I have been offering, cajoling, begging, incentivizing people to take my FREE on-line yoga classes that I have been teaching since April. While offered initially to the community in which I live, where I had only recently started once a week classes after work for free, the beauty of Zoom means anyone, anywhere can join the class.
As a teacher, it is certainly easy to doubt myself when attendance is low. Maybe I’m not a good teacher; maybe people don’t like my style; maybe I talk too loudly or too much; but then I have to remind myself, like so many times when I doubt or blame myself, it’s not about me. This is a recurring theme for me. Self-judgement is something I work on actively in my personal and professional life.
I have been trained, including in India, for a total of 500 hours, and I have taught over 2,000 hours of a combination of yoga, Pilates and barre in gyms, studios, community centers and privately. When I used to teach in-person, I had classes that never seemed to gain popularity, and classes that I had to close the door to week after week when we reached capacity at 25 students. I have been secret-shopped, had my bosses take my class and had students review me on my Facebook page, all with positive feedback. All this to say, I don’t think it’s me. That is to say, I don’t think I am a “bad teacher,” not that all students will like or want to take my class.
Retaining a student in class has everything to do with the personality of the teacher, the culture of the class, the style of yoga taught, and whether these things align to create an enjoyable experience for the student that they can motivate themself to repeat. I often had feedback that I would take on board when I taught, but we as teachers, can only be so flexible (pun intended). We cannot expect to be everyone’s cup of chai tea.
This is why, when trying to convince someone to TRY my class, I want to face palm when I am confronted with “I just don’t like yoga.”
In my last post in this series, I said that if you ate a piece of pumpkin pie and didn’t like it, would you then declare that you didn’t like dessert? Maybe you didn’t like THAT particular pumpkin pie; maybe it’s pie crust you don’t like; maybe you prefer cold desserts like ice cream or the texture of cake. Maybe you prefer a dessert that is not as sweet such as oat cakes with blue cheese and dried apricots. It seems unlikely that you would discount an entire course of the dining experience from only eating one baked good once.
I liken this to “disliking yoga.” There are a variety of factors that go into the student experience when taking a class. I will talk about each of these, concluding with the biggest and most complex factor, which is the type or style of yoga.
Whether you take yoga with a private instructor in their or your home, a small community studio, an exclusive boutique studio, a local gym, a big brand gym or an online class offering, the culture of that business is a factor. Are they catering to the affluent, suburban stay at home mom seeking an outlet? Are the focused on the busy professional seeking results? Are they creating a more spiritual space to attract the more meditative types? Are the yoga classes in a space that offers Zumba too in a midtown gym? Is it an online experience focused on the person with limited time? You will find you prefer one culture over another. There is not a right nor wrong choice. It is entirely personal, which is why so many different models are successful.
Who the target client base is impact how a studio is decorated, lit and staffed. In a phone call prior to doing an audition at a studio I taught at, the owner and I bonded over the fact that we both had taught “gym yoga,” and acknowledging that bringing authenticity to the practice in the gym, while bringing practicality to the practice in the studio space were key.
Is the studio non-profit and offering inexpensive, but no frills class or are the classes expensive with free towels and infused water? Are the classes in a gym, community center or church hall? These will attract different people and you are likely going to enjoy one environ more than another. Some studios have mirrors, some not. Some are strict about late-comers, some not. Some are decorated with decidedly Indian and even Hindu themes, some not.
The staff and teachers in a studio will tend to align somewhat, so that even if you have a substitute teacher, they are still under an umbrella of a culture that unifies them, and you can often expect a similar experience.
For this reason, one thing I encourage people to do is pay for introductory passes to more than one place when they are first trying to find a place to practice. In pre-COVID days, this would mean that if you belonged to a gym, trying different class offerings there, and also checking out a few classes at more than one local studio. Now, so much is on-line, but you still need to do the same thing. Even though you will always be in the physical space that is your own, the environment created will vary.
What makes YOU feel comfortable? That is what matters.
