Unsure of what class to take? Looking at some of the schedules at yoga studios, you might find yourself confused as to what class would work for you. I’m often asked by friends or those that are getting ready to try yoga what kind of class they should select. For some, it’s daunting enough to get up the nerve to try a class and then when they look at the schedule, they get overwhelmed. “Restorative” or “vinyasa?” “Power” or “Ashtanga”? I can’t even pronounce these words! “Advanced”? Certainly not! “Beginner?” Well, I’m pretty athletic…. does that count?
Welcome to the world of yoga in the West. What started out as a practice that was pretty consistent from studio to studio has taken on a whole new meaning. There are even yoga hybrids, where traditional yoga is mixed with another exercise routine- “yoga-pilates” (a.k.a yogalates), Spinning and Yoga (Yoga Spinning) and Yoga with Weights (I don’t think that has a catchy name).
Let me start out by saying that I’m in support of anything that gets people moving. And, as long as you aren’t working with a specific injury, illness or specific condition, for the most part, you can attend any class and see how it feels in your body and make your own decision. In fact, I rather like that approach, because it’s a bit more intuitive and taps into your own sense of what will work for you. The one pitfall to this approach, though, is that you may misjudge a class after only one session. Some classes and practices are meant to be done a few times before you can really get a sense of how the practice will work with your body. The same applies to teachers; sometimes an experience with a teacher can be off-putting that first time; you find yourself reacting defensively to much of what the teacher is saying; you find yourself annoyed at the sequencing, or frustrated for most of the class. Unless there was something specifically confrontational about the teacher or you found the class to be completely out of the realm of what you enjoy, try it at least once more.
So, having said that, here are some of the general kinds of classes you might find on a yoga schedule and a little description of each one:
Beginners: I’m always in favor of a beginner’s class, even for a more intermediate to advanced practitioner. Being around beginners keeps us humble. It reminds to pay attention and avoid the pitfalls that can sometimes comes with experience (becoming oblivious to the details). Outside of that, beginners or “basics” classes are a low-key, fantastic way for a newer student to learn as well as experience the studio and the teachers in a more low-pressure environment. Even if you have been practicing for a while, a beginner’s class is a great way to feel out the new space and check out a teacher’s teaching style. However, if you are new to yoga or haven’t practiced in a while, it is a “must do” as it’s so important to learn proper alignment. I have known quite a few people who never took a basics class and jumped into regular classes, where the understanding of alignment is assumed. They never really learned safe, solid body mechanics for many of the traditional yoga poses and while in most cases, they won’t get hurt, in some cases, they could develop a few aches and pains or create some overuse injuries that could be avoided by learning the proper movements. The other thing is it’s never too late to take a beginner’s class! If you have a chance, take one and build solid body mechanics in your practice.
Power or Vinyasa: The term “power” tends to scare people. I’m a Certified Baptiste Power Vinyasa teacher (that term comes from the founder of this style of heated yoga, Baron Baptiste) and I can attest to that because I’m often asked by students if they can “take my class” because they’re “not sure they’re strong enough.” This has nothing to do with me personally but sometimes is attributable to the name of the class, which tends to conjure up visions of sweating profusely and balancing precariously on one’s own arms. Let me assure you that Power Yoga Practice is one of the most natural and do-able forms of yoga. This style of yoga refers to the flowing sequencing (in the ancient Indian language, Sanskrit, the term “vinyasa” means “to flow”). It also refers to an athletic style of yoga (hence, the word “power”). In this style of yoga, heat is used. This may or may not be noted on the schedule, so if you’re concerned about that factor, it’s best to call ahead to inquire if the class will be heated. One of the reasons I love this style of yoga for all body types, especially beginners, is that the poses tend to focus more on the functional movements of the body…. For instance, bending forward, being backwards, bending sideways to either side; joints tend to be moved forward and backwards in flexion and extension, along their functional range of motion, versus off their functional axis. For someone who is just getting back into exercise or wants to work on weight loss as a goal, this is a great style of yoga to try. It’s also a style that can tone, shape, strengthen and increase flexibility (although these characteristics can be found in many styles of yoga also).
Gentle or Restorative: These kinds of classes typically provide a series of poses that does just what you would imagine, given the name; the poses are meant to relax the body through a series of gentle stretches and supported postures. When we say “supported” poses, we are referring to using things like blocks and blankets to support the body, which is placed in various positions and those poses are held, in this supportive way, for several minutes. These classes may start with a slightly more flowing sequence, to gently warm the body, and usually finish with these poses that are held for a few minutes on each side. Without getting into too much specific yoga verbiage, understand that the specific type of yoga you’ll be doing in the class really depends on the background of the teacher- that’s why it’s always helpful, if you’re interested, to ask the teacher about his or her background and then, if it interests you, check out that style of yoga online by doing a little research or have a discussion with the teacher about what that specific style of yoga is about. But overall, “gentle” or “restorative” classes are geared to providing a healthy way to calm and soothe the body. These classes are often held on Sunday evenings or evenings in general, when the student can experience this ‘winding down’ feeling and then proceed home to bed. These classes do not require a tremendous amount of knowledge around yoga poses and if you have never used props like blankets or blocks, don’t worry; the teacher will assist you. These classes are also wonderful for those managing stress or living with a chronic illness or dealing with anxiety or panic attacks. These kinds of classes will provide you with techniques you can use to manage any of these experiences or conditions, in an organic way- which can supplement any traditional medical treatment plan or can be combined with other integrative therapies, such as acupuncture or massage.
