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A wise man once said, “There’s no right answer to a wrong question.” These words echo each time someone asks what style of yoga I teach. I usually explain, “Style is ‘a fixed, recognizable form or manner,’ while yoga is a fluid, adaptive healing art.” The questioner, expecting a one-word answer such as kund-ashtang-usara, begins to glaze over and fidget impatiently. At the risk of creating an army of glazed, fidgety readers, I will continue.
Yoga is a holistic system of self-care, one of the six formal darsanas (philosophies) extracted from the ancient Indian Vedas. This elegant spiritual psychology offers profound insights and numerous strategies for reducing the duhkha (discomfort) that accompanies daily living.
Yoga’s foundation text, Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, maintains that suffering is universal, created by the mind’s clinging to fixed patterns, habits and beliefs, misperceiving the nature of things and ultimately confusing reality’s changing—though solid—form with its ever-enduring—albeit ethereal—essence.
Nowhere in the Sutras is there mention of styles of yoga. On the contrary, Sutra III: 6 uses the word viniyoga, or special application, to describe the need for individual adaptation and modification.
The roots of style
Historically, the whole notion of fixed-form styles is a very recent invention. Traditionally, the closest concepts were yoga’s four general approaches: Siksana, Raksana, Cikitsa and Adhyatmika.
Siksana is yoga for healthy children and young adults. Usually taught in groups, this approach emphasizes vigorous, athletic asana to strengthen the physical body and increase stamina. To improve mental focus, Siksana employed fixed sequences and/or precise classical form. T. Krishnamacharya, the great yoga master, introduced this largely asana-based approach to the young BKS Iyengar and K. Pattabhi Jois. Siksana yoga, though limited in depth, scope and subtlety, is totally appropriate for the still-developing body and simpler mind of a young person.
Raksana yoga is for healthy adults. Presented in the context of a dedicated student/teacher relationship, this approach is best taught one on one. Raksana is a more holistic, interactive yoga, which respects the student’s age, health, occupation, needs, goals, strengths and weaknesses. The highly individualized, prescriptive practice employs the full range of yoga’s tools, including asana, pranayama, sound, gesture, visualization, reflection, meditation, ritual, counseling, etc., all integrated into the student’s daily regimen. To remain effective, the practice is continually adapted to accommodate life’s changes and reflect the progress it is helping to create. Rather than perfection in posture, the more sophisticated Raksana is aimed at enhancing the adult student’s relationships and quality of living. As the majority of yoga practitioners fall into this healthy 20- to 60-year-old category, Raksana is the appropriate style for most modern students.
Cikitsa is yoga therapy. Based on a multidimensional model, such as the five mayas (illusions) or seven chakras. Cikitsa uses the interconnections between the body, breath, mind, personality and emotions to promote wellness. Cikitsa yoga integrates highly modified asana with pranayama, visualization, sound, ritual and prayer, as well as diet, herbs, massage and many other tools commonly perceived as Ayurveda. Cikitsa’s aim is to treat specific health problems by increasing the student’s sraddha (confidence) and overall vitality.
Adhyatmika is for students wishing to experience the highest truth or meaning of life. Taught largely to elders and others free from normal daily responsibilities, this approach is deeply contemplative and emphasizes study, reflection, meditation, prayer and ritual to achieve inner peace and self-realization.
Recognizing the difference
Although these traditional focuses could be called styles, they are fundamentally different from the styles practiced today. The classical approaches were functional and fluid, changing shape as needed to achieve a specific goal while exhibiting the deepest respect for the needs of the individual. Modern styles, defined by appearances, promote standardized methods (heated rooms, pre-set sequences or a reliance on props and jargon), and require all students to conform to the style to achieve the benefits.
To refine modern yoga’s perception in this area seems a formidable task. As yoga becomes more commercial, an identifiable style is equivalent to a copyrightable brand name. High visibility is an unquestionable advantage in a marketplace brimming with uninformed neophytes seeking easy answers and a quick fix. So seductive are brand-name styles that viniyoga, the word T.K.V. Desikachar once used to explain the yogic principle of appropriate application, has itself been perceived as yet another style of yoga.
But the shift to a richer, more fluid understanding of yoga is essential and inevitable. Practitioners worldwide are finding that fixed styles of yoga may provide short-term relief, but can ultimately deepen the tendency toward physical degradation (thousands of students reporting yoga-related injuries, long-time teachers needing knee surgery and hip replacements, etc.), factional, dogmatic thinking and emotional rigidity. The attachment to fixed-form styles, ironically, increases the very duhkha (restriction) yoga was designed to reduce.
How to change
The first step in learning a kinder, more personal yoga is emptying our cups of style-centered preconceptions. This is no easy task for teachers (or students) who believe they already know what yoga is, and are emotionally invested (asmita), and/or financially dependent on their knowledge. Once again, letting go of misperception and becoming teachable, rather than the perfect arm-balance, is the real challenge of yoga.
Next, we need to establish a relationship with a style-free teacher, preferably one who is a student of such a teacher. TKV Desikachar and his students come to mind. There is much we can learn from a teacher who is deeply connected to the Yoga Sutras and immersed in yoga’s universal principles and the complete range of tools, strategies and their adaptations. With devoted study and diligent practice we will begin to see more clearly and notice what changes and what stays the same. For it is only through this discernment between the unchanging essence and the ever-changing form that yoga and its practitioners can be what and who they are: free to realize their greatest potential.