How to Choose the Best Yoga Class for Your Needs
Yoga studio schedules can be overwhelming.
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Some use Sanskrit words, while others deploy various English names to describe classes. Some use levels, while others don’t. If you’re flummoxed by a schedule, your best bet is to call the studio and speak to the owner about what would work for you. (I’m always happy to take these calls at my studio. The answers to a few questions, such as where they are in their training, whether they like minimal or explicit instruction, and how they feel about crowds, let me make recommendations, saving them the process of trial-and-error in finding the right class and teacher.)
The following sections explain terms you’ll commonly see on studio schedules.
1–2 (or 1/2), 2–3 (or 2/3), 1–3
These denote levels, where level 1 is beginner, level 2 is intermediate, and level 3 is advanced. An advanced practitioner can have a profound experience in a basic class, and a beginner can enjoy an advanced class with the right attitude and instruction. Use these numbers to help you decode how complicated the asana practice is going to be.
Good for: helping you determine whether a class will be more or less demanding, which is critical when you require practices that will not wear you out during peak running periods.
Hatha refers to the physical practice of the poses and to their work connecting the sun (ha) and moon (tha) energies in the body. In the West, though, hatha is used to describe a slow-paced class in which poses are held for extended periods. These poses and classes are usually quite gentle, depending on the instructor.
Good for: getting to know how your body feels in each pose. Take these classes at any point in the training cycle, except the few days immediately before or after a long race.
Vinyasa, Flow, Power
These terms, either separate or in conjunction, denote a faster-paced style in which practitioners move from pose to pose with the breath. Because of the movement, there is typically less emphasis on alignment, so it’s helpful to have a sense of proper alignment before attending a flow class (this book will help, as will a few basic classes). Rooms may be heated to 80 or 90 degrees, so be careful about when in your training cycle and how often you practice, lest you pile on too much intensity. Many styles affiliated with nationally recognized teachers—Baptiste Power Yoga, Shiva Rea’s Prana Flow Yoga, David Life and Sharon Gannon’s Jivamukti Yoga, or Ana Forrest’s Forrest Yoga—are variations on vinyasa yoga.
Good for: building strength during your off-season and base periods. For experienced runner-yogis, one or two weekly classes during the build period can help maintain strength gains from the base period. Drop any rigorous flow classes by the week of your peak race.
A quick-moving sequence of poses, Ashtanga’s Primary Series focuses on forward folds interlaced with a standard vinyasa, or flow, of chaturanga, upward-facing dog, and downward-facing dog. It is taught either in classes led by yoga instructors or in “Mysore style,” named after the city in India where the style’s founder, K. Pattabhi Jois, taught until his death in 2009. In this approach, students move through the sequence at their own pace and receive individual instruction from the teacher.
Good for: building strength during your off-season and base periods. For experienced runner-yogis, one or two weekly classes during the build period can help maintain strength gains from the base period. Ashtanga places special emphasis on breathing and moving energy in the body using bandhas, or “locks,” which can help runners build body awareness and focus.
The Iyengar approach, named for B. K. S. Iyengar, author of Light on Yoga, emphasizes precise alignment, often with the use of props. Classes move slowly, with a focus on getting each pose right rather than moving quickly. Certified Iyengar teachers are rigorously trained and can usually provide a wealth of anatomical information.
Good for: inquisitive minds; learning the fundamentals of the poses. Runners can build strength, flexibility, and focus in Iyengar classes. As with generic hatha yoga classes, an Iyengar class can fit anywhere in the cycle apart from the few days before and after a peak race.
Like Iyengar Yoga, Anusara pays attention to alignment, using a language of loops and spirals to describe the poses. A friendly, playful style, Anusara offers plenty of backbends (“heart opening”). Classes are often run in series, which allows each week’s lesson to build on the preceding one.
Good for: back strength and chest openness; sense of humor. Runners new to yoga would be well served to sign up for a level 1 Anusara series to learn the basics of the poses with a teacher’s eye on them. As with other hatha yoga classes, Anusara classes can fit into most parts of the training cycle, but not too close to a race.
Kripalu Yoga is affiliated with the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health, a retreat center in the Berkshires of western Massachusetts. The Kripalu style emphasizes the student’s experience, setting up a structure wherein each student can investigate different expressions of the poses, determining what works for them. This freedom is nice for athletes in a class: They have the opportunity to do less or more, given how their bodies are reacting on a given day.
Good for: self-expression. Gentle classes are appropriate year-round; moderate classes will work best in your build period; and vigorous classes can be added in the offseason or for strength maintenance in the base and build periods.
Restorative yoga uses a host of soft props—blankets, bolsters, eye pillows—to support the body in various relaxing poses. The goal is not to stretch but rather to enforce downtime in soothing positions. Staying in these padded poses helps balance your nervous system, engaging the parasympathetic side of it and aiding athletic recovery.
Good for: recovery from long and hard workouts; rest before and after a peak event. If you have access to restorative classes or private lessons, treat yourself. Having an experienced teacher settle you into the poses can lead to even more release than doing them yourself, as I outline in Part V. A restorative yoga class is a perfect rest-day, taper week, or post-race activity.
These branded styles of hot yoga follow a set sequence of poses in a room heated to over 100 degrees. Jimmy Barkan, a senior teacher under Bikram Choudhury, founder of Bikram Yoga, developed his own style, which is similar to Bikram but with slightly more variety in the pose sequence. See the sidebar on page 123 for more on hot yoga.
Good for: the off-season, especially in cold climates. Runners must take care not to push too hard. The language of a Bikram Yoga class includes exhortations to “push beyond your flexibility” and to “lock your knees.” Please don’t do either. Stay within your limits, be sure you aren’t lapsing into the mindset of being in a gymnastics competition, and take what works for you.
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