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Spirited Words

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How to Find a Yoga Teacher – How Does One Choose Amongst Myriad Options?/Sorting Through the Terminololgy

By Lex Gillan

May 13th, 2014


According to YOGA JOURNAL Magazine (the world’s largest yoga publication) there are formally 39 different styles of hatha yoga now being taught in the continental United States. I have added two more (not listed by YJ) simply because of the impact the two teachers have had over the last 40 years; that makes 41 styles.

With the explosion in popularity  of yoga – which began in the ’60s – there were only a handful of teachers from the East that had the greatest influence on those of us that began studying 40+ years ago: Swami Muktananda, Swami Vishnudevananda  and Swami Satchitananda. This was ten years before BKS Iyengar reached fame in the mid ’70s and 20 years before Pattabhi Jois brought Ashtanga yoga to the West in the ’80s.

To cut straight to the chase, what has happened is this: senior students from the above teachers have broken away, started their own practice and business, tweaked the system they originally learned from their gurus and have created their own brand and style with a new and different name.

The most confusing term in the conversation is hatha yoga. It’s confusing because there are lots of teachers saying the style of yoga they teach is “hatha.” All that means is that they are teaching yoga asanas (postures) in NO particular style, because within the genre of hatha yoga there are 40 DIFFERENT styles being taught.

So where does one begin in choosing a teacher and a style that is suitable for him/her?

First, one needs to see all the styles offered as yoga “recipes.” Is one better than another? No, they’re just different; it’s simply a matter of taste.

The one teacher that stands above all others is Krishnamacharya who died in the mid ’80s at the age of 100. He  wrote the original recipe book of what is now referred to as Modern Postural Yoga (hatha yoga) and has become the “Julia Child” of the yoga world. Now if Julia Child’s original recipe for apple pie was given to 100 people, chances are one would end up with an apple pie that doesn’t taste anything like the original. That is exactly what has happened to yoga in the West. The “Paula Dean’s” and “Mario Batali’s” of the current yoga scene are a result of tweaking Krishnamacharya’s original recipe, and as a result the majority of the 40 styles can be traced to him.

To make the sorting easy, here’s a suggestion to save both time and money: Don’t get lost in the terminology – it’s too confusing and it’s not that important. Very few folks can actually pronounce all 40 styles much less explain the differences among them.

Have a conversation with the teacher BEFORE you commit to a class. Pick up the phone and actually TALK to them. Find out if the postures are taught dynamically OR statically. Postures that are taught dynamically build STRENGTH and those taught statically cultivate FLEXIBILITY. Determine what your needs are and go from there.

Classically, a yoga posture can be executed ONE way BUT postures can be choreographed and sequenced myriad ways; thus, most of the differences amongst styles is how the movements are sequenced and choreographed. 

Traditionally – in the East – in learning a formal yoga sequence, strength building postures are taught first. BUT one must remember that Eastern bodies are built differently from those of us in the West: thin, long limbs and a squatting culture, thus more FLEXIBLE. We in the West are not built like that; we are not squatters, we’re thicker, stronger and much TIGHTER – very little flexibility.

My belief has been that you honor the culture you’re in and working with; because of that I have always taught flexibility first and then strength. Every posture taught should be able to be executed by every student. AND since yoga is a skill based discipline, it should be taught in a structured grade-level system: Beginner/Intermediate/ Advanced. One does not mix first graders with tenth graders. When scouting classes ask if it’s a structured grade level OR open class. Structured is better.

And pranayama (breathing ) should be integrated into each class. The breath SURROUNDS each posture and provides a focal point of awareness during the hatha yoga session. 

If one is older, it’s wise to find what I call an “age appropriate”class. When scouting classes keep that in mind; sixty year old bodies are taught differently from thirty year olds.

Finally, do not lose sight of the fact that the primary reason for doing hatha yoga is to condition the body so sitting in meditation becomes much easier and more pleasant. IF your hatha yoga teacher is not including meditation with each class, then another scouting process is necessary. That is a topic for another day.


Lex Gillan has been a practitioner of yoga and meditation for nearly 40 years. He has studied with world-class teachers including Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, Ram Dass, Stephen Levine, Father Thomas Keating, Andy Gold and James Ezelle, M.D. since the 1960s. Lex has been a full-time instructor since 1974 when he founded The Yoga Institute in Houston, Texas, one of the oldest yoga studio businesses in the country.

Sara Moore