Decode your yoga style

The Iyengar-style yoga: Pragya Bhatt (in red). Photo: Hemant Mishra/MintThe Iyengar-style yoga: Pragya Bhatt (in red). Photo: Hemant Mishra/Mint

With her glowing skin, slim figure and sparkling eyes, Divya Srinivasan is a rather convincing poster girl for yoga. The Chennai-based yoga teacher, who has been practising the discipline for almost 15 years, says she stumbled into it. “I used to have severe anxiety and depression issues when I was younger,” she says. “My eating and sleep patterns were erratic, my metabolism was out of whack. I was hypersensitive and didn’t want to engage with people. It was crippling.”

And then, one day, she chanced upon a book on yoga, and began to practise. She went deeper into it, got certification and opted to teach. “Yoga helped me steady myself, it made me physically and mentally stronger,” she says.

Asanas, or the physical aspect of yoga, are what most of us are familiar with. Some of the best bodies in the world, in fact, claim to be sculpted by it—like pop singer Madonna and actors Demi Moore, Kareena Kapoor Khan and Jennifer Aniston. Though admittedly not a great calorie-burner—a 60-minute session burns 200-500 calories, depending on the form chosen—it works because of the mindfulness it induces. This translates into reduced stress levels, better food choices, deeper sleep and, therefore, better overall health.

This union of the body and mind is what yoga has always striven for. Today, the benefits promised by this ancient Indian practice have been acknowledged the world over—on 11 December 2014, the UN general assembly declared 21 June the International Day of Yoga.

On the occasion of the second yoga day, we profile five popular styles so you can choose the one that works best for you.

Iyengar Yoga

Founder: The late BKS Iyengar, Pune

The first thing that strikes you about an Iyengar Yoga class is the props—the blocks, belts, bolsters and chairs that are used to pivot you into position.

That is what a lay person would probably see, says Bengaluru-based yoga teacher Jaya Chakravarty, who has been practising the form for nearly 20 years. But the props are only a means to an end. What really distinguishes Iyengar Yoga is the emphasis on precision, timing and sequencing. “There is a lot of focus on precision, on breaking things down. Also on the timing—every asana needs to be held for a certain amount of time to get the maximum benefit. Props aid that precision and timing,” says Chakravarty, adding that no two classes are exactly the same. The teacher decides how to lead a class depending on a variety of factors, including the age and fitness levels of students, the effect that is desired at the end of the class, even the weather.

Bengaluru-based Pragya Bhatt, another follower of the Iyengar style, says: “In the hot weather, when the body is already warmed up, I will not focus so much on standing asanas. But if the weather is colder, I will introduce those to help my class warm up.”

A typical class will generally start with an invocation before moving on to the asana sequence, which will be followed by cool-down and relaxation. “It takes many years of learning and practice to be a teacher in the Iyengar tradition, to develop the skill and the confidence to design and teach this form,” says Chakravarty. “It forces you to look at every single asana as if it were a story,” adds Bhatt.

Moreover, unlike other forms of yoga, the practice ofpranayam is introduced much later in Iyengar Yoga. Although the breath is influenced from the very first class, it is only when the main organs of respiration (the lungs, the ribs), the accessory organs (arms, legs, abdomen) and the mind have learnt to work sensitively and intelligently with the breath that you are taught pranayam, says Chakravarty.

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Ashtanga Yoga

Founder: Pattabhi Jois, Mysuru

For a first-time practitioner, an Ashtanga class can come as a bit of a surprise. Every single person in a class will seem to be doing something different as a teacher walks around, adjusting or correcting them.

“Ashtanga is typically performed in the Mysore style,” says Prasad Bhatdundi, who practises and teaches this form in Bengaluru. “Every student practises on his or her own, and the teacher goes around adjusting, correcting and adding more postures,” he says.

The fast-paced sequence is divided into six distinct levels, each more advanced than the other, but the asanas at each level remain the same.

“A compromise will end up happening in a group class,” says Srimathy Veeraraghavan, who runs and teaches at a Chennai-based Ashtanga Yoga centre. “The teacher helps you memorize the sequence, but your focus all through the session is on your mat, breath and movements,” she says.

It’s a demanding practice where you are constantly moving—multiple asanas are linked by breath-filled movements called vinyasas, and you need to repeat this sequence five-six times a week. A typical class begins with an opening prayer, five rounds each of two variations of Surya Namaskar, followed by a sequence of asanas (the ones chosen depend on the level you are at). The class ends with a fixed finishing sequence, a closing prayer and deep relaxation. “You can go to any Ashtanga teacher anywhere in the world, but the basic pattern of movement will always be the same,” says Bhatdundi, adding that this form of practice increases stamina, flexibility and strength.