Cost, class times, class registration, late-comer policy. All of these are practicality factors that impact your comfort. I taught in the very busy, trafficky, type-A city of Washington, DC. Getting anywhere after work was a challenge. I did not lock the door for this reason. I told people that I did not care what time they came in as long as they did it quietly and without fanfare. There was no reason to whisper an apology; just get settled and once ready, join in. I had one woman who used to sneak in for the last 10 minutes just for savasana. Other teachers in that same gym refused late-comers. I worked in studios where there was no reception, so for security I had to lock the door. I usually did it 5 minutes into class. Some studios insist you sign-up in advance, and you lose the class even if you don’t show. Some don’t allow sign-ups, so it is first come, first served. Some let you store your mat there, some charge for mats, some offer free mats. These things seem insignificant, but any of these factors may make the entire experience less stressful for you. Maybe incense bothers your sinuses and one studio always burns them. Don’t discount these factors and consider them when trying out a studio.
The online nature of things has not eliminated this. I took a few classes with an online platform and hated them. I hated the lighting, I hated the decor, I hated the style all the teachers had. I love yoga, but I hated these classes. I tried maybe 6 and then cancelled before the free trial was over. I will not say which platform it was because you might LOVE them and that’s ok!
I’m afraid that while we all LOVE to say how nonjudgmental we are, the teacher can be a huge factor in our enjoyment of a class. I took some Pilates classes with Groupon years ago. I have never disliked a Pilates class, largely because Pilates is less varied than yoga, yet I didn’t like this teacher’s class.
I have a friend and colleague here who says she hates it when teachers talk about things like, “the river of energy flowing through your body.” Ok, well, we don’t ALL do that.
I was saying to someone that I really enjoy going to classes where the teacher might do some chanting or play a singing bowl. I don’t do either of these things when I teach, but it is something I enjoy experiencing.
I’m super alignment focused and give lots of cues, where other teachers are more, “do what feels right in your body.” Some teachers give lots of hands on adjustments, which as a student I love, but some students HATE it. I mostly don’t do much hands on, and when I do, I try to remember to ask permission first, and I usually am just barely touching. I don’t tend to move people’s bodies because I want them to find their own alignment. I once put my hand on a student and she leaped up and off the mat. She had been injured once by a teacher and was traumatized by it. I had triggered that and by not asking permission, took her out of her moment. I apologized profusely, but she never came back. I had a secret shopper once say that she liked my class, but I should be “less peppy and more zen.” I laughed and often shared that feedback with my classes. That’s my personality! I LOVE going to teachers that are all calm, and zen-like, but people come to me because they appreciate my humor, my levity and my “peppiness!”
Most of the time, teachers are not going to know if you don’t like them and won’t take it personally anyway because we are all students too. There is only one studio near me currently and before COVID, I bought a month of unlimited classes, and I tried every class that I could. I ended up finding a teacher and class I liked, so after that, I just bought class bundles and was a regular at his twice weekly classes, and I didn’t go to any other classes.
If you don’t like my class because you don’t click with me as a teacher, that’s fine, but don’t write off all of yoga because of your experience with just a few teachers. Try more than one teacher at more than one gym/studio/online platform.
I wanted to conclude and leave you with perhaps the most important concept. This section is long, but that’s because I don’t expect you to read it all. You can skim for the styles that you are most interested in then skip to the conclusion.
Yoga is unbelievably diverse. We have a very narrow definition of yoga in the West, and since that is where you are likely taking yoga, I will stick to talking about what we call “yoga,” but it is really only the tip of the iceberg of what yoga truly is.
Nearly all of what we practice in the West is some derivation of Hatha Yoga or Ashtanga Yoga. I’m not going to go into deep yogic history or philosophy here because it won’t serve anything right now. I’m just going to give an overview of the most common types of yoga you might encounter in most gyms and studios in the West and explain their similarities and differences. Even thought what we call “yoga” is limited compared to all that yoga actually is, yoga is still an incredibly varied practice in the West. These are my interpretations of the various styles based on what I have learned, been taught, read and practiced. You can research any of them further, but my advice is to just try some classes because most of these styles will still vary depending on the level, teacher and studio/gym/platform
Hatha: To me, hatha is the basis of all other practices. Hatha yoga is simply the practice of finding and holding a yoga posture (asana) while focusing on the breath. In a one hour class, you will likely only do a few postures, which will not be linked. There is no flow and likely no sun salutations. A good teacher will progress the postures in a sequence that includes poses and counter poses that build upon one another, starting from simpler ones and moving to more complex ones. Hatha can be easily modified for the most beginner to the most advanced practitioner.
