Finding the Right Yoga Class
It can be tricky to find the right fit for a yoga class. I am honored each time I am asked for recommendations for a specific class or instructor, but it remains a complicated question to answer. If you have read my other posts, you have likely come to appreciate how important a regular yoga practice is to me. So today I will share with you the aspects of classes that are important to me in the hopes that it may guide you towards finding what is important to you. Because, when it really comes down to it, the right yoga class is all about what is right for you. And this largely depends on your intention for your practice, in terms of the needs of your body, mind, and spirit as well as the specific time in your life (for example, entering into a class because you are newly pregnant vs. looking for general stress relief vs. recovery from trauma/injury). With all of my moving (and traveling) about, I have had ample experience to survey local yoga classes throughout the country and I hope that the lessons I have learned along the way will be useful to you. Here are the four things I look for in any yoga practice:
# 1 Safety
My number one, non-negotiable priority is safety. This means that the teacher demonstrates experience, through training and/or certification, in what they are offering (which is likely listed on the teacher/studio's website) and that they are compassionate guides. Structured styles that have a rigorous series of postures, depending on the teacher, can seem inflexible to novice students, leading them to attempt poses that their body is not ready to try. Or, in my case, having lots of experience causes my ego to get in the way and I end up doing poses that I know are not healthy for me when they are offered without an alternative. A good tell in terms of safety is when I arrive at the end of the class and the teacher has offered many variations on the poses practiced during the class (meaning versions of a pose that will allow for the same effect with different levels of intensity), and I have felt comfortable enough to try any of them. Offering pose options with props (i.e. blocks and straps) is a bonus. Two final notes on safety:
1. I don't practice headstand or should stand any more. I have pinched too many a nerve in my neck practicing these and find the gentle options to be a welcome gift to my body and mind. As a consequence, I also tend not to return to classes in which the teacher instructs these poses, especially without ample instruction or variations. Yoga International has this article that further discusses the "king" and "queen" of yoga.
2. Psychological safety is equally important as physical safety. Trauma informed yoga classes are a topic all of their own for us to explore. For now, if you walk in to a studio and do not feel safe you are welcome to turn around and walk right on out, whether you are impacted by trauma or not. The yoga instructor/studio that will be the right fit for you will understand.
# 2 Embodied Instructor
After safety, the authentic presence of the instructor will keep me coming back. When I was pregnant with my first daughter, I drove 35 minutes past three decent yoga studios and rearranged my work schedule so that I could attend a gentle vinyasa class with a teacher that never failed to show up with her whole self. No ego, no pretension, well-prepared and yet flexible enough to be able to attend to the needs of whoever is in the room. If feels incredible when the clear intention of the instructor is to share the gift of their practice with me. This looks like an instructor coming to introduce themselves to me at the beginning of class, or greeting me at the door as a student that is new to them. If I am struggling in a pose, they provide verbal or physical support (after requesting permission), and if I need to rest they encourage it. They are humble, they are kind, and they communicate that we are in this practice together, because we are all students after all.
# 3 Nourishing Space
The energy has to feel good in the room. Four walls, a clean floor, soft lighting, soft music or gentle silence. The decor is inspiring without being distracting. A sense of community is communicated, perhaps through the kind request to refrain from using overpowering fragrances, or an offering of a pot of herbal tea at the door. I have also learned that these spaces can be right around the corner in places where you would never expect them. I have practiced in the grand studios on the grounds of Kripalu and felt the same vibrant energy in a town hall meeting room in rural New Hampshire. The instructor is often the one who sets the tone for the energy in the room and can help to generate a collective sense of well-being through their words and actions.
# 4 Style and Intention
There are many beautiful reasons to begin a yoga practice and many styles to choose from (for example, Kripalu, Iyengar, Ashtanga, Forrest). If these words mean nothing to you, don’t fret! Many studios offer an introductory flat fee for new students, which allows them to take unlimited classes for a month in order to try out new teachers and (if they offer them) different styles. As yoga becomes more popular I have even seen studios offer a “yoga advisor” to walk you through the various options that are available. In my experience, an instructor's lineage matters less than how the instructor shows up for you (see #2 above). I swore off Ashtanga classes until I came across a truly inspired teacher when I moved to Vermont (she was very welcoming of my stance on head/shoulder stands, by the way). While vacationing in Portland, Oregon, I tried an Anusara class and fell in love with the compassionate approach of the instructor, and therefore in love with Anusara yoga, only to be disappointed two days later when taking another Anusara class with a different and less enthusiastic/inspired instructor. Same style, same beautiful studio, and a completely different experience.
Because instructors, studios, and styles can differ so widely, it can be helpful to get clear on why you are seeking a new yoga class. If you are looking for physical fitness, a class offered through a local gym may be a good fit. If you are looking for a more emotional or spiritual connection or healing, a practice that invites personal inquiry may be more in line with what you are seeking. Once you are clear on your intention, do a little research by visiting the instructor/studio virtually or in person. During this interaction, pay attention to the response in your body. How does it feel? Is it in line with your intention?
The Take Away
There are no right or wrong ways to practice yoga. There are safer ways, taught by embodied teachers with healthful intentions, in nourishing spaces. These are the ones that I seek and return to. But ultimately, the right class will be the one that is right for you.