A Yoga Potpourri

Mixing and matching elements of modern exercise with yoga upsets
purists but delights fitness buffs who relish having many wellness options.

March 2011

By Linda Melone, CSCS

The wildly popular practice of yoga may seem relatively new, but its origins actually date back to the beginning of recorded history. It all began in India as evidenced in the Ramayam, a book written 7,000 years ago. The book described the principles of yogic living and includes “yogic lessons” throughout, encompassing the proper attitudes to take towards all of life’s challenges.

In the modern age, yoga has found itself blended with Pilates, dance and other current fitness practices, raising eyebrows among traditionalists and purists who don’t want to see yoga diluted. But others say you can have the best of all these worlds and still hold true to your yoga roots.
Two general opinions exist regarding new yoga trends, says yoga teacher Ganga White, the founder of the White Lotus Foundation in Santa Barbara, California and author of Yoga Beyond Belief (North Atlantic Books). “One is that yoga was figured out in the past and we shouldn’t change it. The other sees yoga as being evolutionary and changing all the time. I feel the latter is undoubtedly the truth. Yoga has not only changed here but in India as well.”

The word “yoga” itself seems to stem from the Sanskrit root yuj, meaning “to control” or “to yoke” although some believe it’s derived from yujir samadhau, or “contemplation.”

Around 200 BCE, Patanjali, whom many consider the “father of yoga,” developed 195 guidelines for living a moral life through yoga; many consider his book, The Yoga Sutra, the practice’s guiding document. Patanjali’s teachings include the eight limbs of yoga: yama (social behavior),
niyama (inner discipline and responsibility), asana (physical postures), pranayama (life force or breath), pratyahara (withdrawal of the senses or meditation), dharana (concentration), dhyana (uninterrupted meditation) and samadhi (absolute bliss).

When the English came to India they melded western fitness training and eastern yoga techniques, says White. This caused a blending of gymnastics, weight lifting and many things that were incorporated into yoga. “In general, being evolutionary is a good thing,” says White. Although some are better than others: “Each incarnation must stand the test of time,” he adds.

What’s Best for You?

When considering any type of yoga, White recommends looking for a well-rounded practice that includes forward bends, back bends, twists, inversions and balancing poses. “It’s important to have all of those with an emphasis on strength, flexibility and endurance,” he explains.

“In addition,” says White, “Look for how much the teacher tunes the individual to the practice, versus the other way around.” Take heed if the instructor is overly aggressive and sets the same standards for flexibility for everyone (for example, requiring that everyone touch their head to their knees). Plus, keep in mind that yoga isn’t always peaceful. Some forms can be intense and energizing.

Remember to always work within your own limits. Many people believe yoga is always beneficial, says White. “But you can go too far. Yoga should be considered a tool, and tools can be beneficial or detrimental depending on how you use them.”

Also keep in mind the essence of yoga, which is not about postures but about serving health and well-being, according to White. Use caution with some of the new, outside-the-box fusions of yoga with other fitness programs. Some “performance” styles can be risky, including an acrobatics-yoga fusion in which participants use beanbags and scarves. Fun, performance and exhibition may work for some people. But as White cautions, “Just ask yourself, ‘Is this going to serve my well-being for the rest of my life?’”

New Waves

In India, yoga developed into forms considered the ‘right way,’ based on Patanjali’s teachings. “Eventually the evolution of new styles paved the way for other ‘right ways’ to emerge,” says Gael Chiarella Alba, founder of Yokibics, a mind-body fitness system. “In reality, you are the final authority on the right way for you.”

Sometimes the right teacher makes all the difference in finding a class that works best for each student. “We no longer live in a place where our teachers come from the same town/lineage as the yogis of old,” says Alba. “We don’t have the opportunity to be the student who ‘sat at the foot of the guru.’”

Combining traditional yoga with elements of physical fitness found in popular culture such as heat (as in Bikram yoga, in which practitioners exercise in a 105° room; see sidebar on page 42), acrobatics, Pilates, dance or gymnastics brings in body, mind and spirit, says Alba. “You can create wonderful form by choosing from both column A and column B.”

A good program brings the meaning of yoga into the program, notes Alba. “This meaning creates much controversy among yoga practitioners, but the essence of yoga itself includes and addresses body, mind and spirit as part of the equation.” And meditation need not be a formal program. “It may include a specific meditation time or simply being aware of the moment and releasing negative talk,” says Alba.

At Bikram, a
Detoxifying Sweat-Fest

In a small room near New York City’s Times Square last month, nine hardy souls braved 90 minutes of breathing, balancing, stretching and posing in 100-degree plus heat delivered through a ceiling blower.

Most made it completely through their first session of one of yoga’s most popular streams—Bikram Yoga—with one or two of the newcomers taking brief respites flat on their backs toward the end.

What kept the students going was the combination of heat, the sequence of 26 poses that founder Bikram Choudhury developed, and the brief rest breaks between postures, as Bikram instructors call them.

