Did Weirdos Take Over America
by Jamie Moses
Yoga in America has certainly enjoyed a long strange trip. Initially embraced for its transcendental philosophical depth by a small group of elite New England intellectuals like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau in the 19th century, yoga was later seized on by the psychedelic hippie generation of the 1960s for its spiritual liberation and for its NOT being part of conventional society. That of course put it squarely in the category of “that’s some crazy shit” and for the next couple decades anyone sitting cross-legged and mumbling Namaste was a target for ridicule. It didn’t help that yoga’s best teachers were a bunch of long haired skinny guys from India wearing robes instead of pants.
Today we see that Yoga’s place in America has changed dramatically in the past 50 years. There are over 20 million yoga participants in America, including everyone from tech company CEOs, Hollywood actors, rock stars, U.S. senators, to presidential contender Hillary Rodham Clinton. The NY Giants, the LA Lakers, the Rangers, and the NY Knicks all practice yoga as a team several times a week, as do many NY Yankees. Three time NFL Pro Bowl pick Shaun O’Hara told ABC News “I thought yoga was a bunch of cutsey hippie crap, but to be honest with you it’s one hell of a work out.”
Yoga has also skyrocketed to a staggering $27 billion industry in 2014 and utterly dwarfs similar indoor activities like tai chi, pilates, trx and kettlebell.
Sadly, for the majority of American participants the attraction to yoga is akin to jogging or going to they gym, simply a physical exercise to get their body in shape or alleviate health problems. However, yoga is more than physical exercise, its core is meditative and spiritual and its real goal is not to twist you into a pretzel but to raise your consciousness, teach you discipline and to make you appreciate the world, your life and the lives of those around you.
It’s not surprising that a practice that is nearly two thousand years old has developed different variations and approaches to both the meditative and physical practice of yoga. Here is a list of the most well known schools of yoga and a brief description of each. No doubt some practitioners of the different schools of yoga might not agree entirely with our description but that’s life and if they’re good yogis they’ll take a deep breath and accept it.
Named after founder and yoga master B.K.S. Iyengar, this practice promotes strength, flexibility, endurance and balance through breathing and poses (asanas) that require precise alignment. The utmost attention is paid to finding that proper alignment in a pose. Various equipment is used to help the less flexible achieve that perfect alignment, straps, blocks, cushions, chairs, rope etc. Poses are generally held longer than in other yoga practices and movement is slower. Although Iyengar incorporates the traditional postures, or asanas, that make up the broader category of hatha yoga, the cushions and other props revolutionized yoga by enabling everyone—even the elderly, sick, and disabled—to practice. Because of its slow pace, attention to detail, and use of props, Iyengar yoga is probably your best choice if you’re recovering from an injury.
A newcomer, Anusara was developed by American yogi John Friend in 1997. Sometimes referred to as Iyengar with a sense of humor, Anusara is less focused on perfect physical poses and more concerned that students use yoga to open their hearts and celebrate life. Expect a lot of “heart opening” poses like backbends and a lot more talking from your instructor. Classes are rigorous for both the body and the mind.
Commonly called Power Yoga, Ashtanga is physically demanding. Exact poses are practiced in specific sets of six sequences moving rapidly and flowing from one pose to the next with each inhale and exhale, synchronizing the breathing to the postures. A series of poses linked by the breath is called a vinyasa. This process produces an intense internal heat and a profuse, purifying sweat that detoxifies muscles and organs. The result is improved circulation, flexibility, stamina, a light and strong body, and a calm mind. Ashtanga is an athletic yoga practice and is not for beginners. Ashtanga is best suited for someone looking to really push their body.
An active and athletic style of yoga adapted from the traditional ashtanga system in the late 1980s to appeal to aerobic-crazed Westerners. Power yoga doesn’t stick to the same sequence of poses each time like ashtanga does, so the style varies depending on the teacher. Classes called “vinyasa” or “flow” in your gym or studio can be vastly different but in general stem from ashtanga as well. Other than starting with a sun salutation, no two classes will be alike. It’s the most popular style of yoga in America.
Named for Bikram Choudhury who commercialized the practice and lost several lawsuits trying unsuccessfully to patent yoga poses—that included a lawsuit against local yoga studio owners Mark and David Drost of Evolation Yoga. Bikram features yoga poses in a sauna-like heat cranked up to nearly 105 degrees and 40 percent humidity in official Bikram classes. Expect to be drenched in sweat by the end of the class. If it’s called “Bikram”, it will be a series of 26 basic yoga postures, each performed twice. There is a lot of alignment work but you will also build muscular strength, endurance, flexibility and probably lose weight, too. This practice will help flush out toxins and really stretch the muscles.
Basically the same thing as Bikram. The only difference between Bikram and hot yoga is that the hot yoga studio deviates from Bikram’s sequence in some small way, and so they must call themselves by another name. The room will be heated, and you will sweat buckets.
Hatha yoga is a generic term that refers to any type of yoga that teaches physical postures. When a class is marketed as hatha, it generally means that you will get a gentle slow-paced introduction to basic yoga postures. Hatha is the foundation of all yoga styles and incorporates breathing, poses, meditation and kundalini into a complete system to achieve enlightenment. It is very popular as a source of stress management and exercise. This is a practice to enjoy, not a practice to push yourself or compete with others.