Yin/Yang: This style of yoga is based on the idea that when we hold poses for a sustained period of time before warming the muscles, it allows us to work deeper into the connective tissues, especially those around the joints. Connective tissues, such as tendons that support our joints, can receive the value of a sustained stretch when the muscles are not yet warmed through what you would traditionally experience in a heated and/or more flowing style of vinyasa or power yoga. So, often, yin (cool)/yang (heat) yoga is done in a sequence where longer holds begin the class, allowing the student to work deep into the connective tissue. After that sequence, which can be anywhere from 20 minutes or longer, a more traditional vinyasa or flowing sequence is performed. You may find some classes where the vinyasa portion is first; this sequence order depends on the preference of the teacher. This style of yoga can be frustrating for some, as the concept of holding the poses for a sustained period of time can create discomfort or can conjure up feelings of being challenged. Many students enjoy coming to class and feeling like they’re getting a “work-out” and can feel like this style of yoga is not “working out their body” as effectively as a more flowing style of yoga. Nothing could be further from the truth! Yin Yang classes provide both the vinyasa flow power work with an opportunity to dig deep into connective tissues that need stretching in order to relieve joint pain and general aches and pains in the body. The challenge is to stay with the longer holds and use your breath as a way to manage any discomfort you feel. Again, working directly with your teacher for how to position your body with props can create a much more helpful experience for you as a student so do not be afraid to ask for help!
Intermediate/Advanced: Sometimes on a yoga schedule, you will see a class listed as “Intermediate or Advanced.” I can only speak from my own personal experience in teaching these kinds of classes and taking them myself as to what you might experience when you take one of these. Let me preface my description by saying that the best thing to do if you’re unsure is to talk to the studio owner, send an email or go before the class and see if you can get time to chat with the teacher before he or she starts the class (not easy to do if it’s a busy studio). Generally, these kinds of classes assume a certain level of knowledge around yoga in general; how to do the poses and how to sequence postures together. If you have taken a few months of class (any style, really) you will have a solid foundation from which to proceed into an advanced class. Usually what you’ll see in an advanced or intermediate class is the chance to do some inversions, like a headstand (tripod and/or traditional). You may also see an extended class time (2 hours instead of a 1 hour or 90 minute sequence). You may also see more advanced variations offered (dancer’s pose with a strap, for instance). You may also find more poses presented that require increased flexibility, in that the joints are taken off their natural range of motion of flexion and extension. I like to think of poses like pigeon and its more advanced variations and Cow Faced pose, for instance, as two poses that require more flexibility (than strength) and are not often found in open classes. Again, all this feedback is from my own experience and I encourage you to speak with your teacher directly in order to get an understanding of the specifics of that particular class. One thing to note: this is not the kind of class to start with, if you’re beginning a yoga practice. It will most likely frustrate you and may discourage you from continuing a practice. Start with something basic and after a few months, work your way up to this type of class.
AcroYoga: I don’t have any personal experience with this style of yoga but I can share that the joyful endorsements of some colleagues and friends make me want to carve out some time to try it! It’s a blend of yoga and acrobatics and from what I can discern, you work with a partner and together, you create beautiful, flying poses! It reminds me of what I used to do with my little brother when we’d play together when we were younger. There are a handful of studios in the greater Boston area that offer this style of yoga. I would suggest that if you are new to yoga, it might be a bit daunting to start with this style but I would say, like anything else, with the right attitude, anything is possible so proceed to your heart’s delight!
There are lots of different styles of yoga and this listing is hardly inclusive of them all. Also, I intentionally presented terminology that is often found on yoga and even gym schedules versus labels that might be considered purely yoga terminology (ashtanga, vinyasa, anusara, hatha) because while you may find this type of yoga terminology at a studio, you may or may not find it at a gym or at all studios. Generally speaking, much of what we practice here in the West is considered “Hatha Yoga” and under that general umbrella you find many of the different specific styles.
One of the wonderful things about yoga is that it’s meant to be a lifelong practice. I have gone through a number of changes in my wellness routine over the years and have gone through times when I was not able to run due to injury or I need to modify my training to remove something that’s aggravating an injury. The wonderful thing about yoga is that it is a lifelong practice and one that can change and support you as things change in your body and your life. When you find yourself more stressed and going through a number of life changes all at once, a restorative class can be healing and just what you need. When you find yourself feeling as if you’ve gained some weight or feeling like you’re going through a time when you’re eating in an unhealthy way, a heated vinyasa power class can tone, increase your heart rate and help you feel lighter and stronger. When you’re feeling a bit bored with a regular routine of yoga, trying a new class can spark your interest and when feeling like you’re ready for a challenge, taking an intermediate class can help you feel like you’re pushing the envelope to grow to new levels.
As with everything these days, there are wonderful resources available to you online. Yoga Journal (www.yogajournal.com) is a great website that supplements the magazine. Their “finder” search box allows you to enter in a phrase (like googling something) and you’ll get a listing of articles about that topic. They have great pictures of poses as well so you can see what a particular pose looks like.
Use your local studios and teachers as a resource to help you answer questions but remember, you are the best one to know what is right for you. Try a number of classes and once you find something that has the perfect blend of strength, sweat, challenge and deep relaxation, you’ll know it. Finding something local, where the commute is reasonable makes a huge difference as well. Create a space in your life for a yoga practice, let it take root and see how your life can be changed for the better!