Yoga is widely practised and taught throughout the West Country and all over the UK, with many different schools and styles. If you’ve never experienced a Yoga class and are baffled by the choices, The Spark gives you a helping hand...
Yoga is now practised so widely throughout the world, and in so many different forms, that it has come to mean different things to different people. Although many people practise it purely for its physical health benefits, in its true form it is a
spiritual practice. It can, however, be practised by anyone, regardless of their faith or physical ability. Yoga is thought to have originated in the Indus Valley (modern day Pakhistan) around 4-5,000 years ago. Originating in the Sanskrit language, the word ‘Yoga’ is derived from the word ‘yoke’ meaning ‘union’ or ‘joining’.
Yoga is the combination of breath exercises (pranayama), body positions (asanas), body locks (bhandas), hands positions (mudras) and meditation. The Yoga positions (asanas) follow one another in a specific way in order to direct energy flow around the body. In this way, the body is ‘warmed’ and prepared for meditation: the last step in the Yoga path. The physical exercises of Yoga provide the tools necessary to quiet the mind so that the practitioner can access a natural state of oneness, and, ultimately, Nirvana (ultimate bliss!). This attainment of peace and enlightenment is the ultimate goal of Yoga practice.
Modern day styles vary in their focus and emphasis. Different people use Yoga for different purposes: it might be for stress release and relaxation, for flexibility, for sports training, for birth preparation, for recovery from injury, or for spiritual enlightenment. Many people often ask: “Can I do Yoga?” or “Which type of Yoga is right for me?”. Before you embark on a class, go and meet the teacher. Yoga can be strenuous and if you are not generally physically active, you may be pushing your body’s limits.
Christopher Gladwell, who runs the Yogasara studio in Bristol, has this to say: “Traditionally a Yoga teacher would have a background of at least 12 years of personal daily practice, and would still also still have a teacher of their own. Check out the pedigree of any potential teacher, as there are teachers in the UK who have done only a week or a month’s teacher training and know next to nothing about Yoga, yet call themselves Yoga teachers. Respect yourself, take good care of yourself, and ask about your teacher’s understanding and pedigree.”
Here, we have only space to cover the main schools of Yoga practised in the UK today, and, more specifically, in the West Country. Do let us know in the comments section at the bottom of the page if there is anything you think we missed.
Hatha Yoga (pronounced Ha Ta) is essentially a generic term for any Yoga that takes a physical form, as opposed to either Raja Yoga (meditation), Jnana Yoga (the path of knowledge) or Bhakti Yoga (spiritual union with everything). Yogi Swatmarama, a 15th century sage from India, developed the Hatha practice and transformed Yoga from a purely seated, meditative practice into one that utilised full body postures (asanas). In this way the idea of using physical bodywork to attain purification of the mind (ha), and of the body’s vital energy (prana) was developed. It is for this reason that Hatha Yoga in its many modern variations is the style that many people associate with the word ‘Yoga’ today. It is the basis from which many other styles of Yoga developed, including Ashtanga, Bikram and Kundalini. A class described purely as ‘Hatha’ will offer you a gentle practice that focuses on simple, static postures and breathing techniques, and is a really good place to start if you are a beginner.
Mr. B.K.S Iyengar follows the teaching of Patanjali, a yogi who lived 1,700 years ago. He considers Raja, Jnana, Bhakti and Hatha to be constituent parts of the whole practice of Yoga, not to be practised individually. The Iyengar style is a moderate intensity practice with more standing poses than seated and an emphasis on proper alignment of the spine, and placement of the hips and feet. Fewer poses are practised; rather each pose is held for longer and great attention is paid to each person’s individual needs and physical limitations, so props are used to assist in the postures. Beginners use blocks, Yoga ties, belts, pillows, balls, the wall and sandbags. The Iyengar Yoga philosophy does not allow the spiritual path and search for knowledge to be divided from the physicality of the practice, as do some modern forms.
This system of Hatha Yoga was developed by Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, the much-loved Indian guru who practised Yoga for 75 years and died on May 18 this year. Pattahbi Jois famously said that Ashtanga is “for everyone – old, young, fat, skinny – except for those that are lazy!” Ashtanga Yoga is one of the most athletic and intense Yoga styles. Class usually starts with five Sun Salutations, followed by a flow of postures known as The Primary Series after which the Second, Third, Fourth, Fifth and Sixth series are learned. The Primary Series alone offers a complete detoxification and purification process for the body. Special breathing techniques are used to warm up the body and to prevent the prana – life energy or spiritual energy – from leaving the body.
This method works within the philosophical framework of the teacher Patanjali. It focuses on dynamic connecting postures to create a flow between the more static traditional postures. Vinyasa translates as linking: movement to movement, and movement to breath. Essentially the breath dictates speed and timing of the flow with attention to the journey between postures not just the postures themselves. The Vinyasa ‘flow’ is a variant of the Sun Salutation: six specific series of postures, always done in the same order, combined with specific breathing patterns. I use this to warm up before a dance class and I remember one dance teacher who used to say: “If you only have 10 or 15 minutes in a day that you can devote to exercise and wellbeing, the Sun Salutation flow is the best thing you could possibly do in that time”! Traditionally one can only teach Ashtanga Vinyasa after being blessed to do so by the lineage holders of the tradition and after mastering the breath within the first three, very demanding, series of the practice.