“Running and basketball drain your energy; Bikram gives you energy,” instructor Natalia Maldonado said to encourage her class on to another posture.

After the session, a drenched Scott Silberman, 47, agreed. “It was an intense workout. I’m exhausted but I feel good,” said Silberman, an office manager.

Choudhury calculated the posture sequence so that each pose, some familiar from Hatha yoga, prepares you for the next. “It’s very hard to injure yourself because of the heat and the order of the postures,” Maldonado says.
Hatha yoga is said to act as a natural detoxifying irrigation system. Bikram’s heat helps practitioners become limber, and flushes toxins further.

Asha Praver, a meditation teacher and co-director of the Ananda temple in Palo Alto, California, says the heat is attractive to enthusiasts because it is intense; perspiration, she adds, gives a tangible sense of accomplishment.

“The heat not only benefits the physical body but demands a certain amount of surrender and willpower,” she says. “When you go to a Bikram yoga session you have to focus your attention; you can’t do it casually.”

That focus is enhanced by the mirror in front of you. “The mirror helps you with your form,” says Bikram instructor Maldonado. “You may think, ‘I may look really weird in these postures, but I’m going to accept it. I’m going to find peace. I’m going to try my best.’ You are your own teacher.”

Adds Maldonado: “You have to stare at yourself in the mirror for 90 minutes and love yourself.”—Allan Richter

Yet, some form of meditation must be included to keep the basis of yoga intact. “Yoga taken out of context is like eating a healthy vegetable with all the nutrients removed,” says Alba. “You lose something without it. It invites the practitioner to witness the difference between their ego self and their essential self—it allows the mind to reject negative thinking and thoughts.”

A fusion class combining different modalities works by allowing one form to flow into the other, says Stephanie Mansour, a yoga instructor and founder of StepItUpWithSteph.com. “For example, yoga usually flows from one position to the next and Pilates is one exercise after the other,” says Mansour. So combining the two in a form called PiYo adds the flow of yoga to Pilates.

A typical fusion class starts like a traditional yoga class with a meditation and breathing exercise, says Mansour. Then it may lead into a yoga position called sun salute, a sequence of eight yoga postures, and down into a plank, an isometric core move, followed by a Pilates move. This may segue into rolling over onto your back and performing crunches. “You’re working on both flexibility and strength,” says Mansour. “So you get more bang for your buck and all in an hour versus the traditional hour and a half yoga class.” Most classes end with a traditional yoga meditation and corpse pose, a basic relaxation pose. Instructors vary routines according to the goals of the class and the teacher’s background.

Pick Your Posture

Choosing the right class for you can be intimidating when you’re faced with so many choices, says Claire Dederer, author of Poser: My Life in 23 Yoga Poses (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). “It’s most important to find a teacher with a sense of humor,” says Dederer. “It shows they have a good perspective.”

Dederer, who tried many different yoga styles before writing her book, also suggests looking for classes with a variety of people. “If you see different genders and body types, it’s likely going to be a good class.”

Try several classes, be open to new experiences and realize you’re “going to kiss some frogs,” says Dederer. “If you’re new, introduce yourself to the instructor. It takes away some of the intimidation and allows you to discuss any physical concerns you may have (such as back pain).” Note that varieties exist within each style; check your local listings and ask around for similar classes in your area.

CorePower Yoga: This style includes moves to strengthen the hips, pelvic area, back and abdominals. Exercises focus on core muscles, yoga asanas and muscle-toning moves. Quick-paced movements challenge endurance and stamina, develop strength and enhance endurance. Many classes are held in heated rooms and have the sweating and detoxing benefits similar to Bikram.

PiYo: If you like the core training benefits of Pilates and the stretching and flexibility benefits of yoga, PiYo may be for you. PiYo combines Pilates, yoga, and a sport-and-dance stretch with athletics. This joint-friendly fusion is designed to increase strength, balance and agility.

Dance Yoga: Dance yoga classes begin with a breathing-stretching warm-up and then leads into a fun, choreographed dance combination based on yoga postures. Participants say they enjoy both physical and spiritual benefits. Styles vary widely according to the instructor.

Yoga Booty Ballet: This style provides a fun way to achieve a shapelier bottom thorough a fusion of yoga, “booty” sculpting and cardio dance moves. A vigorous workout, it also works well for weight loss.

Vinyasa Flow: Evolved from Ashtanga yoga—an intense, fast-paced style of yoga performed in a series of set, specific poses—and based on part of the sun sequence, Vinyasa refers to any flowing style of yoga. Teachers develop their own sequences using different asanas, or poses, and transitions. Benefits include increased strength and flexibility.

Power Yoga: An umbrella term used to describe vigorous, fitness-based approaches to Vinyasa-style yoga; classes vary in content from instructor to instructor. Most power yoga
moves resemble Ashtanga, but this style does not follow a set series of poses. Power yoga is for advanced exercisers looking for a challenging workout. If you’re new to yoga, first learn the poses to avoid injury before diving into this class.


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