Survival Guide to Yoga

By Kit Alderdice
Special to
Friday, June 29, 2001


When does a 5,000-year-old practice become trendy? When lean and toned show-business types like singer-composer Sting, David Duchovny of "The X-Files" and Madonna say that yoga is their main form of exercise and when super-model Christy Turlington's name is on the masthead of Yoga Journal.

Hollywood glamour aside, yoga has many practical health benefits many doctors suggest it to their patients as a way of relieving high blood pressure, lower back pain and neck and shoulder problems. Those of us who get stiff wrists toiling over computer keyboards will be interested to learn that a recent study showed that regular yoga practice could help relieve carpal tunnel syndrome.

Yoga is also a good way to get exercise. Thanks to the diverse styles in which it is practiced, and the many levels of classes available, this ancient discipline has something to offer nearly everyone from marathon runners to garden-variety couch potatoes. A gentle yoga class can allow a sedentary person to ease back into an exercise routine. And committed weekend warriors will find that yoga's benefits increased strength, flexibility and balance make it an excellent complement to almost any sport or workout routine.

Whether you're thinking about trying your first yoga class or want to take your current yoga skills to a new level, you're in luck. The Washington area has an abundance of resources that should suit the needs of first-timers and old-hands alike. The following guide offers some tips on getting started, brief descriptions of various styles you're likely to find taught in the area and profiles of eight local schools.

Beyond the Studio
back to top

Studying at a studio specializing in yoga is a great way to start, but it's certainly not the only option available, nor is it always the most convenient. These days, many health clubs and gyms offer yoga classes. Even if you don't belong to your local health club, it's often possible to drop in for a class or sign up for a multi-week course without being a member. Also, check out nearby dance studios and community centers. Churches often allow yoga instructors to teach weekly classes in their all-purpose rooms St. Mark's Yoga (202/546-4964) in Capitol Hill is a longstanding example.

No matter where you end up taking yoga, what really matters is simply showing up. As Suzie Hurley, director and owner of Willow Street Yoga Center, puts it: "Just come! Because you start from where you are. It doesn't matter if you're flexible or stiff, old or young, overweight or underweight. You just get to start from where you are."

Why Go to a Yoga Studio?
back to top

Attending class at a studio specializing in yoga is an excellent foundation for the yoga first-timer. If you already have some experience with yoga, perhaps from taking classes at a gym or health club, attending class at a yoga studio offers you a chance to further your studies or "deepen your practice," as adepts often phrase it. Yoga studios also offer the advantage of having classes ranging from beginner to highly advanced, so as you progress beyond the basics, you can move into a class that suits your level.

Sometimes students have studied one form of yoga and are reluctant to begin at the most elementary levels when they move on to another form. Speak with a teacher or school director when this is the case while some studios allow new students to begin at a more advanced level, others may require a beginning-level course.

When you begin studying a new style, it's never a bad idea to take a few classes at the most elementary level. If, for instance, you've never experienced the vigorous "jump backs" of Ashtanga yoga, you may be in for a surprise, no matter how advanced your studies are in other styles of instruction.

Yoga Styles
back to top

Happily enough for the aspiring yogi, there are many styles of yoga taught at numerous locations in the Washington area. Some instructors adhere to the teachings of a particular school and others have put together their own approaches, gleaned from years of study with various teachers. This list is not an attempt to cover every one of these styles; instead, it is a brief outline of the main styles of yoga taught at the eight local studios profiled in this guide.

Founded in 1997 by the American yoga teacher John Friend, this school of yoga combines a lighthearted spirituality with precise instruction in movement and alignment. The key words "attitude, alignment and action" are central principles of this practice. Teachers use a system of loops and spirals to help students envision the basic principles of kinetics and anatomy.

Suzie Hurley, the director and owner of Willow Street Yoga in Takoma Park, describes Anusara as "a very exceptional, therapeutic practice of yoga that integrates the celebration of the heart with principles of alignment and balanced energetic action in each pose."

Based on a series of 56 linked postures built around a specific breathing technique, this challenging style of yoga was developed by K. Pattabhi Jois at his school in Mysore, India. Each pose connects to the next via a lively series of motions that could be described as the graceful cousin of the dreaded squat thrust performed in high-school gym class. When people talk about "power yoga," they're usually referring to some variation of Ashtanga. This is a vigorous, athletic form of exercise that's pretty much guaranteed to leave you sweating.

Ashtanga "appeals to people who like to move," says David Ingalls, founder of the Ashtanga Yoga Center in Tenleytown. "An athletic person, or a person who is inclined to more movement, rather than less, really enjoys the physicality of the Ashtanga movement. They like the heat, they like the sweat, they like the linking of postures."

