This outstanding, well-thought, and well-crafted post is reprinted with permission from Alison Eastland, a yoga teacher in Australia and the host of huonvalleyyoga.com. Alison’s writing on back care was featured on this blog in the popular post Do Yoga Classes Your Back Hurt?.
This is the question I get asked most, and the answer is often not what new students expect.
My way of teaching involves choosing from a range of Yoga techniques to suit the participants in my classes. Taking into consideration participants’ daily lives, posture, state of mind, and energy levels, as well as any injuries or stresses they may be dealing with, I draw on a range of Yoga practices including physical sequences, breath awareness, mindfulness and physical alignment to re-create ease and steadiness in body and mind.
I do not describe my teaching as fitting into a particular “style”. However, I was trained as a Yoga teacher by Wendy Samek of Adelaide who has trained with the Iyengars in India every two years for many decades. Her training gave me an appreciation for working with varied physical postures and making the physical practice accessible to all bodies, including those with injuries. Wendy had also studied with several European and Indian teachers, and passed on to me knowledge of pranayama (breathing) and flow sequences, such as Surya Namaskar.
Working alongside Physiotherapist Robyn Jay in Adelaide with her clients further developed my appreciation for alignment and physical ease in Asana practice. Study I undertook during retreat at the Satyananda Mangrove Centre, New South Wales, helped me to develop my practice using a more wholistic range of techniques including Yoga Nidra, Mantra, and Karma Yoga. In my teaching I also incorporate techniques I learned from Kausthub Desikachar and Donna Farhi, and I draw from my training in Buddhist meditation techniques, Guided Imagery, and even my experiences with Dru Yoga and Qi Gong. I’m also influenced by the work of teachers such as Judith Lasater, Gary Kraftsow and Jason Crandell.
Which of these influences I draw on in class, depends on the group of people in front of me and how they seem to be responding to the practice. One of the best descriptions of this philosophy of teaching I’ve heard was offered by Leigh Blashki, a founding member of the Yoga Teachers’ Association of Australia, Director of Training Programs at the Australian Institute of Yoga Therapy, and Vice President of Yoga Australia. At a retreat for teachers at Niche, Tasmania, we were discussing the difficulty of being pigeon-holed into a “style” by prospective students and all the assumptions and pre-conceived ideas that can entail. Leigh said that if someone named Karen rings him and asks what style of Yoga he teaches, he would like to say that he teaches “Karen Yoga”, or if Robert turns up for a session, then he would be teaching “Robert Yoga”. This makes perfect sense to me, considering that each person has a unique body, temperament, and constitution, and has had different life experiences.
Of course, this is a very challenging way to teach; for example, if someone super-fit and physically active with a very busy mind comes to class from their day at the office, and so does someone who is physically tired from a day of manual labour, and so does someone who has some chronic physical conditions, I am going to have to try to find a happy medium. This is part of the reality of teaching in a rural area with a small and widely varied population, and this is why classes, rather than individual sessions, are always a compromise. However, classes remain a good way to make Yoga practice affordable and accessible for many, and are a nice way to spend time alongside others who are also interested in their well-being.
All this can, understandably, be confusing for beginners who expect a named style such as Iyengar Yoga, Ashtanga Yoga, Satyananda Yoga, or Bikram Yoga. However, these styles are really very recent, modern developments in the history of Yoga, which is thought by many scholars to be around 5,000 years long. Traditionally, Yoga teachings were passed from a teacher to an individual student, and those teachings were offered based on the student’s individual constitution and temperament. Classes, where physical sequences are taught to groups, only became common in the early 20th Century.
The most well-known modern styles were developed from the teachings that T. Krishnamacharya gave to B.K.S. Iyengar, Pattabhi Jois and T.K.V. Desikachar to suit their individual temperaments. B.K.S Iyengar went on to develop Iyengar Yoga, Pattabhi Jois’ style went on to become Ashtanga Yoga & influenced the development of “Power Yoga” in America, and Krishnamacharya’s son, T.K.V. Desikachar, went on to develop Viniyoga.
Some of Krishnamacharya’s sequences were developed from a blend of Hatha yoga, wrestling exercises, and Western gymnastics to suit the temperaments of the highly active Indian youths he taught. These techniques have been very influential in the evolution of Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga, Flow Yoga, and Power Yoga.
What does all this mean for the Yoga beginner? I believe it means that the Yoga techniques available to us today have evolved and adapted in response to the culture and lifestyle of the people practising it, & that it will continue to do so. Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, thought to have been written around 200 AD and considered by many teachers to be a foundation text for modern Yoga, do not even mention any of the physical Yoga postures we think of as being so important today. All the Sutras say about the physical part of Yoga, is that our posture should be steady, and easeful…and this is usually translated as referring to seated posture for meditation: Sthira Sukham Asanam (Seated posture should be steady and comfortable).
The best thing about all this, is that there’s a way of practising Yoga to suit everyone. Even within “styles” or “schools” of Yoga, individual teachers can be very, very different. If you don’t feel like the first teacher you go to is right for you, keep trying until you find a teacher and a class that suits you. While I prefer not to follow a named style, I have great respect for those who do follow a particular lineage of teachers and this is often a good way of ensuring a teacher has undertaken some rigorous training and has had to meet the high standards of their chosen tradition.
You’ll know the right class and practice when you find it, because it will make you feel steady, and at ease.
With thanks to:
“Yoga’s Greater Truth”, by Mark Singleton, Yoga Journal
Leigh Blashki, Vice-President of Yoga Australia
Niche, Tasmania http://www.nichetas.com.au
Wendy Samek, The Centre Om
T.K.V. Desikachar (see his book, “The Heart of Yoga”).