Iyengar: Iyengar is named for its founder and developer, B.K.S. Iyengar. One of the things that sets Iyengar apart from the other styles is it rigidity in the training. Iyengar teachers go through one of the most intensive and rigorous trainings, and are required to periodically return to Pune, India for continued education. There is a tremendous focus on anatomy and alignment, and very often, props are used to help the student find their optimum alignment. Most Iyengar classes will also not flow, but instead practitioners will work repeatedly on a few postures to really learn the proper alignment and memorize it in their body
Gentle: A gentle yoga class will more often than not be based in hatha. Many people seeking a gentle class do not want to do sun salutations, so those are often not included. A gentle class will be slow moving and often include prolonged breathing, relaxation and meditation. There may be more focus on gentle, not deep, stretching, and not so much strength building.
Senior: An off-shoot of gentle, senior yoga will avoid postures that are contra-indicated for many older people who are more likely to suffer from osteoporosis, high blood pressure and arthritis. Inversions should never be included in senior yoga, and there is generally very limited movement up and down from and to the floor. A senior yoga class should focus on things that are important as we age, such as the ability to stand up from a chair, so gluteal and leg strength will be worked on. Balance is something many seniors struggle with, so it will usually be practiced, but with the wall or chair for safety.
Chair: Chair yoga is offered for those with limited mobility. This might be seniors who are a bit unstable and/or who cannot get down to the floor and back up. It might also be for people confined to a wheel chair. Chair yoga is not necessarily going to cater to those with paralysis or amputation, so a class focused on that might be best for someone with missing limbs or with limited or no ability to move their limbs. Some chair yoga classes will be done from sitting completely, while others might use the chair as a prop to support the student. Chair yoga is also a hatha style class.
Pre-natal: Yoga is excellent during pregnancy, but there are certain precautions that must be taken and certain postures that will benefit women as they prepare for child birth. Pre-natal yoga will often have a lot of focus on the breath because of its importance during labor. Women in their second and third trimesters should avoid certain postures, including those that: are inverted, involve twisting, have her flat on her back, engage the abdominal muscles, have her on her stomach. There will often be a focus on the hips and pelvis. Classes are slow and are not intended to burn calories, but rather to increase flexibility and create calm.
Trauma-informed/sensitive: These classes will generally also be hatha style and quite often be similar to a gentle class. Classes might be offered to veterans, sufferers of PTSD, at-risk teens, inmates, abuse survivors, and other vulnerable groups Each of these groups will have different needs, triggers and limitations, and the teacher must be trained to deal with those. The focus is often much more on breathwork, reduction of stress and relaxation, so postures are not complicated and the movements are very slow to foster a positive environment.
Yin: Yin is focused on flexibility and deep stretching. Postures will be held for many minutes usually, and you are encouraged to breath deeply to allow the muscles to release and relax. Yin is very slow, but it can also be VERY intense. Holding deep stretches can be painful at times, even while being therapeutic. Yin is not ideal for someone who has never done yoga and has limited flexibility. It is best to do this style after your muscles have started to loosen up a bit in more dynamic practices. I found yin helpful after my ashtanga training because I was very sore. It can also be helpful as part of rehab as long as you discuss it with your care provider. Once you have gained some flexibility, yin can be very meditative and therapeutic as your body releases more deeply into the poses.
Restorative: Restorative and yin often get conflated, but they are not the same thing. The goal of restorative is relaxation. While a yin pose may be somewhat uncomfortable, you should really never be physically uncomfortable in restorative. Many props are usually used, including pillows, bolsters, blocks, straps and blankets, to support your body in comfort. Poses are held for 5-15 minutes, and the idea is to relax deeply into them. Each posture has a purpose, and a class usually only includes 2-6 of them with specific goals in mind. More than any other class, the ambience of the room is important. The practitioner should not be too hot nor cold, it should be dimly lit and feel very safe. Music is often included to create a peaceful environment. This is a great practice to do before bed.
