In a sense, there are two types of yoga classes. Yes, there are other ways of distinguishing yoga, but I’ll try to clear away what I have found to be common mis-perceptions regarding students’ reasons and expectations for coming to a yoga class.
One is what I call the practice class. Generally, students come to these classes to “work out” as they would an aerobics class. Students usually follow along the movements of the teacher. Generally, they are flow-type classes with the teacher pointing out some particular points as the class moves from pose to pose. Often it is a set-sequence of poses that the class does in the same order every week, though not necessarily. Some examples are Bikram yoga, and Ashtanga series 1,2,3 and the Fredonia Yoga Club chair flow. Other practice type classes do not have a set sequence each week; they are more free-form. Still the students follow the teacher, generally with little teacher input as to how exactly each pose should be performed.
Because the student is performing the same set of poses each time, it is relatively easy to gauge progress from week to week. The student knows what to expect–that can be both good and bad. Yoga is not about getting stuck in a rut. It can happen to the most experienced practitioners.
Furthermore, it can be a limiting experience because, in an hour and a half long class, there is a limitation on how many poses can be attempted. The practitioner needs to know to practice more at home to make up for whatever was missed in class. The yogic repertoire is vast! Unfortunately, many students don’t realize this and they come to flow class thinking it is the same as coming to an aerobics class. Their hour and a half is their yoga for the week.
However, these set routines can be beneficial for those who are experiencing difficulty practicing at home for any number of reasons. I went to many classes each week when I was grieving because I just didn’t have the mental where-with-all to practice on my own. I needed all the support I could receive and was very grateful for the existence of the local yoga studio.
The other type of class I term a Teaching class. In this class, the teacher spends a lot of time showing the students how to achieve correct alignment and joy in the pose. Questions are strongly encouraged. There is much more discussion of issues and difficulties. Students come to class to learn. Individual classes have great variation as the teacher tries to keep students on the edge of practice. In the class I take at Panterra, for instance, we began sitting beside the creek to practice centering and breathwork. This certainly underscored the point that breathwork can and should be practiced in other times and areas of life, not just in class.
What is actually performed in a given teaching class may be vigorous or gentle, but it is only a portion of the week’s practice. Students are expected to work at their own pace and incorporate what was learned in their home practice sessions. For example, The Fredonia Yoga Club Monday classes are that way. The teaching is geared to individual student needs for that day. Practices that can be integrated into daily life are stressed as well as home sequences. This web site aims to assist students with their home sessions.
The problem with a teaching class is that if students do not practice at home, they may not gain the strength or flexibility necessary for advancing further with more difficult poses.
Despite what I have said here, I absolutely do recommend students take more than one class per week. Especially in the beginning years, students need support for their practice. They need to imbibe the teachings until they can channel the teacher’s directions themselves. A combination of teaching, practice, and relaxation classes would be ideal. The student then has freedom to practice whatever s/he needs at home. Each class builds upon and supports the other classes and the home practice.
If unsure of what or how to practice when you are on your own, you can use one of the sequences detailed on this site. Excellent practice sequences are also detailed in Yoga, The Iyengar Way by Silva, Mira, and Shyam Mehta. Most other yoga books contain practice sequences in the back. Just remember, strive for joy in every single pose. Practicing joy is as important as any physical gains that may be realized.