Yoga has become very mainstream in recent years. It is so well-known that as a new yoga teacher, a lot of people say to me “I really want to start yoga” or “I think yoga would be good for me”. The problem is that they then struggle to answer my first question to them “Why?”
Although a study carried about by the Yoga Alliance has proven it to be common knowledge that “yoga is good for you”, there appears to be a grave lack of understanding as to where and how people can access the benefits. The majority of American non-yoga practitioners (68%) have no grasp on the philosophy of yoga, illustrating we, as yoga teachers, need to do a better job of getting these learnings out to the wider population
Understanding your why?
There is no right or wrong answer to my probing question of “Why”, and I do not expect new yoga students to be experts. However, the more I understand my students’ motivations, the better I can advise them on how to get started. Following the same logic of Simon Senik’s “Start with your why” new yoga students are more likely to stick with their yoga practice if they immediately start to experience the changes they were looking for. If I can connect to the student’s driving force, I will be able to guide them more directly towards the best class type for them, and perhaps influence them to stick longer with their yoga practice.
The most common reasons for starting yoga:
The Yoga Alliance has done some excellent research into what the most commonly stated reasons for starting yoga are. So this seems as good a starting point as any to lay out which yoga styles would most immediately address their reason.
Yoga to improve flexibility: Yin Yoga
Flexibility is not something that is linked to how active you are. In fact, some of my students are very active, CrossFit addicts, triathletes and marathon runners. They are all physically fit but are some of the most inflexible people I have ever met. They use yoga as a method of cross-training that can really support their main sport, see Andy Murray as a good example.
So when looking for flexibility, I split my recommendation into two groups:
New to exercise (for those of you that rarely workout):
- Yin Yoga: Yin is a slow-paced class, where you work into the fascia that connects the muscles together. You hold poses for at least 5 minutes at a time, and each yoga pose can be adapted to your body and level of experience. It is a really useful style of yoga to work into areas of the body that may be blocked and has the added benefit of providing a calm space to quiet the mind.
Active People (for those who engage in physical exercise at least 3 times a week):
- Yin & Yang Yoga: This is a mixture of vinyasa (yang) yoga and yin yoga. Many yoga studios offer a yin and yang combination. However, if you struggle to find one, you can simply mix the two styles of classes during the week. The main benefit of the yin and yang combination is that the yang part will provide more postures to target your tight hamstrings. I will warn you there is a lot of hard work involved.
Yoga to reduce stress: Restorative Yoga
Stress is our natural reaction to events in our lives. These events can be both good and bad. For example, a promotion at work or the death of a loved one. Each event places a level of pressure on us and causes us to react, triggering what is known as our instinctive “fight or flight” response. While a very valuable tool for us as humans, Psychology Today explains it best when saying “Lifesaving as the [‘fight or flight’] response is, it was meant to solve short-term, life-threatening problems, not extended difficulties such as daily traffic jams or marital problems.”
One of our best ways to reduce stress is to remove ourselves from the situation that is putting extra pressure on us. This seems so simple, right? Yeah. But in reality, it may be hard to pinpoint what that is. There can be multiple triggers in our lives. To remove yourself from all of them, can seem impossible. This is where restorative yoga steps in.
Restorative yoga by its very nature is designed to be a safe, relaxed space. The teacher will take you through only about 8-10 poses, and you will hold these for about 5-10 minutes each. The concept is that the student has time to get into the pose, and then still have space to allow them to relax their mind. The poses are generally not complex but will still create physical benefits.
Restorative yoga is better placed than vinyasa yoga to address stress relief since vinyasa students may take up to 3-6 months to access the stress-reduction benefits. Before that point, they spend most of their time focussing on getting the physical postures right, as the practice moves so quickly. This allows very little time for any mental release until you are more familiar with the sequence.
Restorative yoga, when taught well offers students a space for self-care, to escape from all the everyday pressures (or stress) that arise in our daily lives.
Yoga to protect your mental health: Meditation
There has been an overwhelming increase in mental health issues in recent years. With the advent of social media, and the constant need to feel connected to our phones constantly, it is not much wonder that stress is on the increase and mental health issues on the rise.
A common misconception about yoga is that you have to enact the physical practice to experience the mental benefits. When in actual fact you can access them quicker by simply meditating. The physical practice was developed to allow us to sit in meditation for longer, meaning it is an enhancer of meditation but not essential. So the best thing to do for your mental health benefits is meditation. So how do I start meditating? Can anyone do it?
The simple answer is yes. Find a place to sit, sit up straight, relax your hands, close your eyes and breathe. Try to keep your mind focussed on your breathing. And there you have it, you are already meditating. It really is very simple.
But to give you more tools I would recommend downloading an app that will help you with your meditation journey. My personal favourite is the Calm app as it offers sleep stories too, basically bedtime stories for adults.
Yoga to build strength: Ashtanga Yoga
Ashtanga is the most physically demanding yoga class I have ever been to. The practice is stricter than a general vinyasa class, whose roots actually stem from Ashtanga. Established by Pattabhi Jois, Ashtanga follows a strict asana (yoga pose) sequence and it is very physically demanding.
In Sanskrit Ashtanga means “the eight limbs of yoga” which can be read up on within Patanjali’s yoga Sutras. The classes are therefore aimed at more than simply the physical asanas which in fact is only one of yoga’s eight limbs. There is a heavy focus on the Ujjayi breath or pranayama, and the class is set up to eliminate distractions so that students can find the space to connect deeper with themselves. For this reason, there is rarely music and the sequence followed in each class is always the same.