Nidra: Nidra yoga is “sleep yoga.” It is a technique of breathing and guided meditation while lying in a comfortable position. While the practitioner is technically not supposed to actually fall asleep during the practice (I always do!), it is meant to facilitate sleep. It too is best done before bed in a very safe and comfortable environment.
Ashtanga: Along with hatha, ashtanga is one of the classic yoga styles and is the basis for other types of practice. The class is fairly formulaic, meaning that any teacher you go to will teach more or less the same thing. The class begins with a series of sun salutations, both A and B, and then is followed by a series of standing postures. Depending on the length of class, some or all of either the primary, intermediate or advanced fundamental series will be included, but always in order. If you are a beginner and end up in an intermediate or advanced class, you will NOT enjoy yourself. Ashtanga is a fast-paced, sweaty class with a focus on strength and agility. It is quite rigid in its execution. If you like repetition, so that you feel comfortable knowing what to expect, you may enjoy this. If you like to mark your progress and improvement, you may appreciate the set levels. If you prefer a more meditative, less competitive practice, you likely will not like this. My 300-hour training was Ashtanga, and I have never done a class since. It was not for me!
Power: Rumor has it that “power yoga” was founded by a bunch of Californians who started Ashtanga training in India, dropped out and decided to modify it to make it more appealing to Americans. Power yoga does not tend to follow a set structure, but it tends to be sun salutation heavy, fast paced, sweaty and intense with a focus on building strength. If you like to feel like you are getting a good physical workout, but hate routine, you will likely prefer power over ashtanga. Power classes may be more flow-based than a classic ashtanga class is. It is very often offered in gyms and big-brand yoga studios.
Bikram and Hot: Bikram is also named for its founder, Bikram Choudhury. He developed a style of yoga that involves a series of 26 postures done in a heated room, meant to mimic the natural heat of India. This is again a good class for someone who likes repetition, routine and knowing what is going on. I will not go into all of the drama, but in short, Bikram tried to patent his practice and lost. It was decided that yoga was a thousands of years old practice and simply putting some of the postures in a sequence and putting the practitioners in a hot room was not unique and patentable. Out of that loss of the patent was born “hot yoga.” Some hot yoga studios and teachers will follow the 26 postures of Bikram, but essentially hot yoga can be any style of yoga done in a hot room. It is usually not so vigorous, but the point is indeed sweat, detox and a workout, so it is not gentle either. It is contraindicated for many people including those with blood pressure issues, pregnancy, and more. So while Bikram is essentially hatha yoga in a hot room, “hot yoga” may be any style or level, so it is important that if you like the idea of a hot room, you still try different studios, teachers and classes to find the right one for you. If you hate sweating, it is NOT the class for you. One note on this. Many students love it because your muscles get very loose in the heat, so you increase flexibility. This can lead to over-stretching and injury. It can also lead to thinking you can do that same pose cold, and this may cause injury. One word of advice: hydrate!
Vinyasa: If you are taking a class in most gyms or studios, and it is simply called “yoga,” most likely it is going to be a type of vinyasa or hatha-vinyasa. It is often called “flow yoga.” Like ashtanga, vinyasa includes sun salutations, but what really sets vinyasa apart is that the poses are all linked to one another. A sun salutation may flow into a series of standing postures. Some teachers will teach a repetitive flow with each series building on the previous. Some will warm-up with sun salutations and then move on to a series of standing postures. A true vinyasa class is intended to flow very quickly from one pose to the next, usually moving on each inhale and each exhale, but many teachers will tend to hold the postures longer than that. For that reason, a vinyasa class can vary greatly from one teacher to the next. Levels may often be given from 1-4, and while each will offer a similar style and sequence, the types of postures, speed and transitions will vary based on ability. It is important that you know what level class you are getting into and be sure that it is what you are looking for. There are something like 100,000 yoga postures, and there is no prescriptive series in vinyasa nor in hatha-vinyasa nor in flow, so while there are certainly postures that are more common, the teacher style is really the biggest determining factor in whether or not you like a vinyasa class because they can vary widely.
