Ask Parvati 8: How To Find The Right Yoga Practice and Teacher For You

BY Parvati

How To Find The Right Yoga Practice and Teacher For You
Dear Parvati,
I would like to get into yoga classes, but I feel overwhelmed by all of the choices and styles. How can I tell what kind of yoga class will actually be good for me and suits my body and temperament? What should I look for in a yoga teacher?
Various Kinds of Yoga
Yoga is a 5,000-year-old life science and art. It touches upon many topics and areas of inquiry, such as herbal medicine, meditative and contemplative practices, ritual, chanting, astrology and sound – just to name a few. The yoga most commonly known in the West is Hatha yoga, a practice that cultivates the experience of a balanced and unified state of being through physical exercises. The Sanskrit word yoga means to join or to yoke, to unify. All practices that are said to be yogic would have the development of a harmonious way of life and ultimate God-realization as their goal.
The balancing and purifying principles that are at the root of Hatha yoga have found broad appeal around the world, as the benefits of stretching, strengthening and relaxation are immediately evident, and the cultivation of inner peacefulness is available for those who are willing.
In the yogic tradition, there is a saying: The paths are many, but the truth is one. Whether you choose Iyengar, Ashtanga, Scaravelli, Sivananda, Kripalu, Bikram, Kundalini, Vinyasa, Yin Yoga, Anusara, Moksha, Jivamukti… you are ultimately doing a hatha yoga practice, which is using the body as a tool to experience a harmonious relationship between spirit and matter. There are many different types of hatha yoga practices, because there are many types of people. It is not appropriate, for example, for someone who tends to run hot to do a heating yoga practice. Nor is it appropriate for one who tends to be heavy in body and mind to do a practice that is particularly slow (non-dynamic).
For example, Ashtanga practice is very popular today. It is a powerful practice and has many benefits. It is a practice that cultivates heat and, as such, is appropriate for some, but not everyone. The heat generated in the practice is an internal heat geared to purify the physical body but also the subtler channels and the spiritual body. A particularly feisty go-getter type person may be attracted to the heat in this practice, feeling that they like the vigorous workout. However, this can often add more heat to an already overheated system. So, though a person may run from the boardroom and slip into a yoga class, and dash off to their next appointment, in effect they have not truly paused to do yoga. They have kept their heated go-getter engine on throughout the yoga class and on into the next thing. I have seen, in the years of my yoga therapy work with individuals and with groups, many people who have experienced the ill effects of being in the wrong practice for their type. Choosing the right practice is very important.
Different Styles for Different Body Types
Ayurveda, the herbal medicine branch of the overarching body of yoga, is a sister to Hatha yoga. It breaks down the human constitution into different types. When you are looking for the right yoga class for you, it is useful to have a sense of your type. Ask yourself the following:
·       Are you thin, find it hard to gain weight, wiry, nervy, agitated, with energy that comes in sparks and flashes, more of a sprinter than a distance runner?
·       Are you fiery, muscular, determined for the long haul, competitive, maybe even aggressive, with a burning appetite for life?
·       Are you slow, calm, stable, steady, sturdy, reluctant to change, with the potential to be stubborn or lazy?
Just as people’s body types can break down into these three different groups, yoga practices can also be broken down into these three different groups. People that tend to be wiry and nervy do best with slow, nurturing, grounding and comforting practices, such as Kripalu, Sivananda, Scaravelli, restorative, integral or Yin yoga. People who run hot, and are competitive by nature, are likely to be attracted to more physically intense yoga practices, which is okay as long as the primary directive of the practice is not to generate heat. Anusara, Iyengar, Sivananda, Scaravelli or viniyoga would be good practices for this constitution. If you have a heavier build, tend to be slow by nature and would benefit from a little more inner fire, then Ashtanga, Jivamukti, power yoga, Kundalini, Bikram and Moksha yoga can be good practices for you.
When there are specific injuries to the body that need to be addressed, restorative yoga classes can be good. Pre- and post-natal classes are excellent support for the birthing process.
There is no harm in trying out a variety of practices. The ill effects of which I speak in this blog are effects that happen over a long term. If you are generally fit and generally in good health, there is no ill effect in trying any style of yoga to see how it feels, as long as it is done in moderation. It is advised, however, to eventually stick with a practice. Because the effects of yoga are deep and lasting, they happen over time. So a consistent practice with the correct method, with a skilled teacher and a willing student, will yield maximum results.
Finding a Teacher
Because the instructor is guiding you through the development of an intentional body-mind relationship, going to a yoga class can feel for me like wearing somebody else’s body. Though for some, going to a yoga class can be seen as just a great way to “get fit”, there is something much deeper going on. I seek teachers that embody at least an aspect of yoga, that is, that they exhibit and live by a deepening body-mind connection that serves the greater good of all. I have seen many very popular yoga teachers that I feel seem disconnected from who they are and what they are doing, and as such they do not exemplify yoga for me. If you are not sure, try a class, and see how you feel afterwards. Do you feel grounded? Do you feel too heavy? Do you feel elated? Do you feel too high? Do you feel energized? Do you feel too peppy? Notice how you feel. Above all, you should feel balanced. That is, grounded and inspired, rooted and expansive, relaxed and alert. The way this balanced feeling is developed through a yoga class is by the awareness of one’s spine, and the way vital life-force energy moves through it. I would stay away from any teacher that uses terminology such as “push” or “pull”, or who acts with too much force, and who does not bring your awareness back to your breath and to the movement of energy in your spine. Though many years of teaching can indicate a more skilful teacher, I have also seen young teachers who seem to naturally “get it” and are genuinely inspired by the yogic path. So, though credentials matter, what matters most, again, is this feeling of balanced connection.
In my years of teaching, I have experienced a shortage of teachers who understood the value of a practice inspired by a surrendered relationship to the vital life force that runs as a vast mystery within. Yoga is not an external practice of bendy poses that turn your body into a pretzel, but the development of a deep internal relationship with the self a
nd the Divine. This is why, through the natural development of my practice, my personal teaching style, YEM: Yoga as Energy Medicine, arose. When we are willing to listen within, our greatest teacher is our humble relationship to the cosmos that exists as a guiding force within ourselves, expressed within our body. At best, your yoga teacher mirrors that relationship back to you, as a guide to help you get out of your own way so that your finite body may embody the eternal Divine. A teacher is not to be copied, but is to inspire your own unique personal path.
I wish you much grace as you explore the riches of yoga.