This article was written for the Ananda Yoga® Teacher Association newsletter.
Power Yoga — Ananda-Style!
January 6, 2010
A few years ago, I mentioned to Gyandev McCord (Director of Ananda Yoga) that there were a lot of power yoga classes in my area, and that I was “subbing” (substitute teaching) for these classes occasionally, as I still do. He wondered how that was working, because he knew that I practice and teach Ananda Yoga, which is very different from power yoga. When I explained that what I teach for those occasions is power yoga — but Ananda-style power yoga — he asked me to write an article about my experiences. For years, every time I saw him, he would ask, “How’s the article coming, Tracy?” Now at last, I’m delivering! (Actually, I found it ironic that Gyandev wanted me to write about this, since almost every class he teaches is power yoga, Ananda-style — though certainly not in the way that I’ve used when subbing, as I’ll describe below.)
In this article, I’ll compare a typical power yoga class with an Ananda-style power class. I’ll also share some ways I’ve found to satisfy power yogis by offering them a class that gives them “just enough” of what they’re accustomed too, then draws them into the subtler — and, to my mind, even more powerful — realm of Ananda Yoga. Along the way, I’ll offer some general thoughts on how to be a successful substitute teacher in any type of yoga class.
First, let me set the stage with a few recollections of earlier yoga experiences.
Over the years, I’ve taken my share of classes in different power yoga styles — enough to know that they generally do not resonate with me for my own practice. I miss the focus on meditation, subtle energy, and of course, affirmations. Ananda Yoga includes many challenging postures, but its most challenging aspect is drawing the awakening energy from the physical practice inward to the astral (energetic) spine and upward to the spiritual eye (at the point between the eyebrows). An inward focus on pranayama (i.e., controlling energy), combined with the attitude of raising consciousness, can turn any yoga practice — or anything we do — into an uplifting, powerful, spiritually expansive experience. That’s the kind of practice I want.
But it didn’t begin that way for me. My first Ananda Yoga class was in 1990 at the Ananda Sacramento center. I was living in Sacramento at that time, and I sought out yoga for stress reduction, but my competitive side (I come from an athletic background) was not satisfied. After a few classes I asked, “When do you cover the more advanced poses?” The teacher kindly explained that advanced poses were rarely taught in such a general class, but that postures — any postures — could be deepened inwardly over time via the inward energy you put into them. I had already been feeling at bit “at sea” when we were asked to feel the energy when pausing after an asana, and I would repeatedly ask myself: “What energy? Where?!” Intuitively, I knew yoga was more than gymnastics, but I didn’t discover how unique Ananda Yoga truly is until I moved to Santa Barbara.
When I couldn’t find a comparable experience in Santa Barbara, I really began to appreciate the power of Ananda Yoga’s energetic-yet-meditative style. So I began studying Ananda’s Lessons in Meditation and The Art and Science of Raja Yoga. I soon felt a desire to share this style of yoga, which went far deeper than the physical level. Looking back, I see that I was drawn to Ananda Yoga because its emphasis was not limited to physical Hatha Yoga, but rather embraced all the elements of Raja Yoga, especially the elements of meditation and making one’s entire life more expansive.
Fast forward to a 1993 power yoga workshop in Santa Barbara, just after my Ananda Yoga Teacher Training. The teacher was a famous yogi, and the studio floor was filled with the mats of eighty power yogis. The teacher began by announcing that we’d begin with fifteen minutes of meditation. We sat. We closed our eyes. The collective resistance to meditation was so strong that even I, who was still at this time a bit skeptical about the idea of “group energy,” could feel the powerful resistance in the room! That spoke volumes to me.
Years later, after I had moved to the Boston area, a visiting friend asked me to take her to a power yoga class. It was in a heated room, filled to capacity with ninety yogis. The two-hour class started with many, many variations on Surya Namaskar. Then came advanced balance poses (some of which I skipped, as I tried to dodge the falling yogis all around me.) With the action still going strong as we neared the end of class, I attempted Savasana on my own. There was no concluding meditation, no shower facilities, and we had to rush our energized, sweaty selves out of the studio so the next class could begin. Suddenly, my friend and I found ourselves out on the busy streets of Boston. On the drive home the conversation was highly animated and downright giddy: we were “drunk” on the energy that the practice had awakened — energy that was now being sent outward to the senses, rather than drawn inward as it would be in Ananda Yoga.
These and similar experiences have given me deep appreciation for Ananda Yoga and its ability to gently awaken the energy within the body, and help direct that energy inward and upward to the prefrontal lobes of the brain (the area that Yoga asserts — and modern medical research has confirmed — governs concentration, willpower, creativity, initiative, and above all, joy). As Paramhansa Yogananda often said, we must learn to “disconnect the sense telephones” and draw their released energies inward so that our inner peace won’t spill out like milk from a bucket with holes.
