I have to be honest: I’ve never considered myself a yoga person. For one thing, I’m not flexible — I can’t even touch my toes. For another, I look ridiculous in yoga pants and spandex. When it comes to fitness activities, I gravitate toward running, kettlebells, plyometrics and weight training. I like to sweat. And I’m motivated by numbers and results.
In my 20s, I competed in high-octane sports like adventure racing and downhill skiing. The idea of sitting quietly in a dimly lit studio and twisting my arms and legs like a human pretzel was unappealing at best.
That all changed in 2006, when I fell off my mountain bike on a rocky trail and landed on my sacrum, severely bruising the bone. For weeks I walked gingerly, hunched over, as my lower back and hamstrings cinched tighter and tighter. Once the injury healed, my doctor suggested I try yoga to release some of the tightness and improve my range of motion and posture.
I reluctantly signed up for a gentle yoga class, one geared toward the injured or elderly, and ended up going back several times. Later on, I branched out and tried various other styles of yoga, each with a different focus. Some, like vinyasa and power yoga, emphasized movement or strength. Some were heated and high-intensity, like Bikram, or restorative, such as Yin and gentle yoga, which required less movement. Others, like Anusara and Iyengar, emphasized precise alignment of the spine.
What I discovered is that yoga is so much more than I gave it credit for. Not only did it resolve my aching back so I could walk upright, it also gave my type A personality a place to unwind and recharge.
Yoga, I learned, is an equal-opportunity discipline — not a secret club where you need a body like Gumby’s and knowledge of Sanskrit to belong. There’s no required uniform. And everyone is welcome: young and old, men and women, all shapes and sizes.
My initial hesitation was common, explains Shiva Rea, creator of Prana Flow yoga and star of a Vinyasa Flow Yoga DVD series, Daily Energy. Many people see the practice as foreign, arcane or overly exotic. “They think it’s too ‘froufrou’ or ‘out there’ for them,” she explains. At its essence, though, yoga draws upon “your natural connection to your breath and movement in life,” Rea says. In other words, it’s as basic as breathing. Yoga is not a mechanical routine, not a “thing you do”; it’s a way of being.
The hurdle is often even bigger for guys. “In our experience, men seem to be more reluctant to try yoga than women,” says Stephen Cope, MSW, psychotherapist and director of the Institute for Extraordinary Living at Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health in Stockbridge, Mass. “This is in part, I think, because yoga is widely perceived as a woman’s practice, and that’s just not true.”
Cope says he has observed dozens of men, including elite athletes, get over that stereotype and benefit enormously from embracing a yoga routine. “What they find is that yoga improves strength, balance and concentration, and it enhances subtle cognitive and physiological skills needed for great performance.”
Another common roadblock on that path to success: People try one type of class, hate it or find it awkward, and assume they just don’t like yoga.
Such was the case for Jessica Hulse of Erie, Colo. In college, a girlfriend dragged her to a hot yoga class (in which the studio is heated to 105 degrees F). “I spent the next hour or so stretching and lying on my back while sweating profusely,” the 31-year-old remembers. “I never went back, and that image of yoga stuck with me for a long time.”
Hulse flirted with yoga again a few years later, after she gave birth to her first child. “I wanted to start exercising again and there was a yoga class conveniently located in my neighborhood.” This class featured advanced poses, which the teacher expected students to hold for several minutes. Hulse never felt like she was doing it right. “It was the opposite of calming, so I stopped going,” she recalls.
Finally, in 2011, a friend invited Hulse to a flow-style yoga class, which features smooth, graceful transitions between poses. Something clicked. “We were in a beautiful studio, the lights were dim and the teacher had a soothing voice, but I mostly liked when she walked around and adjusted us during poses.”
Hulse felt like she’d discovered the holy grail of exercise: something that was relaxing while providing a great workout. She says the teacher helped her let go of the idea of doing poses perfectly. Instead, the focus was on feeling more at ease in her body. “It felt like we were all breathing and dancing in movements that I could understand.”
Your heart and mind are the most significant players in your yoga practice, says Jonny Kest, national director of LifePower Yoga at Life Time Fitness. “Rather than using your body to get into the yoga poses, use the yoga postures to get into your body. At the end of a yoga class, it’s not about how far you went in any posture or how many postures you mastered. It’s about how present you were in each movement and how much your heart has opened.”
