Most yoga studios and gyms have communal mats available and a basic assortment of props to assist with some of the postures. Yoga teachers have been trained in yoga asana (physical poses) and pranayama (breathing), as well as meditation, anatomy, and physiology, so they can help you through your first classes. Many Island teachers have done advanced trainings that allows them to assist even students with limited flexibility or injuries to explore and benefit from a yoga practice.
Let’s look at some popular types of yoga and figure out which class might be right for you:
Anusara Yoga, a relatively new form of yoga created by teacher John Friend in the 1990s, has a strong focus on physical alignment. Classes are heart-opening and community-focused. Postures can be challenging, but props are encouraged and teachers explain and demonstrate the postures. A confident beginner could take these classes.
Ashtanga, which means eight limbs in Sanskrit, is a system of yoga created by master teacher Sri K. Pattabhi Jois. Breath is synchronized with a progressive, continuous series of postures creating an athletic yoga practice. Ashtanga is a good fit for those seeking a challenging, more cardiovascular, practice.
Bikram Yoga was created by Bikram Choudhury, a gold medal Olympic weight lifter and disciple of Bishnu Ghosh. Classes are taught in a heated studio (often 95 to 105 degrees) believed to promote increased flexibility, and detoxification. Traditional bikram is a set series of 26 poses but not all hot classes observe this limitation. This type of yoga is for those in good physical health looking for a challenge.
Hatha is considered the most basic form of and the foundation of all yoga. It incorporates Asanas (postures), Pranayama (breathing), and meditation. Most classes are slower paced so this is a good introductory class for many beginners, or any student looking for a class that focuses on the basics.
Iyengar, developed by yoga master B.K.S. Iyengar more than 60 years ago, deeply explores physical alignment (optimal positioning and posture). The poses are generally held longer and time is taken in coming into each asana. Yoga props like cushions, blankets, straps, and blocks are key. Iyengar is beneficial for those needing a physical therapy component to their yoga class, and it can also work for beginner students.
Kripalu is a gentle form of Hatha yoga that often involves an inward focus and plenty of breathwork. This is another possibility for a yoga newbie or any student needing a slower pace.
Kundalini Yoga works to awaken and draw upward the spiritual energy at the base of the spine also known as the “root chakra.” Kundalini can be quite rigorous and a typical class will include chanting, meditation, and breathing exercises, it is an intriguing form for those interested in the spiritual and energetic aspects of yoga.
Power Yoga, inspired by Ashtanga, is a practice combining stretching, strength training, and breathing. Many of the poses resemble calisthenics — push-ups, handstands, and squats — but the key component is the pace. Instead of pausing between poses each move flows into the next. This is a good type for those seeking a yogaerobic workout
Prenatal Yoga is for expectant moms, although some classes are open to dads and/or postpartum women. Prenatal combines asana and breath to safely stretch and strengthen, often alleviating common discomforts of pregnancy, as well as preparing the body and mind for birth. Meditation time is focused on bonding with the baby, and classes help to create a sense of community for mothers-to-be.
Restorative Yoga teaches postures designed for relaxation, deep stretching, and opening, using blocks, blankets, and cushions to support the body so poses can be held longer. Restorative is ideal for those in recovery physically, mentally, and spiritually or anyone who needs extra nurturing.
Vinyasa, sometimes referred to as flow yoga, coordinates breath and movement. It is a physically active form of yoga created by Krishnamacharya and Pattabhi Jois. Like Hatha, Vinyasa can be a general term to describe many types of classes, but most tend toward a vigorous pace and focus on a series of poses called Sun Salutations. If you are looking for a faster class with lots of variety this is for you.
Yin Yoga, another newer form, was developed by teacher Paulie Zink, and combines Hatha yoga with Chinese Taoist traditions like Qigong. Yin poses are held for long periods to stretch the connective tissue around the joints to prepare the body for sitting meditation. It’s a great form for those seeking increased flexibility and improved joint mobility.
And don’t worry about your outfit, as long as you’re able to move comfortably and freely. Yoga is focused on internal experience, not external appearance. So roll out your mat, I’ll see you in class
Elissa Lash is a writer, theatre artist, yoga teacher, and labor doula who lives in Vineyard Haven with her husband and two children.