Yoga School Survey

A friend who has been around the block more than me (not difficult) in the field of yoga has contributed this overview of the major schools of yoga, which contains both criticism and immense respect. I am grateful to her for both the glimpses provided and the pointing to teachers new to me. Back to main Yoga Page.

 Read another overview of the different schools/styles at Yoga Journal.

  Iyengar Yoga

Meticulously detailed, highly didactic approach stressing fine points of alignment. Emphasis is on holding individual poses for long durations, and stopping rather than flowing between them. There's much use of "props" like belts, blocks, ropes, and sandbags to help the inflexible derive benefits from poses they'd otherwise be unable to manage. Teachers do lots of talking and explaining, and circulate to correct alignment. Good for beginners, as it really gets your fundamentals together to avoid injury. Some prefer this approach to systems where you're left on your own to try to emulate the teacher's example, but others complain that the fussiness harshes their mellow. Teachers are extraordinarily well trained (these are the people to go to if you have special physical issues), but can often be arrogant, condescending hard asses (there's not much heart opening work in the Iyengar system), so don't expect much in the way of love-'n-light.

BKS Iyengar is the guy who first popularized yoga in the west (via his classic book "Light on Yoga"). He's a brilliant egomaniac who encourages a partisan attitude in his followers. His daughter, Geeta, who will take over when the old man dies, is a character straight out of a Lina Wertmuller film, and her anger issues seem at odds with, hello, the entire point of the practice. But Iyengar is earnest, honest, and unparalleled in his knowledge of the human body. His contributions will likely be remembered for centuries (skip, though, his recent philosophical writings, which are not his forte). And Geeta possesses a lot of the underlying knowledge. The American teachers, though (even the luminaries), tend to repeat Iyengar's directives without fully understanding their energetic underpinnings. The Iyengar family is quite stingy with the source materials.

Ashtanga yoga practitioners say that the verbosity, the niggling attention to detail, and those darned props make Iyengar practice more physical than spiritual. Iyengarites say that precision focuses the mind, and careful alignment clears the nadis (energy channels) for deeper work.

Iyengar

Anti:
"First There Is a Mountain: A Yoga Romance" by Elizabeth Kadetsky, a warts-and-all account of the Iyengar scene (plus a silly revisionist view of the history of yoga).

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  Ashtanga Yoga

Ashtanga yoga is the polar opposite of Iyengar yoga - surprising, given that founder Pattabhi Jois studied from the same teacher as BKS Iyengar (the estimable but tyrannical and opaque Krishnamacharya). Ashtanga Yoga (the term for this specific school as well as the general term for Patanjali's system) offers much less in the way of instruction and correction, and few props are used. You flow from pose to pose without pausing, the goal being to master increasingly difficult sequences. More doing and less thinking encourages an immersively meditative experience. But scant concern for alignment and fundamentals plus peer pressure to get through the series (classes are synchronized) combine to make injury a serious risk. This grueling practice can seem a bit sink-or-swim, and the striving physicality can entrap the goal-oriented, but those who dive deeply into it find that the smooth, breath-timed sequences become mantra-like, with attention undistracted by concern with details. A good number of Iyengar students, having acquired a proper understanding of alignment, are attracted to Ashtanga, and a good number of Ashtanga students are attracted to Iyengar to nurse their wounds and gain deeper insight into asana and the body.

Classes are highly regimented; everyone works and breathes together with military precision, so there's little room for individual needs or modifications (note that there's another way to teach Ashtanga yoga:  Mysore style, which involves much more self-direction and individual attention; definitely watch for such classes!). Iyengarites say that the huffing roomfuls of students muscling themselves through inflexible sequences make this "power yoga" practice more physical than spiritual. Ashtanga people insist they're all about the flow.

Final word on Iyengar vs Ashtanga: though to the observer the two schools would seem to be yin fairly begging to be reunited with yang, both venerable founders (who nurse a caste/lineage feud stretching back centuries) vehemently insist that it would be a grave error to study both simultaneously.

Ashtanga

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  Anusara Yoga

Founded by John Friend, this popular vinyasa-based system (flowing poses) tries to integrate the left brained alignment of Iyengar yoga with the right brained flowing release of Ashtanga, while emphasizing an opening of the heart chakra. This is a very fast-growing system which serves as a meeting point for battered, poorly aligned Ashtanga students and Iyengar students trying to shake free of minutiae. At worst, it's Iyengar-Lite, but there's tremendous variability among teachers, and some are very well respected. Anusara is loosely aligned with Friend's guru, Gurumayi of the Siddha movement, but there have been few or no allegations of any Siddha negatives creeping into this system....yet.