A few months ago, I decided I wanted to survey a variety of yoga classes to decide which style of practice might suit me best in developing a regular routine. I attended one class from each of the four major categories — movement/power, restorative, alignment and heated. I took notes and spoke with dedicated students and yogis. Here are my discoveries, plus a few suggestions for finding the yoga practice that’s right for you.
Includes: Vinyasa, Vinyasa Flow, Ashtanga
During movement- and power-focused yoga, the poses are synchronized to the breath. Typical poses (called asanas) include sun salutations, as well as seated, standing and balancing postures. Since it involves near-constant motion of the entire body, this type of yoga is a popular choice for those who enjoy a challenging workout. The practice is smooth and uninterrupted, with limited “held” poses. Students learn to observe whatever arises in their bodies without judging or reacting to it. Classes vary in speed and difficulty, with modifications offered for beginners and those with injuries. Sessions often begin with a brief meditation during which you are invited to leave outside worries behind and connect with the space and your body.
Expert Insights: “Vinyasa Flow classes can be very aerobic,” explains nationally renowned trainer and teacher Jonny Kest. Students have worn heart-rate monitors during his classes, and in some cases the level of exertion was equal to having run five miles. It’s no wonder Kest believes Vinyasa Flow is a great practice for driven, type A personalities.
Because of the faster pace, flow classes are also great for letting go of perfectionism, says Claire Dederer, author of the memoir Poser: My Life in Twenty-Three Yoga Poses (Picador, 2012), which chronicles how yoga helped her embrace being an imperfect mother, daughter and partner. “If you focus on how things are supposed to be, you’ll never get to experience how things really are,” she says. “The fact is, you can’t do yoga perfectly. You just can’t. You’ll fall down or fart or fail. Our bodies simply aren’t perfect.”
Dederer, who lives near Seattle, suggests you enter the yoga studio and experiment: What happens when things don’t go as planned? How do you handle it? It’s then that you really get in touch with what yoga is all about.
Class Notes: I attended both a Vinyasa Flow class at my gym and a different Flow class at a small studio. Both experiences were simultaneously challenging and empowering. Moving pose to pose, I had little time to worry about performing each asana perfectly. Instead, I focused on my breath and the instructors’ directions. The teachers moved from student to student, offering encouragement and making gentle adjustments to our body positions. I was reminded to breathe (holding your breath is a sign you’re pushing too hard and could injure yourself), to notice the places I was holding tension or stress, and to let go.
Includes: Yin, Kripalu, Gentle Yoga
Restorative yoga focuses on healing the body and mind. Through asana (body position), pranayama (breath work), meditation and relaxation techniques, you’ll learn to observe every sensation and thought, and to determine how well a pose (or a perspective) is serving you. An expression of deep self-inquiry, Kripalu is distinguished by an emphasis on bringing nonjudgmental awareness to physical sensations, emotions and thoughts. Yin looks at where we hold tightness in the body and helps release it. Gentle yoga is designed for increasing a sense of self and healing. All the classes consist of mostly seated positions with an emphasis on breath, an opening of the chest and hips, and on getting in tune with and releasing areas of tightness, mostly in the neck, wrists and shoulders.
Expert Insights: “Yoga begins a process of self-observation that can lead in many directions,” explains Elena Brower, founder of Virayoga in New York City. It can help “shift damaging behaviors and thoughts into a place of healing.”
“You can get all of the benefits of yoga with just very gentle postures,” adds Cope. Both yogis agree that you should find an instructor whom you like and trust, and who is well trained and certified. Then begin slowly. Cope, a psychotherapist, notes that restorative yoga enhances emotional intelligence. “It increases awareness of the subtle shifts of mood, energy, feelings, affect — all of which can be important cues about the inner life of the individual, and the roots of psychological conflict.”
Class Notes: I signed up for an evening Yin class after a particularly stressful day of work. I clung to the promise of restoration, and the class delivered. The teacher emphasized that students leave all cell phones outside the studio, a sacred space. The lights were dim and soft; soothing music drowned out any outside noises. The instructor qualified each movement with “if it feels safe” and offered alternative poses if it didn’t. I left feeling like I’d received a nurturing massage — physically, emotionally and spiritually.