Getting grounded in power yoga
What exactly is power yoga? In case you haven’t experienced it, typically these physically challenging classes are primarily a vinyasa practice (a flow of active poses, without pausing in neutral poses), sometimes in a room that is kept quite hot. With all the physical effort, a lot of prana (life-force, energy) is both awakened and expended. To my mind, however, a grueling workout is just one way to awaken energy, and not necessarily the most effective one if your purpose is also spiritual.
Here’s some of what I’ve observed: Surya Namaskar (Sun Salutation) is the foundation of many power yoga classes. Additionally, there are a fair number of advanced poses, very little time between them to rest, and little or no emphasis on working with prana. Some power classes include deep relaxation in Savasana, some don’t. If there’s any meditation, it’s almost always brief. The summary chart below compares and contrasts a typical power class with the more-subtle power of Ananda Yoga. Please keep in mind that this is only a brief, general summary. Classes and teachers vary widely, especially those who teach or blend a few different styles of yoga.
|Typical Power Class||Ananda Yoga Class|
|More outward — emphasis on the physical body (a “workout”)||More inward — concentration on subtle energy and raising one’s consciousness (a “workin”)|
|Sometimes pranayama/breathing exercises are included.||Energization Exercises — Yogananda’s unique contribution to yoga — to bring energy/prana under our conscious control to revitalize body and mind. Pranayama breathing practices are included at any of a number of points in the routine.|
|Little or no meditation||Meditation, the central technique of all Yoga, is the foundation of Ananda Yoga. It’s often done at the beginning of a routine, and always at the end. There are also mini-meditations between poses, and ideally within each pose.|
|No affirmations||Positive, uplifting affirmations for each pose|
|Surya Namaskar A & B variations are usually the foundation of the class.||The traditional, 12-position version of Surya Namaskar is sometimes included.|
|Continuous flow of poses (generally vinyasa)||Awareness, relaxation, and energy work — all in the midst of effort — then return to a neutral pose between poses (and between each side of a two-sided pose)|
|Advanced postures||Some advanced postures as well as basic postures|
|More poses, with shorter “holds”||Fewer poses, with longer “holds”|
|Infinite variations on postures||Infinite deepening within a specific large group of poses, with variations as appropriate for individual needs as well as for in-depth exploration of certain aspects of poses|
|Savasana may be short, or even omitted||5 – 10 minutes of Savasana form an integral part of most classes|
|All kinds of music||Uplifting music, if there’s any music at all (music becomes a distraction as one goes deeper one into the practice, but it can also help mask ambient noise). I often use the instrumental renditions of Swami Kriyananda’s music from Crystal Clarity Publishers (e.g., I, Omar; Relax for Flute and Cello; Himalayan Nights; Relax for Piano).|
Getting started with subbing
The first time a power yoga colleague asked me to cover her classes for two weeks, I immediately thought wondered, “Why me?!” (I’m hoping I didn’t say that aloud …) Then I quickly recovered and affirmed, “I rise joyfully to meet each new opportunity!” (the Ananda Yoga affirmation for Bhujangasana, the Cobra Pose) So, I visited her class a few times to understand what her students were used to. (I recommend such a visit if you are asked to substitute in any class; at least find out the general outline or the postures that the students normally practice.) Upon seeing her classes, I immediately began praying and meditating very deeply, because they were radically different from what I normally teach!
If you’re asked to sub for a teacher who usually teaches power yoga — or any other type of class — it may be tempting to duplicate what the current instructor teaches. But if you do, you’ll have two problems:
- You might be trying to teach something you don’t know.
- You’ll miss an opportunity to share the uplifting, consciousness-expanding style of Ananda Yoga.
So go ahead and share what you know — it might just be a fresh and illuminating experience for the students.
The question is, How can you share Ananda Yoga in a way that the power yogis will be able to relate to and enjoy? The answer is one that Swami Kriyananda (founder of Ananda and Ananda Yoga) often counsels for those who work with others’ development: Start from where they are. If students are accustomed to a fast pace and challenging poses, give them some of that so they’ll be comfortable and have a more open mind when you offer the Ananda Yoga dimension later in the class. Don’t underestimate the learning experience it will provide for both you and the students!
If you don’t have much experience in power yoga, use your intuition: In your mind, try to be a power yogi, and use that perspective to feel how to design your class.
In this regard, one of my favorite stories of Yogananda is when he commissioned an artist to paint a portrait of his guru’s guru, Lahiri Mahasaya. Not feeling that the completed portrait was an accurate depiction, Yogananda asked, “How long did it take you to master your art?” The artist answered, “Twenty years.” Yogananda said, “It took twenty years to convince yourself that you could paint?” Affronted, the artist said, “I’d like to see you do as well in twice the time!” Yogananda replied, “Give me a week.” The artist stalked off, insulted. Yogananda decided to do his own painting, although he had no training. He discarded his first several attempts, but used each one to attune himself more sensitively to the Source of all inspiration. Within a week, he produced a new portrait that the artist conceded was better than his own.
