The Many Branches of Yoga
Letitia Watts’ 30-something body was beat up from years of running and Ultimate Frisbee. Many of her friends were surviving on “Vitamin I” (ibuprofen), but serendipity led her to Bikram yoga. She was instantly hooked — both as a student and as a teacher.
“I wanted my friends who were sports people to experience what it was like to heal their bodies,” she said. “From all the activities I did, I had so many joint and back problems. I wanted people to have a practice that maintained the body into old age and allowed [them] to be able to do the fun things [they] love to do.” Watts, now the director of Bikram Yoga Santa Fe, found an ample student base in Santa Fe’s outdoor- and fitness-loving culture.
With 14 different varieties and a host of scientifically proven benefits, yoga is for every body — whether you’re an athlete or not, a 30-something or not. There’s a form of yoga to meet every need — and many of them are available in Santa Fe.
Thinking of yoga as a singular practice underestimates its complexity. If yoga were a tree, its roots would be the spiritual practice that feeds its physical side. Hatha yoga is akin to the trunk — it’s the foundational physical practice for most Western variations. From that trunk grow the 14 branches (variations), such as ashtanga, a series of strenuous pose sequences that when linked by the breath become vinyasa. Power yoga, which also focuses on vinyasa flow, is an active, athletic style.
Yin yoga encompasses a different set of branches than these yang styles. “[Yin classes] are slower moving than a vinyasa class, with the aim of getting a nurturing, satisfying stretch and a focus on relaxation,” said Wendelin Scott, co-owner of YogaSource, which offers a wide range of classes. Restorative yoga is a yin style. Although it still includes active stretching, “the focus is on helping people self-soothe and calm their minds and bodies,” Scott said. These classes are especially suited to those who have had surgery, have been ill, are experiencing grief or anxiety or generally want to be more meditative.
Other branches of yoga reflect the names and foci of their founders. These include Bikram (named for inventor Bikram Choudhury), in which poses are performed in a hot room. Purist practitioners of Iyengar yoga (named for founder B.K.S. Iyengar) use blocks, straps, harnesses and incline boards to ensure precise alignment.
Although students sometimes settle on favorite yogic variations, Scott advises that
everyone rotate between classes. “Even healthy people can benefit greatly by taking a restorative class,” she said. And in the balance, those drawn to yin classes can benefit from pushing themselves in more vigorous sessions. If people aren’t sure which varieties suit their needs or are intimidated about joining a mixed-level class, YogaSource offers a four- to six-week introduction series that jumps right into poses and provides immediate paybacks.
Yoga teachers have long proclaimed the myriad health benefits of the practice — from aiding in recovery from knee replacement surgery to reducing anxiety. Watts believes that the fitness industry often overwhelms yoga and that its true health benefits can be obscured. “True fitness comes from strength, balance and flexibility,” she said.
Watts’ studio employs Bikram’s teachings — though the studio bears no association with Bikram himself, who has become a controversial figure in the yoga world. The practice is based on a methodical series of postures done in a heated room. “Because we live in an extreme culture, a lot of people have misunderstood the heat as something you fight against,” Watts observed. “It’s designed to make the body more supple, to allow it to stretch more easily and deeply. Sweating helps with the detoxing process, since the skin is an eliminative organ.”
Bikram, Watts said, tends to attract people who are athletic, of the “no pain, no gain” philosophy, people who show up to yoga to conquer it. But she encourages practitioners of every stripe to see yoga as a lifelong health maintenance practice.
Science is just catching up to verifying the benefits yoga teachers have been claiming for years. An April 2015 study in the Journal of
Alzheimer’s Disease suggests that yoga can slow aging-related mental decline. Pilot studies suggest that yoga — a weight-bearing activity — is beneficial for patients with bone loss. The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health recommends yoga for chronic and recurring back pain.
Bobbie Fultz, owner and primary teacher of Yoga Vidya Santa Fe, a well-equipped Iyengar studio, personally attests to yoga’s benefits for the back. She has scoliosis (a sideways curvature of the spine) and practiced other forms of yoga before finding Iyengar, which aids students with props and requires them to master simple postures before moving to more complex ones. Iygenar, she said, gave her “a set of tools. Rather than being the victim of a disorder, I have things I can do to counteract symptomatic problems.”
Fultz, who now teaches international Iyengar workshops for scoliosis, has developed a series of workshops for other health concerns as well. In March she will begin teaching yoga for people with osteoporosis. Iyengar attracts “a bit of the therapeutic crowd,” she says, but it also draws people who enjoy processes — including dancers and artists — since it requires extensive home practice.
“Yoga is essentially relationships counseling for the person living in the body, so they become more aware,” Fultz said. In class, students are attuned to their bodies as they stretch and move to accommodate different needs. Outside of class, when they encounter discomfort, they ask themselves, “Do I have low blood sugar? Am I dehydrated? Or do I hate my job? They are more sensitive about how they live in their body and how they can have a better experience both physically and psychologically.”
Bikram Hot Yoga Santa Fe: Letitia Watts, right (with glasses) is the director and certified instructor. Facing page, Melissa Spamer, M.A. ERYT, has been teaching yoga for 20 years. She currently teaches weekly classes at YogaSource in Santa Fe and is a...
Yin Yoga class at YOGASOURCE at San Mateo location with instructor Melissa Spamer.