Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Randomly Asked Questions: What Sort of Yoga Do We Do?

This is becoming an increasingly asked question (maybe not so random?), and it's a bit more difficult to answer than you might think. Why? Because it's actually a big question.

So here is the short answer:

We practice a flowing sequence of postures, practiced with alignment rooted in the traditions of yoga and modern science to provide the best outcomes. It is underlined by an emphasis in the practice of mindfulness, an accessible method of meditation which science shows us is a quite effective stress-reduction technique!

And here is the long answer:

To really understand what we practice, we need to look at what was going on culturally in India around the time our teacher arose into his genius. Our teacher's name - the lineage from which we draw our practice - is Krishnamacharya. And to understand him - and the students who came after, including each of you and what you practice - we must understand the world in which he lived.

Krishnamacharya lived in the early part of the 20th century, when the vibrant, traditional practice of yoga was in another renaissance and the physical culture of the West (physical therapy, bodybuilding and even the concept of cardio training) was developing. He was educated in the philosophy of the Vedic cultures at several universities, receiving several degrees and teaching certificates.

He also studies yoga asana (postures) throughout his life - first learning from his family, and then from many luminaries, but it was master Yogeshwara Ramamohana Brhamachari who would guide Krishnamacharya into his life's calling.

Krishnamacharya - after so many years of the deep study of yoga - spent an additional 7.5 years with his teacher learning asanas (postures), pranayamas (breath work) and the therapeutic applications of yoga.

From here, Krishnamacharya was encouraged to become a householder and teach yoga. And so he did.

Krishnamacharya taught the yoga that he learned, and taught the four great luminaries heading into the middle and latter parts of the 20th century:

  • Pattabhi Jois, who created Astanga Yoga;
  • BKS Iyengar, who created Iyengar Yoga;
  • Desikachar, who developed Viniyoga;
  • Indra Devi, who took her yoga to Hollywood in the 1940s, adapted it to the local needs, and was even the teacher of Greta Garbo and Marilyn Monroe!

As you can see, each of these teachers were trained by the same teacher - Krishnamacharya - and each of them then created their own unique perspective on how to transmit this yoga to students. This is one of the most exciting aspects of yoga, and in particular the lineage of Krishnamacharya.

Why is this so? Krishnamacharya taught to his teachers: "Teach what is appropriate for an individual."

He not only utilized the traditional forms of  yoga asana and pranayama, but blended it with the best of Ayurveda, the traditional medicine of India, and also Western science as it was developing at the time. And, in turn, his teachers took up their own specific interests and built on this, able to add in their own understanding, new innovations based on observation and response to their students as well as modern science!

So, that is the beginning of our lineage. From here, it moves specifically to me - Jenifer Parker - and how I fit into this lineage.

My education in yoga begins in childhood, but it wasn't really until I got to university that I had access to classes. I learned at home and via books before then, but I really hungered for a teacher!

At university, I studied with a local teacher. She's a kinesiologist - the kind that studies movement - and trained at Kripalu, a major center in the U.S. Kripalu method is based on developing awareness in the process. It's a simple method: enter the pose, observe realign, observe, realign and then move into meditation (or, simply observe the sensations of the posture and breath if meditation is still a bit tough to grasp).

From there, I wanted to take more classes and get some diversity. I studied with a nearby Iyengar teacher and then also a Kundalini teacher for a little bit. Iyengar yoga is really therapeutic: postures and sequences are modified to the individual very specifically. Kundalini yoga, on the other hand - or at least what I was taught - focuses on the kriyas, or energetic cleansing practices. It was really fun and cool, and my first introduction to vinyasa, but not the same as what we do now!

I was really blessed that - while both encouraged me to go to official certifications - the teachers were also willing to take me on as an apprentice. It was a real joy to attend, observe and assist their classes. I never taught classes at their venues, but I felt more confident in teaching friends and small groups as I was invited to do so. And, my teachers encouraged me to teach, to share what I knew and practice with others.

After graduating from university, I moved away . . . and discovered power yoga. I happened upon a studio that was teaching Baptiste Power Vinyasa yoga and Astanga yoga.

I fell in love. I fell in love with vinyasa yoga, connecting postures and breath. I'd always loved the beauty and grace of the Sun Salutations, a flowing sequence of postures that we would sometimes do in my Iyengar or Kripalu classes. But I'd always wanted more, and I was thankful to have found it.