Undeterred by his lack of artistic training, Yogananda had used his intuition to tune into the consciousness of being a painter. That’s what we need to do when faced with something unfamiliar, like subbing for a power yoga classes (or whatever else you feel challenged by, such as writing an article!). Ask for guidance, tune into your intuition: What would a power yogi do? Be a power yogi!
By the way, keep in mind that many yoga students are quite attached to their instructor. They’ll be happy that someone is there to teach the class, but they may be pining for their regular teacher. That’s natural. Don’t let yourself be intimidated by it; just share what you can. For example, a power yogi recently subbed for my YMCA class. She had done her homework by attending my class, which included half of the Energization Exercises, a beginning and ending guided meditation, poses with affirmations, mini-meditation pauses between poses, a focus on raising energy to the spiritual eye, and ending with three AUM’s. Clearly she wasn’t going to be able to duplicate that — it wasn’t her training — so she began the class by announcing: “I’m not Tracy, and I don’t teach Ananda Yoga. So get over it!” She got her point across, and everyone had a good laugh!
Beginning the routine
Okay, that’s a general approach; now for some specifics: What might you actually do as a “power yoga sub”? Here’s what I often do:
First, I share with the class that I will attempt to teach a power yoga class, but that I normally teach a gentler, meditative Ananda Yoga class. I tell them that we’ll do some warm-ups, then use the Sun Salutation as a base and work into other postures, making the practice meditative yet challenging, with the added bonus of inspiring affirmations!
I also like to tell students that I welcome their input: “Feel free to request certain postures if you like. Let me know if I forget one side of a pose in Surya Namaskar. And if any of you are familiar with the asana affirmations from Ananda Yoga, please remind me if I forget to include one!”
Instead of starting the class as I usually do when teaching pure Ananda Yoga — with half of the Energization Exercises and a guided sitting meditation watching the breath or Hong-Sau — I’ll start with just a few Energization Exercises or Superconscious Living Exercises, a few traditional warm-ups, then a brief guided meditation while standing in Tadasana.
Then I move into Surya Namaskar: the traditional, twelve-position version from Ananda Yoga (see image below). We spend a few breaths in each position, and I encourage the students to feel the energy awakening within and consciously draw it toward the spine and up to the spiritual eye/point between the eyebrows. You can use the affirmation for Surya Namaskar at the beginning, or invite students to mentally repeat the Ananda Yoga affirmation for each individual position. All of this is a bit different from what they usually do in power yoga, but it’s close enough that it works.
Next comes an extended period of variations on Surya Namaskar — picking up the pace, but still holding one or two of the positions for a few breaths. Remind students to feel free to substitute relaxation poses (i.e., neutral poses such as Tadasana, Balasana, etc.) when they need to. There are many variations to this flow, so find a combination that you are comfortable with, that is appropriate for the students that day — and that you can remember!
Use the building blocks of Ananda Yoga, and encourage students to feel the power of the universe flowing through them — not just the power of their own muscles and energy! — as they do more-vigorous poses. Challenge them to hold the postures longer. Enthusiastically include the affirmations, and encourage students to take them deeper within.
Here are a few variations on Surya Namaskar that I’ve used with power yogis:
Full yogic breath throughout the sequence (it’s quite a challenge to do this smoothly; you could have them prepare for this by doing the Full Yogic Breath Flow)
Padahastasana (hold there for a few breaths)
Left foot back into high lunge (i.e., Virabhadrasana I) or kneeling lunge with hands on the floor, knee, or overhead (a.k.a Banurasana, Monkey Pose — perhaps even rising slowly and smoothly from this position into full Virabhadrasana I, a move that takes a bit of strength)
Plank Pose (on hands, fists, or forearms; knees bent or straight).
Option: “Plank from every angle” — Plank Pose, then Vasishthasana (Side Plank), then Purvotanasana (Front-Stretching Pose, sometimes called Front Plank), then Vasishthasana to the other side.
Another option: Vasishthasana, then Parighasana (Gate Pose) to the opposite side, back to Vasishthasana on the other side, then Parighasana to the other side. (Parighasana opens the sides of the body, which in some students may close off in Vasishthasana.)