Anusara

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  Viniyoga

Founded by T.K.V. Desikachar, the son of Krishnamacharya. He didn't show much interest in yoga until relatively recently - when, coincidentally, yoga started to become popular and there was gold in the family name. Catty (and perhaps baseless) allegations of opportunism aside, Desikachar may not have been his father's most accomplished student, but he indisputably put in time, and that makes him worth taking seriously. In stark contrast to the inflexibility of Ashtanga Yoga, Viniyoga stresses adapting the practice to the individual student. And there's lots of non-asana work (meditation, chanting, etc.) and emphasis on breath in postures. Viniyoga concentrates on the health-giving aspects of asana practice, and the viniyogis in India have put in much research time, and they'll trot out kitsch charts and dubious "studies" to prove it. There'a pall of pseudoscience over the whole thing, and they're considered a little eccentric, but you won't hear these guys out-and-out ridiculed much, as there's some good material here. Desikachar's book "The Heart of Yoga", though, is disorganized and poorly focused.

Viniyoga

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  Bikram Yoga

MacYoga. If you're looking for a yoga-like workout, head down to your nearby Bikram franchise. All the yoga schools are competitive, with endless rivalries and jealousies, but you'd be hard pressed to find a single yogi outside Bikram's system with anything respectful to say about founder Bikram Choudhury or his teachings (exception: his friend, Amrit Desai). Bikram is quite the businessman, though (if you eventually spot a trademark symbol next to words like "Patanjali" or "Trikonasana", you'll need look no further to find the registrant), and would say they're all just jealous of his success. He's a proponent of practicing in a hot room, so your muscles are more flexible. Perhaps the next step might be tendon-loosening laser surgery to allow a full back bend within a week or your money back.

A picture contains 1000 words, so drink in the elegance and serenity of an accomplished Bikram instructor in this photo [nb link updated, now only found in Archive.org]. The dapper fellow needs to relax, lower, broaden, and even up his shoulders; straighten his right leg and rotate it the OTHER way; relax his jaw, forehead, eyes, and neck; create an arch in his left foot and uncurl his toes; and stop collapsing his chest and "cheating" via his right hip!

Bikram Yoga

Anti: Yoga Journal

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  Amrit Yoga
The indefatigable Amrit Desai, kicked out of Kripalu - his own ashram - after a repugnant scandal (see Advocateweb.org) and, apparently still blithely amoral and remorseless (see WIE interview), is rebuilding - apparently trying to emulate a bit of the branding flair of his friend Bikram Choudhury. But Amrit Yoga doesn't seem to be spreading very quickly, and whispers of further improprieties circulate.

Ethical issues aside, watching Desai do his posture flows can be, according to all reports, a mind-blowing, shakti-spewing experience. Unfortunately, he's not yet found a reliable method for passing on the knack.

Amrit Yoga
    FEEDBACK 

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  Kripalu Yoga

Back when Amrit Desai ran Kripalu, before the current yoga boom, Kripalu was an early proponent of posture flow, a freeform and spontaneous approach that contrasts with the rigid sequences of Ashtanga Yoga. Since Desai's departure, the center is still going strong and there are still many teachers describing their teachings as "Kripalu yoga". The thing is, though, that nobody is quite sure what Kripalu Yoga actually is at this point. Expect tremendous variability among teachers, and little lingering Sahaj tradition from Desai's guru (and Kripalu namesake) Swami Shri Kripalvanandji. For more on Kripalvanandji (he was the undiluted real deal), see akyc.org.

Kripalu

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  Integral Yoga

Followers of Swami Satchidananda built their yoga teaching network decades before "the competition", and attending an Integral yoga class makes you understand why it took the work of others to make yoga catch on.

Integral Yoga teaches an integrated approach, combining hatha with raja, japa, karma, bhakti, and jnana yogas, but they should have paid more attention to their asana teaching, which can be unrigorous and vague; you are to try and ape the teacher's actions as s/he keeps up a spacy, breezy patter ("and NOW you move your RIGHT hip outward, and let your body feel the pleasant stretch UP the thigh"). Don't interrupt the patter with questions. Don't expect corrections. Don't worry, after a few years you'll maybe manage to figure out how to actually do things, and then you, too, can do your daily practice in front of a room of students and get paid for "teaching".

