by Eric Stewart

Yoga in America is a busy, buzzing thing. It’s astonishing how widespread the practice has become, and how many forms have proliferated over the past ten or twenty years.

Particular kinds of yoga have become especially entwined in popular culture. One sign of this is the shorthand, the concise labeling used to describe different styles. These days, even when I talk with people who have never done yoga, they have absorbed concepts through the cultural ether and often have a vague sense about certain methods.

What’s in a Label

So for instance, many people have an idea of what hot yoga is like, even if they have never done it. Other examples of this shorthand include “flow”, describing vinyasa forms that emphasize transitions between asanas, and “alignment-based”, defining an approach such as the Iyengar method which focuses on musculoskeletal precision.

A label can be a beacon, guiding people to the practice that best suits them, but it can also lead to a superficial understanding of yoga.

That said, this piece is not about convincing you that soundbite descriptions of a yoga style are a symptom of our superficial culture and complete ignorance of real yoga. Rather, these expressions can actually serve a useful purpose, but they have limitations.

Helpful Communication

In general, a label describes a style’s most prominent characteristic. It communicates how the method engages the practice. It can be understood as the doorway to the yoga. It explains what the entryway is like: some entryways are straight and solid, some are curvy and flowing.

The importance of an entryway cannot be overstated. It provides direction and focus, a place to go. An entryway is valuable for a novice student because it allows them to step into the practice and begin to comprehend it.

Beyond the beginning stages, it can continue to serve as a reference point. Especially during times when practice is shaky, a concise statement that encapsulates the method can be a support to fall back on, a return home.

The shorthand label sometimes becomes something to rally around, a kind of tribal identification. When a person finds yoga that really works for them, it’s understandable that they would want to communicate those benefits, as well as seek out people who feel the same way.

The Limits of a Label

Here, it’s essential to recognize that the entryway is not the whole method. As much as a concise label is convenient and powerful, there are limits to how much it can convey.

Sometimes people end up struggling with the yoga of their choice because they only hang out around the doorway and don’t proceed into the house. In other words, they over-identify with the label, which limits the practice and creates a narrowness in how the yoga is expressed.

To extend the entryway analogy further, it’s likely that elements adorning one style’s door may also be found in a room inside another style’s house. Only focusing on the elements in the doorway restricts access to this larger yoga.

Ashtanga vinyasa is not just about flow. Iyengar yoga is not just about alignment. These are the entry points, but they are not the whole practice.

One way to begin pointing out the relationship between the entryway of a yoga and its larger dwelling is to have a clear, slightly longer, but still-concise description that accompanies the label and fleshes it out. Because Simple Yoga is the method I teach, I’ve done this below.

Simple Yoga: it’s about clear perception.

Simple Yoga brings attention to basic states of physical experience, such as sensations of gravity, breathing and spatial awareness.

Because these states are so fundamental to a person’s being, they provide a baseline that can be used to sharpen perception, to bring awareness into a more reliable experience of the present.

In Simple Yoga, asana, breathing, sitting and related practices may be understood as providing a structure for exploring and honing perception.

Developing accurate perception is a cornerstone of yoga in general, and its importance is reflected in the methodology of many different lineages and styles. It just happens that with Simple Yoga, this is the starting point, and with Simple Yoga, the means of establishing clear perception is through attention to simple things.

In Practice

As an example, a Simple Yoga teacher might guide students to become aware of how they perceive the spaces of the body using asana or sitting practice. A student might discover that they unconsciously put a lot of attention into the front body and the space ahead, and have little awareness of their back space.

Becoming aware of the back space can lead to a more whole and present experience of physicality, and may allow more ease in movement and a feeling of greater support in the body.

Simple but Challenging

Paying attention to something as basic as this might initially seem rudimentary, but it can actually be quite challenging, and it allows a person to take on greater challenges.  It is an effective way to develop a calm, steady mind, physical integration, and overall resilience.

If you’ve never come to a Simple Yoga class and are curious, do stop by.

If you’ve been practicing for awhile, deepening that practice and have an interest in teaching, look over the information about the teacher training, and if you have any questions, you can always contact us.