Developed by Swami Satchidananda, Integral Yoga combines all the paths of Yoga. Postures, breath control, selfless service, prayer, chanting, meditation and spiritual self understanding are all used, with emphasis on the spiritual and meditative paths. The Integral Yoga motto can be translated as “easeful in body, peaceful in mind and useful in life”. Classes are usually 75 minutes long, with 45 minutes of gentle posture sequences followed by deep relaxation and breathing sequences and ending with meditation.
The art of ViniYoga developed from the Yoga teachings of T.K.V Desikachar, who was the son of the eminent Yoga teacher T. Krishnamacharya, himself the teacher of Pattabhi Jois and B.K.S Iyengar. The word ViniYoga means the adaptation of Yoga to embrace each person’s individual needs and aspirations, as well as their strengths and limitations, as a starting point for Yoga practice. ViniYoga’s basic premise is that one size does not fit all and that Yoga practice must be adapted to the individual rather than the other way round. It is a process that moves from teaching a Yoga practice adapted to our limitations towards a Yoga practice that develops our abilities. This enables the development of personalised practices according to the student’s needs or possibilities, ranging from a no-compromise practice style to one that is adapted for common problems such as back pain, asthma, insomnia and digestive issues.
Kundalini Yoga is in the tradition of Yogi Bhajan, who brought the style to the West in 1969. Kundalini Yoga is a highly spiritual branch of Hatha Yoga. It involves chanting, meditation and breathing techniques all used to raise the Kundalini energy which is coiled at the base of the spine. I found this a great way to recover from childbirth as it utilises pelvic floor muscles and pelvic ‘breathing’ which was really intense. The pelvic floor represents the seat of our intent and strengthening it represents strenthening our resolve! Not necessarily the first form of Yoga to try after birthing – stick to post-natal classes until your teacher considers you ready to try other forms – but when you are ready, Kundalini really can reawaken your bashed-up bits!
Bikram Yoga was founded by Bikram Choudhury, who was born in Calcutta and now lives and works in Beverly Hills. The story goes that in the ’70s he was left wheelchair-bound from a crippling accident but made a complete recovery thanks to Yoga and heat. Bikram Yoga is taught in a hot, carpeted, mirror-clad studio. Intense heat softens muscles and ligaments, enabling your body to do more. Sweating profusely cleanses the body and it is advised that you drink 1-2 litres of water and don’t eat for a couple of hours before class. The class consists of 26 postures performed twice within an hour and a half. Most first timers feel faint and nauseous but are encouraged to stay in the room even if practising the postures is too intense. The emphasis is more on the physical performance of the body rather than meditation or spiritual practice. Personally I love it and feel forced into a state of deeper relaxation and awareness through the sheer intensity of the heat and the movement. (See www.bikramyogabristol.com).
A person-centred approach focusing on releasing the spine – the core support of the body – and in doing so releasing tension and energising the body. Vanda Scaravelli discovered Yoga in her forties when she met B.K.S Iyengar. She died in 1991 at the age of 91 after 50 years Yoga practice. Louise Rose, who teaches Scaravelli-influenced Yoga at the Wellspring Healthy Living Centre in Barton Hill, says: “The technique is about working with gravity: finding the ground, the earth. From that place there is a sense of release upwards, connecting the limbs back into the body and freeing the spine. It takes you into a deeper wisdom of the body.” Louise describes the technique as being especially useful for those with restricted movement and also for those with hyper-movement. Rather than going into the full postures, the stretch is used to maximise space around the spine.
Pre-natal and post-natal
I practised Birthlight yoga before and after the birth of my son and loved it! A meditative and reflective practice that starts to mobilise areas of the body that are active in childbirth such as hips and pelvic floor, as well as providing ideas for comfortable resting postures to adopt between contractions. Soothing, encouraging and good for meeting other mums-to-be, Iparticularly loved visualising the baby inside me, which helped to create a bond between myself and little Oscar before he even exited! Many teachers also offer mother-and-baby yogasessions, which are a great way to bond with your baby. Bristol City Yoga cite numerous health benefits of yoga to babies, including “better balance and co-ordination, eased digestion, feeding and sleep, plus improved self-awareness and confidence”. See www.birthlight.com to find your nearest practitioner, or see
www.yogafrankie.co.uk if you are Bristol-based.
Written by Kate Burrell
All illustrations © Sophie Fatus from ‘My Daddy Is a Pretzel’ and ‘Yoga Pretzels’, both published by the brilliant Barefoot Books in Bath and available online at www.barefootbooks.com or from your local bookshop.
Published in Spark issue 58 - autumn 2009
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