Yogaville

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  Swami Sivananda's Divine Life Society

If you're interested in kriyas (esoteric purification techniques), you'll get little information from most yoga schools. The Divine Life Society covers this bizarre world well, however. Have a look, if you dare, at this fascinating page: Pranayama.htm

dlshq.org

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  Erich Schiffman

Schiffman wrote a superb and influential book called Moving into the Stillness. Another integrator, like John Friend (see above), Schiffman had a lot of Iyengar training, but he, too, tired of the endless minutae of alignment and the Iyengar system's inflexiblility. Schiffman urges students to listen to their bodies - hardly a breakthrough (feckless instructors have been telling this to clueless beginners for years), but Schiffman actually shows them how to do it (learn to feel the prana, and let it gently guide the alignment). Apparently not entrepreneur enough to institutionalize his teachings and build up an official network of teachers - much less to franchise into a chain operation, la Bikram, Schiffman has perhaps missed the gravy train, but remains a very popular teacher and travels giving programs (and there is an ad hoc quasi network of teachers influenced by him). He was also an intimate of J Krishnamurti, which gives him deeper philosophical insights than most teachers - many of whom could stand to forget their hamstrings for a while and get a wider perspective. Though he's by no means a lightweight, there is a style issue to be considered: California huggy-ness may turn off those who don't dot their "i"s with happy faces.

MovingIntoStillness.com

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  Rodney Yee

Ex-Iyengar teacher, now non-sectarian. There've been sex scandals, but he's an excellent teacher, if a bit proud of his yoga studmuffin image (that's him with pectorals bulging and nostrils flaring all over the ads in Yoga Journal).

Yeeyoga.com

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  Ramanand Patel

More and more an ex-Iyengar teacher (the Iyengarites are increasingly quick to purge non-doctrinaire teachers, and Patel, though ever respectful of his guru, has an irrepressible maverick streak). Not well-known to the masses, he's a yogi's yogi with an avid following, very respected for his singular (and often humorous) insights, especially regarding therapeutic yoga - which he adamantly insists he knows nothing about (see his web site for testy disavowals).

Yogirama.com

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  Yogani

Yogani is the first yoga eGuru, having come to prominence on the Internet. He thinks a critical mass of spiritual seekers has been achieved, so it's time to lay all the tools and secrets on the table. And he's done so via two courses freely available online (one for sexually-retentive enlightenment and the other for tantra) or from his book. It's mostly kundalini, but of particular interest are his explanations of esoteric practices so arcane that you'll hardly hear of them elsewhere (e.g. how to do home surgery on your tongue so that - after years of excruciating work - its tip can probe up the nasal canal to the sinuses, where it will complete a cosmic circuit and deliver unimaginably blissful states and stuff).

Yogani is anonymous (though he's said to be responsive to email), rejects followers and money (he's hawking a book - "Advanced Yoga Practices: Easy Lessons for Ecstatic Living" - but also offers the teachings therein for free via the web). His motives appear pure, his erudition is obvious, and his generosity is indisputable. His goal is to a do-it-yourself roadmap to empower the multitudes to reach enlightenment, and the focus is on practical practice with a minimum of philosophy. He's stripped down the path of kundalini awakening (and beyond) to the physical and neurological essentials, writing in extremely plain language - cordial, well-humored, down-to-earth straight talk (in those rare instances when Yogani waxes poetic, one wishes he'd stuck with narrative).

Three potential problems:

1. Kundalini awakening is tricky business and, like brain surgery, is perhaps not best pursued via home study (Yogani, of course, disagrees). Read "Jerry's Kundalini Story", [Sarlo: Jerry's story is not AYP-related] just one of myriad level-headed reports from non-hysterical people about the enduring ill effects kundalini can bring to even sincere, healthy seekers. If you have no teacher, where do you go if there's a problem or you need a reality check?

2. Since all the information is laid out and accessible, there's nothing to prevent the impatient (i.e. just about everyone) from rushing or skipping around the lessons (missing preparatory practices which mitigate risk), or from students feeding their spiritual materialism, or from any of the other myriad dangers and pitfalls which have, for millennia, persuaded teachers NOT to accessibly lay out all the information.

and

3. The sheer embarrassment of confessing to friends and loved ones that you're pursuing enlightenment via material you found on the Internet.

Advanced Yoga Practices  
See also Clarification from Yogani

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