Why Yoga Class?

posted in: Life | 2

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.

Bell Creek Gorge Waterfall (Westfield NY)

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.

Buttercup (Fredonia NY)
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2 Responses

  1. How about an “experience” class where the students turn their attention inwards and feel what is going on within their own body?

  2. zen17, Thanks for an insightful post and an important element (one of the most important in my mind) of the learning/teaching equation.

    Sorry my response is soooo long.

    I love Experience classes. ALL yoga and yogic classes should be focused in this way. The “Practice” flow classes generally push the mind inward due to need to focus on the moving movements. One has to pay attention or else one cannot keep up. As one practices the same or similar flow week after week, the mind can enter a meditation on sensing the body movements.
    Of course, the body can also go on auto-pilot and the mind do its usual elephant-stampeding-in-the-wilderness thing.

    The “Teaching” classes aim to bring students’ awareness, or intelligence, to various parts of the body for purposes of “waking up” that part of the body. The student gradually learns to hold his or her attention on several areas, ideally the entire body, as well as what they are thinking and feeling in the heart, as s/he remains in a pose.

    However, a student told me once that he never achieved any sort of meditation in yoga class because as soon as the teacher began talking, he was “out of his body,” meaning he no longer sensed his body.

    My take on this -as a teacher- was that the student was struggling against the directions due to a competitive nature with the teacher and the class. He couldn’t relax and FEEL him SELF. His mind was on overdrive. Looking back, a greater focus on pranayama during the class MAY have helped him move deeper.

    As an individual practitioner, I have felt the journey within occur in both types of classes, though the teaching type of class has really benefitted the awakening of consciousness in areas of my SELF that had been asleep for a very log time. For instance, when “flying” in half-moon pose (ardha chandrasana) and the teacher draws my attention to my toes…..I feel an ahaha moment , YES my toes, I have forgotten them; What are they doing now….How do they FEEL?
    Suddenly a deeper awareness happens.

    As the student then practices at home, alone on the mat, the teacher’s voice is channelled, until eventually this body awareness is, as Eric Schiffmann says, instinctual. The purpose of working on your edge, is to keep the awareness alive and fresh.

    This is my experience, partially drawn from my Iyengar-style of training, partly learned from the Body-Mind awareness style training, and partly from my own practice.

    I’d love to hear how you-or other readers/practitoners-have been able to feel your own body. Since our entire society pretty much operates out-of-body, this would benefit all of us.

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