If you are looking to join an Ashtanga class, be aware that there are both regular Ashtanga classes, as well as an Ashtanga Mysore on offer. The latter is quite different. Mysore is a student-led practice where you work on your own physical sequence. There is a specific sequence and you work through each pose, mastering each before you are allowed to move on to the next. The classes are interesting since you will not be in line with any of the students around you. The teacher’s role here is to adjust and support, rather than conduct the class.
Alternatively, if you are looking for a challenge that will build on your physical strength, try an inversion workshop or a handstand class. These are a lot of fun. I will also guarantee by the end of the workshop you will feel like you just left a CrossFit weightlifting session.
Yoga to improve physical fitness and overall health: Power Vinyasa Yoga
If you are more interested in the physical side of yoga and looking to improve your overall physical fitness, you should try one of the more dynamic practices. While there is a common misconception that yoga is just soft stretching and not a real workout, I have convinced many students (friends, partners and colleagues) otherwise by challenging them to a Power vinyasa yoga class for example. Ashtanga and dynamic vinyasa are also great physical workouts.
All of these yoga styles will get your heart racing in a way that a slower hatha yoga class will not. You move through the poses quickly, with pace, which makes the class a cardio workout. At the same time, you are challenging your body into different poses that require you to engage your muscles in ways that will strengthen them.
Believe me, you will be sweating as much as when you just left a HIIT training session at the gym or my personal favourite, an F45 session.
Yoga to lose weight quickly: Bikram Yoga
The truth is there is no secret in the yoga world for this. I cannot stand here and advocate that any one style of yoga on its own will help you lose weight because weight loss is “generally 75% diet and 25% exercise”.
However, Bikram yoga is the best candidate to offer you quick weight loss due to the heat in which it is performed. Bikram classes are regulated to 42°C heat with 40% humidity to boot (wiki). The aim of the heat is to help detoxify the body and allow you to get deeper into the poses, but in reality, it allows you to drop all of your excess water weight during one 90-minute yoga class. So for those of you with an important date on Saturday night or a bridesmaid dress to fit into shortly, Bikram yoga may help get you there.
Quick weight-loss aside, if you are anything like me Bikram yoga may help you drop weight over a longer period through its simple use of an everyday ordinary object. The mirror. Being forced to look at myself in the mirror for 90 minutes, 5 days a week while wearing very little clothing (the heat!) was enough for me to take note of my food intake.
I can myself certify that no matter how many Bikram classes I did, it was only when I was eating a healthy diet that I saw dramatic improvements in my physical appearance. The reality is that it is much easier to cut calories than to burn them off.
Yoga to develop spirituality: Pick your yoga teacher with care
Without the spiritual side, yoga is effectively just a workout or stretch. Many people these days seek to explore yoga without all that “hippy spiritual nonsense” as they refer to it as. The sad part is that this is where a lot of the real benefits can come in.
But if the spiritual side is exactly what you are after, I recommend you research your teacher rather than the class. I hope this doesn’t sound like a cop-out but from my experience, this is the main factor in how spiritual a class truly is. All yoga classes should have a spiritual aspect to them but the amount it is brought in may depend on how spiritual the yoga teacher is themselves. Or in fact how spiritual they feel they are expected to be.
As I mentioned, people in the western world try and shy away from the chanting, the oms and the spiritual side of yoga. There can be a lot of giggles in class, or simply a refusal to take part in that segment. As a result, many teachers shy away from it and actually adapt their teaching to lessen the spiritual element.
I can recommend the following teachers and studios as places I have found good levels of spirituality on my travels.
If you really want to find some spiritual practice, head to Bali or India. Yoga is not affiliated with any one religion as such. The spirituality element is more about understanding that there are forces much bigger than us.
Yoga to achieve all of the above: Power Vinyasa Yoga
Of course, you want it all. I completely understand the list of benefits is very attractive. Why should you choose only one when maybe you can have it all? So which style will let you have it all? Unfortunately, there is no magic answer. Just as you need to balance out your food groups to achieve a healthy diet, you will need to balance out your yoga practice to achieve all of the benefits. Go to a vinyasa power class to build your strength, and hit up a restorative class to find your mental space, all while establishing a daily meditation practice. The benefits of yoga will come, but as with everything in life they take work. You will not access them after one or two classes, so don’t expect to be in a zen-like-state for the rest of your life after one session. In the same way the more you practice, the easier it is to find the poses, to find your mental space, and to deal with the stresses of everyday life.
My personal yoga recommendation for the practice that will give you the most benefits, is the Baptiste method. This is a strand of a power vinyasa that offers a very strong practice, so you will gain fitness. However, when taught well, after a few months of practicing, you will gain the mental health benefits too. If you can find a Baptiste affiliated studio near you, give it a try. They observe the following as standard:
- Simple language so that you can find more mental space in your practice
- Same poses in every class as it is a set sequence which means you will get there again easier
- Inspire students through the philosophy of yoga
- Physical fitness, it is a workout and it is done in heat practiced every day and you will find a weight loss and physical tone
As I do not believe that one form of yoga will give you all of the benefits you seek, I would recommend interlinking Baptiste style yoga with other yin and restorative practices. Variety is the key to life. However, Baptiste Power Vinyasa class is a great place to start. Find a studio near you, here.
OVERALL, IDENTIFY YOUR WHY
My recommendation to you as a new student to yoga is to try and get clear on your why. If you have time to try all of the yoga styles out there, please do. Each and every style has its benefits, and each and every teacher will bring you somewhere new. However, if you want to see results more quickly, get clear on which aspect of your life you want to change, and focus on the yoga style I suggest.