Health & Fitness

By Leslie Rice Hart

The ancient Hindu tradition of Yoga can be defined as training the consciousness to attain spiritual insight and tranquility. Over time, as it has become part of various other cultures, Yoga’s scope has broadened.

Yoga practice, once for the hippies of the 60′s, is now one of the hottest workouts of the Millennium. It would be challenging to find a health club not offering some kind of yoga class. There are many forms of yoga and it can get quite confusing when trying to choose a form that is right for you.

Not only should you find the form of yoga that fits your abilities, but also it is as important to find a good instructor who is very experienced and knowledgeable about the body and is very aware of the students she/he is teaching.

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I have found an incredible yoga instructor, Sylvia Smith, at New York Sports Club. She has been teaching yoga for 12 years and has practiced many forms. Sylvia took her first yoga class in the early 70′s and has been hooked ever since. She took the time to explain for Beauty News readers the special characteristics of each form and the differences between them.

Ashtanga yoga is a set series of poses connected or linked by a vinyasa – a group of four poses that link together and generate heat. There is a lot of jumping forward and backward in between each pose. A really mellow or unfit person probably would not want to do this style. Accompanying the poses in Ashtanga is ujjayi breathing which maintains the heat and helps further open up the body. Those who are looking for greater flexibility might be drawn to this style. Keep in mind that this is a very challenging form of yoga. There is not as much focus on alignment with Ashtanga.

Vinyasa, she says, is a “watered down” version of Ashtanga and is also challenging. It is a vigorous and dynamic style of yoga, with special attention to linking breath with movement. There is an emphasis on standing postures. Vinyasa has no set series of poses like Ashtanga. Both techniques, however, focus on a deep flow of integration, breath, and movement, rather than alignment.

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Iyengar yoga uses props, such as blocks and belts, which promotes the body’s precision and correct alignment for the pose. Iyengar differentiates itself from Ashtanga and Vinyasa by long holds of the poses, which increases strength and flexibility. Generally, there is not so much emphasis on the breath.

Anusara yoga’s focus is on optimum alignment, muscular balance throughout the body, and joint safety. Anusara yoga’s emphasis is giving 100 percent of oneself, if only for a moment, to achieve the healing benefits of the pose. The philosophy is not to push but not to ignore the areas of the body that need help. The individual is encouraged to go where they are weak or tight to improve those parts of the body.

Sylvia’s practice is strongly based on Anusara yoga. She is constantly correcting and tweaking our form, guiding each student to deepen their own awareness of their body in each pose. She is very generous and knowledgeable with her hands-on adjustments. The class is challenging to all levels and the focus is on alignment – holding the poses a little longer than Vinyasa, in order to achieve your best possible alignment and safety.

I have benefited from each class taught by Sylvia. Holding poses longer and attempting positions that challenge me have helped connect me so much more to my body. I have encouraged several clients to attend her classes, and some have become regulars.

Sylvia is the quintessential yoga teacher with a calm, soothing voice, ability to maneuver into pretzel-like positions at a moment’s notice, and a positive, inspiring spirit. She motivates us to work through the difficult poses making us more aware of our body, mind, and spirit connection. She encourages us to move beyond our self-imposed limitations and experience our own individual paces.

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Ending each class, we do a meditative cool down and she comes around with aromatherapy, often lavender (my favorite) on her hands, gently pressing the shoulders down and sometimes lightly massaging the neck, facilitating further release and deep relaxation.

Concluding our practice, we sit on our mats and go into angali mudra – a hand gesture that represents radiating our “heart qualities”. This is meant to connect us to our feelings such as compassion, unconditional love, and peace, and radiate those qualities out into your world. You take what you have gained in your yoga practice off the mat and into the rest of your day.

After a class with Sylvia, depending on when you take it, you are ready to start, continue, or finish your day with a completely new outlook. I highly recommend trying one; I bet it will not be your last. Sylvia teaches at New York Sports Club on Thursdays at 1:15 p.m. at the 41st Street and Third Avenue location and on Fridays at noon at the 31st Street and Lexington Avenue location. She teaches at New York Yoga at 11:35 a.m. on Saturdays for all levels and three other classes at the Spa at Peninsula Hotel. Email her at: wholebeingwellness@yahoo.com with any of your yoga-related questions or for more information on the classes.

Originally published April 2005
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