I spent the majority of my first yoga class “resting” in Child’s Pose, wondering if my throbbing thighs would adequately support me in leaving the studio, and assuring myself that if they did, I would never again return. What the instructor called Vinyasa yoga seemed like 90 minutes of torture—sit-ups, wrist abuse and contortion, all with barely enough time to breathe. It wasn’t until years later that I re-visited my yoga curiosity, and through an exploration of class offerings, realized that asanas can be practiced in many different speeds, from fast to slow, whether by themselves or grouped in sequences.
There are many factors to consider when searching for a yoga practice that works for you. When comparing faster (think Vinyasa, Ashtanga or Power) and slower (such as Yin, Restorative or Gentle) yoga practices, here are some general ideas to keep in mind.
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Fast vs. Slow Yoga
Fast-paced dynamic classes are not only an outlet for built-up, stagnant energy, but also a great form of exercise that builds muscle strength through repetition of movement. A quick sequence of yoga poses gives us less time to think, making it easier to calm the mind. If you have a tendency to rush through activities, then maintaining smooth, steady transitions and breath awareness in faster classes can serve as a helpful practice in intentional movement.
Slower yoga classes often focus on proper alignment and mental repose. Devoting more time to an asana (whether several breaths or several minutes) naturally decreases stress and encourages relaxation. The longer you hold a pose, the more time your muscles and connective tissues have to relax and lengthen. This improves flexibility, supports muscle development and helps open up areas around the joints that are difficult to access (i.e. hips and lower back). Also, since it’s easier to let the mind wander during periods of physical stillness, slow yoga classes provide an opportunity to practice deep concentration while focusing on inhalations and exhalations.
Honoring Your Body
It is important to consider physical abilities and limitations when deciding on a type of practice. Fast or flow-type classes are not recommended for those with injuries or consistent pain. Although it’s not always indicative of physical condition, age may be another factor that affects your pace preference.
According to Ayurveda, we can use yoga as a tool to help offset any imbalances in our lives, not just obvious physical limitations. For example, if you generally move slowly or feel lethargic, a light, high-tempo yoga class might help create energy. On the other hand, if you often over-exert yourself or participate in regular strenuous activity, you may want to focus on slower, grounding asanas. Similarly, a yoga practice can help you adapt to seasonal conditions or a time of day. An invigorating series of sun salutations will warm your body on a cold morning just as a slower, restorative session assists with winding down before bed.
Just as it is important to eat a balanced diet, a varied yoga routine can help you maintain flexibility and strength in all aspects of life. Through the concepts of yin and yang, it’s easy to see how faster and slower sequencing can serve as forces that provide nourishment in opposing, yet equally important ways. Through slower alignment-based asanas, we prepare our bodies for practices involving more physical stamina. Faster practices, in turn, foster strength and determination to help us through those longer, deeper, more introspective moments.
Regardless of your practice speed, yoga is about taking adequate time to get in touch with yourself in order to do what is best for your body, mind, and spirit at any given moment.
Do you usually stick to a specific “fast” or “slow” type of yoga, or is your practice something that adapts and flows? If the former applies, I invite you to break out of your habits and explore the unfamiliar.
Remember—although we tend to gravitate toward routines that give us comfort, those that create a personal challenge are often the most beneficial.