Jivamukti is mostly practiced in NYC as it was founded there in 1984 by Sharon Gannon and David Life. It’s a mix of vinyasa flow sequencing infused with chanting and a vegetarian twist. There is an emphasis to express the spiritual and ethical aspects of yoga that have been disregarded by Americans. A physically challenging, limit-pushing practice, expect a theme for each class, Sanskrit chanting, and references to ancient scripture, meditation, listening to music and talk of the role music plays in yoga practice.
Kripalu is called the yoga of consciousness. This gentle, introspective practice urges practitioners to hold poses to explore and release emotional and spiritual blockages. Goal-oriented striving is discouraged and precise alignment is not as important as in some other traditions. There are three stages in Kripalu yoga. Stage One focuses on learning the postures and exploring your bodies abilities. Stage Two involves holding the postures for an extended time, developing concentration and inner awareness. Stage Three is like a meditation in motion in which the movement from one posture to another arises unconsciously and spontaneously. Your body is the teacher.
Kundalini practice concentrates on awakening the energy at the base of the spine and drawing it upward through very fluid movement of poses. In addition to postures, a typical class will also include chanting, meditation, and breathing exercises. Expect a lot of work in your core area and classes can be pretty intense.
Yoga postures carefully adapted for expectant mothers. Prenatal yoga is tailored to help women in all stages of pregnancy, even those getting back in shape post-birth. When you keep your muscles strong through your term, they will still have the strength and energy to return to normal. If you’re an expectant mother then Prenatal yoga is probably for you. Prenatal yoga is one of the best types of exercise for moms-to-be as there’s a lot of core work and a focus on breathing.
Less work, more relaxation. You’ll spend as many as 20 minutes each in just four or five simple poses (often they’re modifications of standard asanas) using strategically placed props like blankets, bolsters, and soothing lavender eye pillows to help you sink into deep relaxation.
An unhurried traditional yoga practice that typically focuses on the same 12 basic asanas or variations every time, bookended by sun salutations and savasana (corpse pose). The system is based on a five-point philosophy that proper breathing, relaxation, dietary restrictions, exercise, and positive thinking work together to form a healthy yogic lifestyle
A highly individualized practice in which yogis learn to adapt poses and goals to their own needs and abilities. Vini actually means differentiation, adaptation, and appropriate application. Instead of focusing on stretching to get strong and flexible, viniyoga uses the principles of proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation (PNF). PNF simply means warming up and contracting a muscle before stretching it. This decreases your chance of injury.
It is commonly used as a therapeutic practice for people who have suffered injuries or are recovering from surgery. It is a gentle, healing practice that is tailored to each person’s body type and needs as they grow and change.
A quiet, meditative yoga practice, also called taoist yoga and is referred to as yoga for the joints, not the muscles. Yin focuses on lengthening connective tissues and is meant to complement yang yoga—your muscle-forming Anusara, ashtanga, Iyengar, or what have you. Yin works the connective tissues of the ligaments, fascia, joints and bones. A significant characteristic is the long held, passive nature of the postures that let gravity do the work and the muscles relax. Poses are held or as long as five to twenty minutes—you’ll practice patience here too.
OTHER CREATIVE YOGA TECHNIQUES
Also called Upside-Down Yoga and Aerial Yoga it is not for the faint of heart. The practice incorporates traditional yoga poses mixed with acrobatics in a silk hammock suspended from the ceiling. Aerial yoga allows you to stretch further and hold positions longer than other types of yoga. Suspension yoga also helps to decompress tight joints and relieve pressure.
Tantrum yoga combines traditional yoga poses, dancing and some yelling.
Yoga teacher Hemalaaya developed this therapeutic kind of yoga as the next step in her fusion-focused classes. And, as she puts it, throwing a little tantrum works to relieve her own frustrations. She encourages her students to release stress by yelling, chest-pounding and laughing.
Perhaps it is Wheelchair Yoga that best demonstrates the versatility of the yoga practice. Many of the actions performed in Wheelchair Yoga are traditionalposes adapted for those who are in wheelchairs. The Cat Stretch, Cow Pose and Eagle Pose, for example, have all been modified to be performed while sitting. The practice prioritizes breathing and physical postures and can be incredibly beneficial for those with limited mobility and can help to decrease physical pain and tension.
Harmonica playing and yoga are both based on the control of the breath, making this a fun way to work on mindfulness of breath because you actually hear each breath as it comes through the harmonica.
If laughter is the best medicine and yoga touts countless health benefits, the combination of the two should be infallible. In this silly practice (even its founder, Sebastien Gendry, called it “bizarre” and “weird”) you might find yourself clapping joyously, milking imaginary cows and pretending to be a lion. Laughter Yoga incorporates much less of the physical aspects of yoga and much more of the social and mindful aspects. Still, the physical benefits are not completely lost: laughter has been found to burn calories and lower blood sugar levels.
Combining music, movement and meditation in a single space, Yoga Raves promote drug-free fun. Many of these raves begin with a guided meditation as a warm up, to lead into a more free movement. According to the not-for-profit movement’s website Yogarave.org, “The Yoga Rave Project will bring the spiritual element back to celebration and the way we have fun, offering a drug free alternative for our youth to gather and release their energy and tension.”
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