Having these two styles, Baptiste's power yoga and Astanga, was a real education. Both were set sequences of flowing postures, getting through about 40 or 50 individual postures in their series. The sequences take about 1.5 hours, and they work in uniquely different ways. For me, Astanga felt more "stretchy" or "opening" while Baptiste's power yoga felt more "strength building."

After a time the studio where I practiced moved to doing just Baptiste, and I really started to understand the differences in my body. Before, I'd practiced two Baptiste and two Astanga classes per week. Afterwards, I was doing four Baptiste. This wasn't a bad thing, but I did notice that I was stronger - and quite muscular for it - but I didn't feel quite as lithe or springy as I had when doing Astanga.

So, I decided to go out and do a bit more Astanga. I did, getting into the advanced series (which might be understood as the Third and Fourth Series). What I noticed is that there were a few kinks in my practice, and to an extent I started to feel "too loose" and not as strong as I did before.

From here, I started experimenting with my own vinyasa. I wanted to create a balance that really worked for me - not too strong such that I'd be rigid, and not too loose that I'd lack physical integrity!

I dug back into my past training and teachers to bring it all together.

  • While I was developing these sequences, I spent a lot of time with the Kripalu method, really feeling and identifying in my own body what was happening with each posture and how each posture in the sequence fit together.
  • I also went back to my Iyengar training, discovering modifications to help facilitate the practice, practicing with props and also using my own body as a prop to see how that worked to create a progressive, accessible practice.
  • I looked at the vinyasa sequences I'd studied, trying to figure out how they worked and why they created the outcomes in my body that they did. And then I experimented with combining them and creating new combinations to see how those worked.
  • I studied functional anatomy and range of motion, and talking to chiropractors and physiotherapists to learn about how this practice worked - not only in terms of the joints and the musculoskeletal system but also in terms of the neurological system.
  • Finally, I spent a great deal of time working with my students. When I would create a sequence that I thought was working well for me, I would take it to my "experimental class." This was a once-per-week class where my most experienced students would come and let me experiment on them. They gave me feedback and would practice the sequence at home in between sessions and then report their reports. Often, they would get the same results I was getting, and sometimes, well, they wouldn't! That would always send me back to my own self-study to figure out why that was happening!

When I moved to Wellington, I knew that I needed to create something truly unique. I knew that I would focus mostly on beginners - I wanted to reach people who had never taken yoga classes before but really wanted to. I wanted the sequence to be accessible to all levels - so beginners can join right in at any time - and to provide the results students wanted both quickly and effectively.

I looked at the many barriers to entry in terms of yoga classes - barriers that I often faced myself! The time commitment for a 1.5 hours class is huge. The financial commitment of that time is also quite large, with class prices sitting at $18 to $22 per drop-in! One student told me that in France she would drop into a class for 20 Euros; I did a Google search and saw some for as much as 25 to 28 Euros! That's $30 to $43 for a single 1.5-hour yoga class! Add to that transportation/parking costs, mat rental, towel rental and so on . . . or spending $115 on a yoga mat, and it's just . . . wow.

I am a yoga teacher and paying those sorts of prices just seems . . . wow. And, trust me, I know that overhead can be high when paying for the venue, paying teachers and so on. I mean, I seriously get that. But . . . wow!

So, here I am, going, "How do I provide the most effective yoga sequence for a reasonable amount of time, at a fair and comfortable price per class?"

And that's how I came up with what we do at Healium. After experimenting with many sequences and different class times (from 35 to 75 minutes), my students reported that they actually were getting the best experience and best results with 45-minute classes and the sequences that created.

Of course, as you know, those sequences are also not set in stone. I'm still learning and experimenting. Right now, I'm spending a lot of time working with Nik Curry to discover how postural patterning works - both for me individually and for how I teach my classes to give my clients even better results! This work is also backed up with what I'm learning in Sylvia's Pilates class - honestly, the first Pilates class I've ever really liked (and I've tried 10,000 times) because it truly reflects and transmits the deeply therapeutic discipline that Joseph Pilates created!

And there's also you - each and every one of you give immeasurable feedback by how your bodies and minds respond to the teaching that we do. The hands-on assisting creates for you and for me the experience of learning how yoga works and is working. When something is no longer working for you, I make adjustments to how I teach - whether that's the assisting, the sequence or adding a new class that will allow you to explore and experience your practice in new and more mature ways.

Why? Because Krishnamacharya said so: "Teach what is appropriate for an individual."

And that's exactly what I strive to do - and what all of our teachers strive to do as well!

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