When one thinks of Indian meditation, the usual association is with some sort of egoless state, and a rejection of craving after material ends. It is ironic, then, that a lot of the growth in yogic systems is driven by egotism and profit motive, even if innocently so. It isn’t possible to trademark “yoga” but one can trademark the style of the art one invented by tweaking this technique or that. This has not been lost upon expert practitioners looking to make a living from their passion.
Hatha yoga is probably what most people have in mind when they think of any form of meditation, particularly those from India. The student is guided through a sequence of asanas, or postures, as well as a corresponding series of breathing exercises. It is easy to see that a half hour or more of this could offer great stress relief, and stress is one of the great hazards of modern living.
The claims made for this form of meditation are much greater. With sufficient practice, a dedicated yogin is able to cultivate himself to a higher condition of soul, even the supreme condition. To a stressed out suburbanite, such a goal might not even be imaginable, much less desirable, but ultimately this is a spiritual tradition, not just a good stretching regimen.
More contemporary forms of the discipline might more closely resemble an aerobics class than our idea of Eastern spiritual wisdom techniques. Still, no matter how obscured by Hollywood kitsch, there will usually be a door to spiritual growth available to any who wish to walk through it. The only question is whether this is what one is seeking, or whether one’s goals are more mundane.
The nature of the human body is such that what seem like small differences in technique can lead to very different physical experiences, and these in turn can come define entire new systems. Iyengar stands apart in its emphasis on attaining a posture and then holding it for a prolonged length of time. This marks Iyengar as being somewhat more a strength workout than Hatha’s flexibility workout. Where Hatha also excels at stress relief, Iyengar has been found useful in assisting the rehabilitation of injuries.
Bikram is one of the trendier, modern forms. It emphasizes muscular development like Iyengar, but then takes that emphasis to a new level. Bikram’s distinctive characteristic is the overheated studios in which the workouts are held, rooms set to between ninety-five and one hundred and five degrees. This extraordinary indoor climate is held to improve the body in all sorts of ways, including flexibility, respiration, and detoxification.
Take away the heat, bring the backdrop a bit closer to Indian culture, and one has the Ashtanga style. It is still explosively physical, and can serve as part of one’s weight loss program as well as one’s source of spiritual insight. The best advice would be to not limit oneself to “yoga” classes being held by gymnasiums, which might tend to be little more than aerobics. There are studios now, dedicated to the art, and these are where one can most profitably begin when seeking yoga.