Going Yoga? How to Find a Teacher

Hot? Cold? Fast? Slow? The valley offers a vast array of yoga options

Christopher Hayden, photos by Andrea Paulseth

The Yoga Center, Eau Claire
The Yoga Center, Eau Claire

Having grown up around here in the 1980s and ’90s, I think I can safely say that the alternative health boom of the ’90s was only distantly echoed in the Valley. Practitioners of yoga, for instance, were few and far between, and yoga schools even fewer and farther. Eau Claire just had one official studio, The Yoga School of Eau Claire.

What a difference 20 years can make! Like our burgeoning bike trails, farmers markets, and music scene, yoga has rapidly taken deep roots here. Many have discovered the benefits this meditative exercise brings to their mind and body, and many are becoming interested in trying a class. Faster than you can say “Namaste,” we have seen a gentle explosion of schools, teachers, and styles.

All of the options now available can be more than a little confusing for the would-be yogi or yogini. There’s yoga for athletes, for couch potatoes, for men, for pregnancy; there’s hot yoga, cold yoga, fast yoga, and slow yoga. Where do you even start? As a mind-body wellness enthusiast, I set out to answer that question, interviewing a number of local teachers about their specific types of yoga, and their advice for newcomers. Out of their collective learned wisdom, several themes emerged:

How much Om do you want in your yoga?

Some classes are purely physical, and give you a good stretching and strengthening workout, without any of the meditative or spiritual elements yoga is often associated with. “Power yoga,” “fitness yoga,” or YogaFit are designed this way, and resemble a typical fitness class, but with different exercises. Donna Sauter, a yoga teacher with a long history as a fitness instructor, described these classes as being accessible to mainstream fitness enthusiasts. On the other hand, as yoga has roots in Indian culture and spirituality, some classes delve into these areas as well, using terms from Sanskrit (an ancient Indian language), and including meditation, chanting of special words like “Om,” spiritual language, and imagery. Some people find that this gives them a deeper experience and works with their mind and emotions, but some view this as conflicting with their own religious or spiritual views. Certain types of yoga, such as Universal Yoga, start with more physical practice, but become more meditative with time, using guided breathing as a bridge between the two. Sheri Baemmart at PRAJNA describes Universal Yoga as a system rather than a style, due to this continuity of practice. Many schools incorporate some mind-body elements. As teacher Ingrid Schaller says, “Our physical body can be an avenue for self-awareness.”

Stretch, strengthen, or de-stress?

Some classes will focus much more on gently holding poses for longer periods of time, in order to deeply stretch muscle and connective tissue. “Yin Yoga” is usually this kind of class, although one thing I also discovered during the course of these interviews is that the same name will often apply to different kinds of yoga, so you need to check with the teacher to make sure. While yoga is often associated with stretches, many poses are designed to selectively strengthen muscle groups, or provide core strength in general. Some classes emphasize these, and many classes provide a balance. Meanwhile, some styles focus more on eliminating stress and nourishing the body. “Restorative yoga” is one such style, and is often ideal for those who are overworked and exhausted or for those who want to balance a high-intensity workout routine. “Yoga Nidra,” according to instructor Misty Ross, leaves you feeling “calm, peaceful, and deeply relaxed.” Alignment Yoga, taught at the Yoga Center of Eau Claire, includes several “pre-yoga” techniques designed to induce calm and develop awareness. Many of the stress-relieving styles out there are good for beginners to start with.

Tradition or variation?

Some teachers will describe a specific tradition that they teach within, like Hatha, Iyengar, or Ashtanga. I found that many Chippewa Valley teachers do not do this; rather, they emphasize adapting to the needs and wants of students, and creating new variations.

To flow or not to flow?

Some styles of yoga have you holding still in various poses, while others emphasize flowing from pose to pose. Terms like “Vinyasa,” “flow,” and “Vinyasa flow” are often used, and are generally synonymous. One thing to be aware of is that flowing yoga is usually more advanced, and requires some understanding of the poses, to avoid improper practice or injury. This isn’t always the case, so check with the teacher to learn more. (By this point, you’re probably realizing that almost nothing is “always the case” when it comes to yoga!)

Hot or not?

Heated,” or “hot yoga” is a relatively recent development in the Valley, although it has existed for decades in some places, sometimes with the brand name Bikram Yoga. Studios now often use infrared heat to warm up the room, creating a dry heat. Teacher Anthony McMorran describes it as being invigorating, like “you just had a cup of coffee on a warm beach.”

Would you like acrobatics with that?

Experimentation has produced many variations on the basic yoga theme. You’ll find classes done by candlelight, classes set to music, and classes in unique settings (at Down to Earth Greenhouse, or Simply Dunn pottery in Downsville, for instance). Some teachers blend yoga with Pilates, dance, or in the case of local teacher Michelle Anthony, with acrobatics!

What are your privacy needs?

Some people aren’t quite ready to show up to a well-lit classroom in their spandex finery. Fortunately, there are many privacy levels. Many teachers will teach solo lessons, which afford you privacy as well as individualized instruction. Additionally, some classes are taught in low-light environments to encourage focusing on yourself rather than comparing your performance to others. Generally, yoga strongly favors self-development over competition, and most teachers try to foster an inward focus in their classes.

Living la vida yoga?

Yoga itself is apiece with Ayurvedic medicine, an ancient system that includes advice on diet and lifestyle. Yoga teacher and Ayurvedic consultant Tracy Chipman describes it as a “sister science of yoga” which restores balance to your life. Individual consultations and group classes are available in the area.

Yoga for specific populations.

Most classes are for the general public, albeit at varying degrees of difficulty, but some are more specialized. Classes for men have come into being to answer the specific needs of male bodies. Let’s face it: A lot of us middle-aged guys have a little trouble tying ourselves into the knots that advanced yogis can get into, and some of us have injuries from sports and so on. Likewise, “prenatal yoga” is designed for the needs of pregnant bodies: It includes pelvic floor strengthening and relaxation, as well as help with nausea, back pain, and sleep problems, according to prenatal yoga instructor Katie McMorran, who also emphasizes the social benefits of being in a supportive group of women. Donna Wagner Backus at The Yoga Center of Eau Claire teaches classes for strong bones and for “older women who are insecure about their ability to move their bodies.” The Valley has classes for Parkinson’s and fibromyalgia, people with large bodies, runners, and other populations.

How much education should a teacher have?

You might not realize that teaching yoga is an unregulated profession. This means that anyone, with any level of yoga experience or teacher training, can consider themselves a yoga teacher. There are certifications, however, which many teachers will display on their websites. “RYT” means “registered yoga teacher,” and it means that someone has graduated from a school registered with the Yoga Alliance. You’ll see a number after RYT, like “200,” which gives the number of teacher training hours that the teacher has gone through.

Do you connect with your teacher?

An oft-repeated concept from local teachers is that your “resonance” with your teacher is more important than the style of class. Indeed, many teachers teach more than one style, and students will often take more than one type of yoga from the same teacher. Whatever the type, pick a teacher that you can relate to and learn from. Basically, this will take a little shopping around before you can tell who will work best for you. In the end, after all of these styles, specialties, and schools, you just have to try a class for yourself!

Chris Hayden, CR, LABT, is a bodywork therapist and tai chi instructor at Earth and Sky Bodyworks. He also plays music here and there as Ned Brown, applying a mind-body approach to the performing arts. The current co-arising of the creative and healing arts in the Chippewa Valley is of extreme excitement to him.