6 elements that make up traditional yoga

Whether or not you have incorporated yoga into your life, it has been hard to avoid hearing about it in the past decade. The profit potential for yoga gear, publications, teacher training, and the image of a white, female, slender “yoga body” have propelled various interpretations of yoga into mass consciousness.

Popularity, though, is not always and only for the better. While yoga may have become a normalized household concept over the past 10 years, what has the reality been? Who has access to practice? How is yoga transforming the practitioners? And which components of “yoga” are happening in the average yoga class?

Some upshots of yoga’s popularity have been a blurring pace of niche creation, dilution of quality, and market-pleasing innovations. These things sometimes happen in the name of freedom of expression and creativity, and often in the name of softening a very disciplined practice for a not-necessarily-disciplined practitioner.

In most cases, the rigor and comprehensiveness that defined yoga over the ages have been lost and have given way to various hybrids in popular demand. Now, while I will usually argue that doing something with your body is better than doing nothing, I am also committed to maintaining the traditions of yoga as they have been passed on to me. I believe that the next generations deserve to have access to the healing, self-realization, and transformation that have been made available to us.

Over the past 15 years, I have tried various yoga classes but have primarily practiced Bikram Yoga, Ghosh Yoga, and Isha Yogasanas. While I try other styles from time to time and respect senior teachers from other lineages, these three particular practices have retained four elements that I consider fundamental to anything calling itself “yoga”:

  • SEQUENCE: The sequence of postures is central to a therapeutic or hatha yoga practice. Foundational sequences are always practiced in the same order. Changing a sequence is only done with master guidance and for very specific reasons.
  • PRECISION: The precision with which each posture is attempted is really not up for debate! While there are infinite levels of depth and expression – depending on body size, shape, strength, and mobility – the precise, specific form of attempting each posture is not changed. Keep trying the right way and you will realize more about yourself.
  • STILLNESS: There is complete and total stillness in every single posture, for no less than 20 seconds. Each posture is done 2 or 3 times, and nearly every posture is done for the same number of repetitions. Practicing one set of each posture is considered a backup plan for occasional use only.
  • BREATHING: Breathing must be normal at all times during yoga postures. This means the air only flows by the nose, the breathing makes no sound at all, and the flow is relatively even (the inhales and the exhales take about the same amount of time). Certain portions of Bikram Yoga and Ghosh Yoga insist on a 5th element:
  • REST: After every posture, a rest period is taken. The rest period should be at least as long as the posture immediately preceding it, or longer.

And Bikram Yoga, in particular, brings in a 6th element, to add to the accessibility and effectiveness of the therapeutic aspects:

  • ENVIRONMENT: Carefully controlled heat, humidity, and fresh air in a well-designed Bikram Yoga school make the yoga sequence more doable for the stiff-jointed, more effective for the athlete, and more noticeably powerful for anyone looking for mental relief from anxiety, stress, and our culture in general.

Finally, all three traditions call for daily practice for an initial period of time. While this does not always happen at the outset, the vision and intention are to make the practice a part of your life, on your good days and your bad days, healthy and sick days.

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Ann Chrapkiewicz, M.A., is a Level 3 teacher with the Original Hot Yoga Association.  She teaches group classes and private lessons daily at Bikram Yoga Capital Area. Her writing and teaching philosophy can be found at www.byca.yoga.

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