Yet considering the enormous benefits of yoga, we certainly don't want to disregard it completely. How then do you determine which yoga classes are legitimate and which are not? And because so many different strands of yoga have developed over the years, how can you even decide which style is right for you?
It's About Unity
"The word 'yoga' comes from the Sanskrit root 'yuj,' which means to unite. And in yoga, what you're uniting are the body, breath, and mind. Any good yoga class should include the union of those three elements," says veteran Los Angeles–based yoga teacher Larry Payne, founder of the yoga therapy certification program at Loyola Marymount University and co-author of "Yoga for Dummies." "Beyond that, the beauty of yoga today is that there's a different style for everybody. Yoga is not a one-size-fits-all thing." Payne advises picking a yoga style based upon your age, fitness level, and personal goals or interests. And it helps if you understand the historical derivation of the styles and the lineage of the teachers.
Though conceived in India thousands of years ago, the authentic yoga now practiced in America can be traced to two main sources: Sri Krishnamacharya and Swami Sivananda. "Krishnamacharya taught a number of teachers when they were young boys, back in the 1930s," explains Payne. "One of his pupils was B.K.S. Iyengar, who can really take credit for spreading yoga to America and the West, probably more than anybody. He came here in the 1970s." Another one of Krishnamacharya's pupils was Pattabhi Jois, who came to America in the 1980s and introduced Ashtanga yoga.
Swami Sivananda also had two main disciples: Swami Satchidananda and Swami Vishnu-devananda. They came to America before Iyengar and Jois and introduced integral yoga and sivananda yoga, respectively. Whereas the teachings of Krishnamacharya and his followers focused largely on the philosophical and physical aspects of yoga, Sivananda was a monk, and he and his disciples conflated their yoga with Hindu beliefs.
Of all the legitimate strands of yoga, the most distinctive is probably Iyengar. "He popularized props: blocks, straps, pillows," says Payne, "but also brought an emphasis on precision and alignment." If you are a professional dancer, someone who likes working tediously toward the execution of ideal positions, you will probably enjoy Iyengar yoga. Young athletic types are usually attracted to Ashtanga yoga (or its modified form, flow yoga), which is the most active, physically challenging style.
But Payne feels that the real cutting-edge work in yoga today stems from the teachings of Desikachar, the son of Krishnamacharya. Well-suited to middle-aged exercisers, Desikachar's style, Viniyoga, was developed in the 1970s. The underlying principle of Viniyoga is that you teach yoga based on the individual student, taking into consideration the person's age, abilities, profession, and even work schedule. By contrast, integral yoga and sivananda yoga are more proscribed styles, based on a strict 26-pose syllabus, and appeal to those who like repetition of the familiar. About eight years ago, Desikachar started a new organization, the Krishnamacharya Healing and Yoga Foundation, which is run by his son, Kausthub, and offers four-year yoga therapy and teacher training programs.
Another style that works well for older adults is Kripalu. Sporting an eclectic approach, its organization operates the largest live-in ashram in America, offering workshops taught by the world's most respected yoga teachers.
Heat, Cults, and Red Flags
The most alarming popular style of yoga today is Bikram, sometimes called "hot yoga" because it is practiced in a room in which the temperature is kept around 105 degrees Fahrenheit. "He is a maverick," says Payne of Bikram. "He is no one's disciple and is the shrewdest of all the yoga businessmen." According to Payne, working in that overheated room is a gimmick—its benefits have never been proven—and can even be dangerous for people with certain medical conditions.
An unusual form of yoga that is gaining in popularity is Kundalini, introduced by Yogi Bhajan. Followers of this yoga style are distinguished by the wearing of white turbans, which is a Sikh practice, not a traditional Indian one. Kundalini yoga is very esoteric and places less emphasis on the physical postures.
Regardless of what yoga style you choose, there are general red flags you should look out for when selecting a class. Be wary of any instructor who does not warn you of postures that are contraindicated for people with particular physical conditions. Also, remember that a yoga class should not encourage any form of competition, nor should it require you to do anything that intuitively does not feel right. Ultimately, a yoga class should leave you with an overall sense of well-being. For further information, visit www.samata.com.