When I upped my yoga practice from the gym to the studio, I was introduced for the first time to the spectrum of yoga styles. The Sanskrit names were tongue-twisting at first, but it wasn't long before I could tell the Iyengar types from the Vinyasa Flows, and started experimenting with all of them. When I walked into my first Intro to Anusara class in April, I immediately noticed the positive, open vibe and the teacher's dedication to helping students learn each pose.
During that first session, we learned to dissect the standard flow of poses–from plank to chatarunga to updog– which students frequently practice in one collapsing swoop rather than three distinct, well-formed poses. I left class that night with my mind certifiably blown, and my sun salutes haven't been the same since.
The skinny: Anusara is a system of yoga (like Ashtanga, Iyengar, Forrest or Bikram), developed in 1997 by Ohio-born John Friend, a lifelong student of yoga, meditation and spiritual philosophies. The physical aspect adheres to Friend's official Principles of Alignment, meant to keep your body safe while heightening performance. Sequences will cover all the poses you'll find in most Hatha yoga classes, including standing poses, backbends, twists and inversions. Poses take modifications with props if necessary. Anusara is also grounded in the Tantric philosophy of intrinsic goodness in all things: Simplified, this means that teachers are extra-encouraging and extra-focused on making class a positive, fulfilling experience. In its first decade, Anusara has become one of the fastest-growing yoga styles in the world with more than 1,200 affiliated teachers and 100,000 students worldwide, according to its official website.
The getup: Show up to class wearing comfy clothes you can move in. You'll practice barefoot, but you might want to bring socks and/or a sweatshirt to keep you warm as you rest in Savasana. A small towel is always handy for wiping your hands and face if you start to sweat. Most studios have mats and props available for student use, but it's always best to check with them before you go empty-handed.
The payoff: Make this a habit and you'll start to loosen up muscles you didn't even know were tight. Stretching out your hamstrings and building flexibility in the spine are just some of the benefits that will not only feel good today; they'll also payoff big in the form of preventative medicine for later issues. Perhaps the biggest boost I've gotten from the dozen or so classes I've taken comes in the form of heightened awareness of my posture and how it affects me, down to the details.
Wear and tear: While no yogi is immune to injuries, the Anusara approach seems particularly suited to helping you learn to respect your own limitations before pushing yourself toward photo-worthy contortion. If you're working with a previous injury, tell your teacher before class so that he or she can help keep you safe. And always speak up in class if something feels out-of-whack because your body knows best.
The commitment: You set your pace. Chicago's saturated yoga market means it's easy to drop in just about any day of the week, and the post-class high is always a bonus. But if you're aiming for real improvement in strength, flexibility and even your physique, the recommended minimum is two classes per week.
The cost: Generally, you can expect to pay $15-$20 for a 90-minute drop-in class. Most studios offer discounts if you buy multi-class packages. Find Anusara classes at Nature Yoga Sanctuary, Moksha Yoga, Yogaview and David Barton Gym.
Difficulty level: Even if you've never set foot on a yoga mat, you can get something out of this class. Teachers are accustomed to modifying each pose so that a beginner can practice alongside a seasoned student, and both can learn. Class doesn't move too quickly, and questions are encouraged, but for max attention you can seek out a basics course like Rajeev Khan's Intro To Anusara on Sunday evenings at Moksha Yoga (Riverwest).
The verdict: Students and teachers of Anusara are passionate devotees, and for some, the accepting, affirming and philosophy-loaded classes will strike a chord like you've finally come home. I still like variety, but Anusara classes have become a necessary part of my balanced yoga diet. Even if you're a die-hard disciple of a different style, the classes are worth checking out purely for the quality of the teaching. Anusara instructors typically spend seven years learning their craft, and their studied approach can give you a whole new outlook on poses you thought you knew inside-out.
Want to learn more about Anusara? Read on here.