Kundalini: Kundalini yoga is very different from any of the previously discussed styles. The name comes from the Sanskrit word kundal, which translates to “coiled energy.” The theory behind the practice is that we have energy “coiled” at the base of our spine, which is often visualized as a snake, and, through the practice of kundalini, we bring that energy up our spine, through the seven chakras, and out the crown of our head thus awakening our spirit. It is probably the most mystical of the practices you will encounter in the West. There is chanting, very specific breath work, singing and postures done to focus on each chakra. I have only taken maybe three kundalini classes, and they have still varied, but they are decidedly similar in their difference from other styles. There is a notion that kundalini is sexual in nature, and while not specifically intended to be sexual, some people will fee sexual energy as the kundalini is “awakened” and uncoils through the lower level chakras. I have enjoyed the classes I took, but I would not necessarily recommend this to someone interested in trying yoga for the first time.
Tantric: I will also not go deeply into this one because I know nothing about it from a personal experience. Tantra is a very old spiritual practice. The practice includes very specific breath work, chanting, singing and postures. It has been associated with sex, tantric sex, but practitioners tend to get frustrated that Westerners have reduced it to that. It is said to be a very spiritual experience that connects the practitioner to their body in a very meaningful way. There is lots of information on it available, so you can do your own research, but as with kundalini, I would not advise this as your first foray into yoga.
Mat Pilates and fusion classes: Pilates is not yoga, but it is not wildly dissimilar. Joseph Pilates studied traditional calisthenics, exercise theory and yoga and started to put together a style of exercise in Germany. He then teamed up with the NY Ballet once he emigrated, and dance was infused into his practice, which was originally called “controlology.” Pilates moves are usually dynamic, and they are very often similar to yoga poses, but with movement. Pilates is very focused on the core, primarily the abdominals and the back. Because there are only around 30 Pilates exercises, and many are too advanced for most students, a “pure Pilates” class will tend to be pretty similar one studio to the next. There are different modern versions of Pilates, so depending on where your teacher was trained, there will be variations. Many teachers teach both yoga and Pilates, so fusion has become common, and I often say that while I may be teaching a class that is not technically fusion, each style will bleed into other classes. Yoga and Pilates pair very well as part of a balanced program. A key difference is the breath. Yoga traditionally involves inhaling and exhaling through the nose during the practice, but Pilates has you exhale through the mouth to strengthen the deep abdominal and pelvic floor muscles. (Reformer Pilates is a whole other practice.)
Yogatōn: I am only including this because I “created it!” I’m teaching classes that are yoga-based with some Pilates, but incorporate weights. I did not invent this style; this is just my name for it. These types of classes are found on-line and in gyms. They are definitely not generally pure yoga, but use yoga concepts with increased strength training.
There are many other practices: goat yoga, laughter yoga, face yoga, baby yoga, couples yoga to name just a few, but those are all going to offer something very different and/or very specific. The above styles are what you are mostly going to encounter in your local studios, gyms, or online.
So….if you are one of those people who has taken a handful of classes and declared that you don’t like yoga, I hope I have at least convinced you that yoga is not one-sized fits all, and maybe you just didn’t like those classes for any number of reasons.
Clearly, I would love if you joined my classes, but this is not really a marketing ploy. I just really believe that everyone can benefit from “yoga.” The key is finding the class that resonates with you! All of them should give you the benefit of breathwork, back health, flexibility, etc., but each style will tend to focus on particular things and you need to decide what you need and want.
Good luck and enjoy!
Check out my other post in this series:
- Yoga Myths (and excuses) #1 & 2#: “I’m not flexible enough to do yoga” and “I am not good at yoga”
- Yoga Myths (and excuses): #4 “Yoga isn’t enough of a workout for me” & #5 “I don’t like to exercise”
- Yoga Myths (and excuses): #6 I am Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Atheist, Agnostic, etc., so I Can’t Practice Yoga
- Yoga Myths: #7 Yoga is Just Another Type of Exercise
- Yoga myths, excuses and questions: #8 Is Yoga an Example of Cultural Appropriation?
- Yoga Myths and Excuses: #9 Yoga and Pilates are for Women (and I’m a Man)
- Yoga Myths and Excuses: #10 I Don’t Have Enough Time (or energy) for Yoga