While it is a practice that calls for a union of body and mind, as with any other form of yoga, there is a lot of emphasis on physicality in Ashtanga Yoga. “We have to approach the mind through the body, for only a fit and healthy body will be in a position for meditation,” says Veeraraghavan. “That is how purification happens.”

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Bihar School of yoga

Founder: Swami Satyananda Saraswati, Munger

If it’s done right, a Yoga Nidra session will leave you feeling as if you are waking up to a whole new world. This is one of the techniques of the Bihar School of Yoga. In this form, while your body sleeps, your mind stays awake listening to your teacher’s instructions, existing in a hypnagogic state—or one between sleep and wakefulness.

The Satyananda Yoga system has a variety of meditation techniques that aid awareness, says Shantanu Saha, a certified Bihar School of Yoga teacher, who is based in Chennai.

According to Saha, the constant focus and application of awareness is what makes this practice special. “If you attend a Satyananda Yoga session anywhere in the world, you are asked to be aware from the moment you enter the classroom. It does not matter what or how you perform, but you must be aware. We are trained in developing and expanding that awareness,” he says.

This holistic practice believes in complete harmony of the mind, heart and hands. A typical class is 60-90 minutes long. It begins with a prayer, after which participants explore the asanas, focusing on awareness. Next, they practise pranayam to awaken and expand their prana or energy. This is followed by meditation and deep relaxation, which ends in a prayer.

“There is no fixed sequence of asanas,” says Saha, adding that the structure of the class depends on the students. Difficult asanas, however, are introduced as the class progresses, and the holding time for each asana increases as students get better.

“We do not leave our awareness behind in the classroom or on our yoga mat after we have finished the practice. It is always within us, and we should apply it everywhere,” says Saha.

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Sivananda Yoga

Founder: Swami Sivananda Saraswati, Rishikesh

The Sivananda practice starts where most other styles end—with pranayam. “When Swami Vishnudevananda, a disciple of Swami Sivananda, was sent abroad to teach yoga, he found that most foreigners were more concerned with the physical (aspect). They would sit through the asanas and run off before pranayam,” says Mansi Gandhi, who is a certified yoga teacher of the Sivananda style. She adds that the essence of this form, as of others, is breath control.

That is why a class starts with pranayam practice. “It is one of the most accessible forms of yoga, very restorative and calming,” she says.

A class begins with relaxation, followed by pranayam and Surya Namaskar. Then starts the sequence of 12 asanas—it begins with a head stand and ends with the triangle pose, followed by a cool-down and relaxation. There is a short period of relaxation between each asana, says Gandhi.

It’s a structured practice, says Shanthala Medappa, a Chennai-based certified teacher of this form. “The five basic points that come together to form a complete practice are as follows: proper breathing and pranayam, proper exercise (asanas), proper relaxation, proper diet, and positive thinking,” she says. There is also a lot of emphasis on selfless service or karma yoga, she says, adding that this is one practice that is suitable for everyone. “The will to learn is all that is required,” she says.

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Yin Yoga

Founder: Paulie Zink

While most yoga forms work on the muscles, Yin Yoga goes one step deeper: It works on the fascia or connective tissues around the muscles and organs.

“We believe that prana moves through the fascia,” says Bengaluru-based Regeesh Vattakandy, an Ayana Yoga teacher. “The muscle is kept as relaxed as possible in an asana in this form.”

About 6-10 asanas are practised in a class, which can last 60-90 minutes. There is no warm-up or pranayam, unlike in other styles. “We use many of the traditional forward-bending and supine asanas—but they are called different names here,” says Vattakandy. “Paschimottanasana (the seated-forward bend) is called caterpillar here, for instance.”

A pose is held for 2-10 minutes—the hold itself proves to be a meditative experience. Yin Yoga is all about stillness, about the mind and the body working against movement. “There is not just physical relief but emotional relief too,” says Vattakandy. “I have seen people break down during a class.” Which is why it is not advisable for people suffering from depression, he adds.

The few asanas practised in this form improve flexibility. “It is great for people who are engaged in more physical (yang) forms of yoga, for athletes, runners and dancers, for it helps balance out the tightness that creeps into the muscles due to overuse,” says Vattakandy. “Of course, the awareness it brings makes it perfect for almost everyone.”


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