by Edward Vilga There’s an ancient parable about blind men encountering an elephant for the first time. Each feels a different part of the animal––tusk, side, legs, tail, etc.––and each has a completely different take on what he’s experienced. Depending on one’s version of the story, they either come to blows or remain baffled, each person convinced they’ve tasted the absolute truth, yet each confined to his limited experience. The same can be said about experiencing yoga for the first time — you may have heard a lot about its benefits — ranging from increased flexibility to sweaty calorie burning and strength building, to deepened serenity — but you aren’t quite sure where to begin. In fact, yoga classes at Exhale range from offering something deeply sweaty (like POWER), to emphasizing graceful and expansive movement (like FLOW), to exploring stillness and ease (CHILL). How is it that so much can fall under this very broad “Yoga Umbrella?” Indeed, it’s fascinating that something as rigorously demanding as Power (where students could be holding forearm plank for a minute or attempt a challenging push-up variation) to Chill (where 90% of the class is spent lying down and using props), can share the label of YOGA. And yet, oddly the distinctions seem to be relatively minor, given the stronger commonalities the classes share. First and foremost, in any yoga class, there’s a strong and continuous emphasis on BREATH. While in other Exhale classes such as Barre or HIIT, the breath might be mentioned, it’s not usually a continuous part of the instruction. In yoga, however, it’s absolutely central. In Flow and Power, I’m calling out “Inhale” and “Exhale” pretty much every moment, particularly in the sun salutation flow. In Chill, I’m continually bringing the breath into the class’ awareness while holding a deeply still pose or while offering a guided meditation. Another hallmark of what “makes yoga, yoga” is obviously an emphasis on stretching and increased FLEXIBILITY, even though that can look quite different in each type of class. (One aside: by far, the most common objection I hear about someone NOT taking yoga is that they aren’t flexible enough; ironically, that’s EXACTLY the reason they should begin practicing. No matter what your starting point is — even if when bending over, your fingertips are in a different zip code than your toes — yoga will meet you where you are and allow you to expand and lengthen over time.)
Interestingly, increased flexibility can be obtained no matter the style of yoga practice. In POWER or FLOW, one warms the body up through movement, allowing for deeper stretching, particularly towards the end of a class. In CHILL, the expansion is attained by remaining in a supported shape for many minutes, trusting that — rather than vigorous movement — gravity and time will loosen tight muscles and tension. Another key benefit of yoga is that it’s a practice, one where there’s always something new to learn, always something fresh to explore. I celebrate this in my POWER and FLOW classes by always including at least one “Aspirational Pose,” something that might be tantalizingly just out of reach for most, but fun to explore nonetheless. Don’t get me wrong: I pride myself on offering a class that’s truly accessible for almost everyone who walks in the door, but I believe including a pose or two that’s just over the horizon adds a true spirit of adventure. Finally, another common benefit for all styles of yoga is that yoga is designed as a holistic practice, one where mind, body, and spirit are all addressed, and thus leaves you with a particular feeling of being alert yet relaxed, enjoying greatly increased SERENITY. Of course, almost any form of vigorous exercise ideally produces some endorphin rush, nonetheless, there’s something specific (and wonderful) about the “Yoga High.” That’s partly because every yoga class at Exhale (or anywhere else, for that matter) always ends with at least 5 minutes in Savasana or Rest Pose. This allows the body to truly absorb the physical benefits and simultaneously allows the mind to settle. In fact, I know I’ve done my job properly when students semi-stagger out of a class blissed out, yet alert and energized enough that they can return to their real world lives refreshed. Ultimately, the “Yoga Umbrella” is broad enough to offer so much —breath-awareness, sweaty calorie burning, physical challenges, and most importantly, increased serenity — that like those blind men in the parable, one really needs to sample all its parts in order to understand the whole. Fortunately, at Exhale, you can do just that, freely dipping into different styles of yoga, but always emerging relaxed, refreshed, and ready for anything. Edward Vilga is a published author and Exhale yoga teacher. He can be found teaching all of Exhale’s Yoga modalities at the Central Park South and Upper East Side studios in New York City. Are you ready to discover the benefits of Yoga? Book your next class here!