Started by the Indian master teacher and prolific author B.K.S. Iyengar, this is a very precise form of yoga that places special emphasis on correct alignment. The use of props including blocks, straps, chairs and blankets helps students work around inflexibility or most other physical limitations to achieve correct alignment in their poses. At the introductory level at least, this style of yoga focuses on the standing poses (poses performed standing upright rather than sitting or lying down) in order to develop strong legs and improve circulation, coordination and balance.

The Iyengar practice attracts "a broad range of people," says John Schumacher, director of Unity Woods Yoga Center (studios in the District, Maryland and Virginia). Still, he adds, the style may hold a particular attraction for "thoughtful people; [and for] people who are able and willing to pay attention. People who are already energetic tend to like this style, because it's an energetic style."

Since this style of yoga has long been taught in this and other countries, schools can be found in many locations. There's a network [of Iyengar schools and teachers]," explains Schumacher, "So if you travel around, there are lots of Iyengar teachers all over the world. And that's nice, particularly because people in this area are so mobile."

Not all yoga must adhere to a particular school or follow the path of a specific master teacher. An instructor may have studied with teachers from a variety of different disciplines and then synthesized their approaches into his/her own idiosyncratic style. Also, studio directors sometimes opt to hire teachers with different yoga backgrounds. A studio with a mix of styles makes it easy for both the novice and the experienced student to sample a variety of approaches to the discipline.

With so many styles to choose from, how can you pick the style of yoga that you'll like best? While reading about the various styles can certainly be a helpful introduction, it's no substitute for firsthand experience. "Go out and try a class," exhorts Kathleen Hogan, founder and director of the Potomac Yoga Studio. "There are so many wonderful yoga teachers in this area. Find a teacher and a style that you resonate with. And continue to explore. I think that as people grow, too, their ideas evolve about what is the style of yoga that brings them the most happiness."

Since the needs of a longtime athlete and someone easing back into a fitness regime are likely to vary, it's important to look for a style that suits your physical temperament. "Find a yoga that fits the way you like to move," says the Ashtanga Center's Ingalls. "On the other hand, I'm always encouraging people to try different schools. Because you won't know what you like until you try three or four different styles. At some point you understand that all the yoga studios are teaching the same things, just in different styles."

The First Class
Be on time or early! If you can, aim to arrive at least 10 minutes before class begins. That way, you have a better chance at claiming a good spot on the floor, with an unobstructed view of the instructor, as tucked away or as exposed to view as you like. Coming to class early also allows you to talk with the instructor about any health concerns or questions you may have. Punctuality can also help ease the transition into the relaxed, yogic state of mind, allowing you the time you need to switch from fighting traffic to focusing on your breathing.

Whether it's your first class or your hundredth, being late for class is bad yoga manners. It's disruptive for the teacher and your fellow students. What's more, you may miss essential parts of the class and increase your chances of injury.

What to Wear
back to top

Do wear comfortable clothes you can move around in.

Footless leggings and a T-shirt are a good choice. Jeans, or any other constricting clothes, are not. Many teachers request that their students wear relatively fitted workout wear, so that they can easily see the body's alignment and anatomy. Nothing needs to be tight or revealing, but you should avoid the body-obscuring tent effect. Instead of an extra-large T-shirt, choose one that is closer to your actual size. When you're working on the inverted (upside down) poses, a more fitted T-shirt is less likely to fall on your face.

If you're visiting a studio for the first time, it never hurts to bring a long-sleeve T-shirt or fleece to layer over your T-shirt. Studio temperatures can vary a lot and it's no fun to begin your yoga career feeling like an icicle. Conversely, some studios crank up the heat; so make sure you can strip down to a comfortable level of dress.

Bare feet are best. You definitely don't need any special footwear to practice yoga and in fact, many studios request that you take off your street shoes before entering the yoga practice room. This is both a mark of respect for the space and a way of keeping the studio clean, which you'll quickly come to appreciate as you lie on your stomach with your face just inches away from the floor.

Women should avoid wearing brassieres with back fastenings. If you're spending much time resting on your spine, those hooks get awfully uncomfortable. A slip-on low-impact sports bra is a good choice.

For men, pair a T-shirt with gym shorts, running tights or reasonably snug sweatpants. Bicycling shorts or tights will also work nicely. Remember that you may perform some inverted (upside-down) poses, so be sure your shorts keep you covered when your legs are over your head.

Finally, come to class with an empty stomach. (Most teachers recommend not eating for at least two hours before class.) Avoid heavy cologne or perfume and leave that bulky jewelry at home.

Studio Profiles
back to top

Ashtanga Yoga Center

DancingHeart Center


Willow Street Yoga Center

The Health Advantage Yoga Center

Potomac Yoga:

  • North Potomac location

  • Potomac location
  • Unity Woods Yoga Center:

  • Albemarle Street

  • Arlington

  • Bethesda

  • Connecticut Avenue
  • Sun and Moon Studio

  • Arlington

  • Springfield location

  • © Copyright 2001 The Washington Post Company