Includes: Iyengar, Anusara
Alignment-focused yoga emphasizes precision positioning of all parts of the body, and micro-adjustments to achieve the full expression of each pose. This precision builds strength and stamina, balance and flexibility, and a sense of well-being. Certified Iyengar yoga instructors undergo rigorous training for a minimum of two years and cannot start that training unless they’ve had a practice for a minimum of three. (Other styles may require as little as six months of practice and nine weeks of teacher training.) During Iyengar yoga classes, you might complete only a few poses, taking extra time to master the proper alignment, and you’ll do restorative poses (like child’s pose) in between. Positions can be modified with props like ropes, straps and wooden blocks. Anusara, an offshoot of Iyengar, can be more playful. Both typically include storytelling, chanting and a theme that varies from class to class. Anusara means “flowing with grace” and emphasizes uniting the physical with both the emotional and spiritual parts of ourselves.
Expert Insights: Alignment yoga is ideal for those wanting to boost vitality or find relief from chronic health problems, notes Manouso Manos, founder of The Abode studio in San Francisco and one of only two Advanced Senior Certified Iyengar yoga teachers worldwide. “Over the years practicing and teaching Iyengar yoga, I have observed recovery from low-back pain, severe neck aches, knee and hip problems, migraines, depression, anxiety, infertility, and countless other maladies,” he says. Practitioners may also be less prone to injury with Iyengar yoga because of the precision of the teaching and rigorous training of the instructors.
Class Notes: I attended an Anusara class, which began with a reading from a Native American spiritual text that set the theme — uniting your creative self with your powerful self. Unlike other yoga classes I’d attended, this session involved interaction among the students. We spotted one another during bridge pose (a back bend, with or without your shoulders on the ground). We performed several poses designed to open the heart and align the spine, such as downward dog, warrior and triangle pose (basic standing poses). During each posture, the teacher walked around and adjusted our limbs — sometimes by mere centimeters — to achieve proper alignment.
Includes: Hot Yoga, Bikram, Heated Vinyasa
“Hot yoga” describes any practice that’s performed in a heated studio. The warmth promotes deeper stretching and creates cardiovascular challenge. Bikram, the first hot yoga introduced to Westerners, was developed by yoga guru Bikram Choudhury and follows a standard protocol: Rooms are heated to 105 degrees F and 40 percent humidity, and classes consist of 45 minutes of standing poses and 45 minutes of floor postures. Other types of hot yoga follow slightly looser guidelines. In all cases, deep concentration is required, and the goal is to create a fit, fluid body and mind.
Expert Insights: During a 90-minute class, students will work every muscle, tendon, ligament, joint and internal organ in the entire body, say Jennifer Lobo and Donna Rubin, co-owners of Bikram Yoga NYC, one of the largest chains of Bikram studios in New York City. Heated yoga has been credited for reducing stress, increasing blood circulation, and improving strength and flexibility. “Regular practice (at least three times a week) has even been shown to reduce the symptoms of many chronic diseases like arthritis, diabetes and thyroid disorders,” Lobo says.
Yash Berg, an American yoga instructor living in Amsterdam, began practicing hot yoga after the traumatic birth of her first son. “I had a complicated delivery that led to a subsequent surgery, and I started practicing hot yoga to help control scar tissue and prevent stagnation in my body,” she says. She soon realized that the practice could heal the emotional scars from the birth as well. “I had a lot of stored physical and emotional trauma from the birth that I was not having much success releasing through grief counseling or talk therapy, Nothing helped much until I started practicing yoga. Little by little, I started to feel my old, light-hearted self coming back, and that’s when I realized that the stored emotions and pain from the delivery must be leaving my body.”
Class Notes: I live in southern Arizona, where the high temperature is often more than 100 degrees, but even I was a bit surprised at how sweltering the Bikram studio felt. The room was packed. Within minutes I was drenched. The instructor advised us to let go and let the sweat bathe us from within. Don’t worry about doing the poses perfectly, she said; your goal is to simply stay in the room, even just resting on your mat. While I was uncomfortable throughout, I did leave feeling empowered and detoxified — and impressed that the diverse crowd seemed to love it, even if I didn’t. Clearly, they had found the yoga that was right for them.
I’m more of a Yin-yoga gal, I discovered, and maybe that’s the most important lesson of hopping between yoga classes: You’re bound to find something you like, and to find out maybe you really are a yoga person after all.
Gina DeMillo Wagner’s work has also appeared in Runner’s World, Outside, Wired and Skiing.