I want to clear the air and let it be known that a true yoga class is not an exercise class. True, you can get exercise from practicing yoga, but that should not usually be the first priority for a yoga class.
Thousands of years ago there was no such thing as Vinyasa Power Yoga. Yogis did not practice warrior II and Triangle pose in a hot room like we do today. Yogis simply sat in certain meditation poses for long periods of time. Maybe they would practice a mudra (hand pose) and chant... that is what yoga used to look like. Today, especially in the Western world we think of yoga in terms of handstands and super advanced pretzel-like poses that we see on Instagram. Yoga has evolved and maybe in some ways it has devolved into a physical fitness for gymnasts. I would like to keep the idea alive that yoga is a fitness for the mind and beyond that it can be so many other things simultaneously.
Many of us first find yoga by means of exercise. That’s the reason why I started to practice yoga (and because I was living in Los Angeles and that's just what you do when you live there) . When I first began my deep yoga journey it started out in the form of hot power yoga. I found the hot moist room to soothe my body and mind and melt them together into one unit. The repetitive, meditative movements along with deep Ujjayi breathing brought more oxygen to my brain then usual and I felt that yoga high every time. Walking out of the hot humid yoga room with my hair wild and my cheeks flushed, feeling as if I had just jumped in the ocean was the best feeling I had ever felt. It was the same feeling as when I used to walk home from a rave in downtown LA with my college friends, but this new yoga high was better because it was healthy and drug-free… the best high you could buy! At this beginning stage in my yogini life I did not yet know the inner workings of yoga- the philosophy, history, anatomy, etc…. but I did know that there was much more to this practice then just the poses and the great work out….
Yoga is not a practice of attaining idealized physical postures, burning calories and attaining a sexy chiseled body, but a process of self-exploration, self-acceptance and self-transformation. This process occurs step by step, within each breath, each asana, and each sequence and extends across all the practices you do in your lifetime. Your gradual self-transformation cultivates an awakening revolving around a sense of samasthiti- equanimity in body, breath, mind and spirit. However, promises of buns of steel, toned arms, and a sexy 6-pack is a great way to get many people to come to yoga and once they are there my job as a teacher is to sneak in a few true yoga lessons in between the gymnastics.
When I start class, I usually begin with guiding students on deepening the breath. Smoothing and lengthening the breath helps to ease and clear the mind. We must tune into and listen to our breath in order to distract ourselves from whats going on in the mind. Once our mind is focused on breath, then we can start to move the body. The movements and the poses are also designed as a way to distract us from extraneous thoughts, thus we call physical yoga a moving meditation. So we start the work on the inside of our body followed by working the outside of the body.. Yoga teaches us to align the body up properly so we can use our vessel in its most efficient manner throughout life. And yes, of course we are going to move a lot and challenge ourselves immensely. If we happen to sweat and burn a few calories, that’s just the cherry on top, but that is not ultimately what this practice is about.
The more we practice yoga, any type of yoga, with keen awareness and deep full breaths, the more we bring our individual lives into alignment with the whole of existence. Eventually, we may feel nourished and at peace with ourselves.
However you like your yoga served is by all means personal preference. There is really no right or wrong way to practice. Everyone is entitled to their own version of yoga. I just wouldn't want students to be ripped off by never truly experiencing something that was beyond a fitness class.