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.

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