Bhujangasana, Salabhasana, or Dhanurasana
Adho Mukha Shvanasana (or first Balasana, then Adho Mukha Shvanasana)
Option: from Adho Mukha Shvanasana into Rajakapotasana (Royal Pigeon Pose), back to Adho Mukha Shvanasana, then Rajakapotasana to the other side, then back to Adho Mukha Shvanasana
Balasana, then return to the lunge position on the other side: hands and left foot forward, right foot back
Then back the other way to the beginning of Surya Namaskar
Yes, many of these variations stray well outside the realm of Ananda Yoga. Even though the positions themselves are part of Ananda Yoga, Swami Kriyananda would no doubt say that the overall practice becomes “just gymnastics, not yoga.” (And in any event, you certainly wouldn’t do all these variations in one round of Surya Namaskar.) But as I pointed out earlier, I’ve found success through letting power yogis begin where they are, within a framework they’re comfortable with. This helps minimize any resistance they may feel, which in turn helps them be more receptive when you later move them more into real Ananda Yoga.
Note: Some teachers do many more variations on Surya Namaskar: e.g., Virabhadrasana II, Trikonasana, or Parsvakonasana after the high or kneeling lunge; from Banurasana, bend the back knee, lifting the heel toward the buttocks for a strong quadriceps stretch; Mayurasana (Peacock Pose) instead of Plank Pose; etc. There are many possibilities, and you’ll see lots of them in power yoga classes. Of course, these depart even more from Ananda Yoga, but I’m sharing them with you just so you’ll know what students may be accustomed to.
In any event, keep in mind that you don’t need flamboyant variations to challenge students. You can instead hold selected poses longer than usual, giving students the twin challenges of strength and relaxation in the midst of effort. You can also challenge them to lift their consciousness by infusing the postures with affirmations, and you can invite students to go inside — beyond body, breath, and mind — into the expanse of the soul. You will hear amazing (positive) comments!
And by the way, power yogis will love the affirmations — especially if you do!
Transitioning into Ananda Yoga
In my experience, a 90-minute power yoga classes will spend about 60 or more minutes on Surya Namaskar and its many variations. So I spend about 30-45 minutes on it when subbing. Then I begin to move the students into Ananda Yoga via the usual Ananda Yoga sequence:
Down to the floor to release/relax the extremities, and stretch, open, and energize the spine. These could include more strength challenges such as Navasana (Boat Pose) and Purvotanasana, as well as non-strength-poses such as Janushirasana (Head-to-Knee Pose), Ardha Matsyendrasana (Half Spinal Twist), and Gomukhasana (Face of Light Pose).
Inverted poses — plenty of challenges are possible here, such as Chakrasana (Wheel Pose) and Pincha Mayurasana (Peacock Feather Pose)
Savasana (5 – 10 minutes), perhaps with some restorative yoga variations or an inspirational passage from a Crystal Clarity book, such as The Essence of the Bhagavad-Gita, the Yoga Sutras, Material Success Through Yoga Principles, a visualization from Awaken into Superconsciousness, a passage from Chakras for Starters, or Autobiography of a Yogi; or a selection from Yogananda’s Metaphysical Meditations, or something else inspirational
Meditation: watching the breath or absorbing the mind in peace, joy, calmness, love, or any positive quality they are feeling. Instruct them to keep their eyes closed to help draw the energy inward and upward, with the gaze lifted behind closed eyelids as though looking at a distant mountain peak, while keeping the jaw parallel to the floor.
After a few minutes, I close the class by inviting everyone to allow this universal peace to flow through them out to all souls by rubbing the palms together to energize the hands, then holding the palms to the side and sending that peace while chanting AUM in unison three times.
After I subbed for one particular power yoga class in this way, a woman told me: “I’ve never felt this way after a yoga class before! I feel completely energized and yet at the same time so calm. How can that be? I want to learn more about this style of yoga and the affirmations!” This is representative of the type of appreciative comments after class, which for some is their first experience with affirmations or meditation.
I heard from another power yoga teacher for whom I’d subbed that her students had been a little “worried” when I began the class with the Superconscious Living Exercises and then warm ups (they had expected only Surya Namaskar). Once we got into the variations on Surya Namaskar, however, and then the other postures in an Ananda Yoga sequence, all with affirmations and ending with guided meditation, they were pleased, challenged, and really enjoyed the class — and I was “approved” to sub again.
Although I’ve given suggestions about how to integrate the elements of Ananda Yoga into a power yoga class, as we all know, the poses themselves are not the most important factor in getting the most out of the practice; rather, it’s the consciousness with which they are done in every movement, every breath, every moment. Anyone trained to teach Ananda Yoga knows how to lift the subtle energy to the brain and to help students do this as well. Through practice, you have become able to experience and feel your awareness rising to the superconscious point between the eyebrows, so you can share and encourage your students toward these same discoveries.
One of the single most important things you do for your teaching — whether Ananda-style, or power yoga, or any other style — is to deepen your personal sadhana. By deepening your own spiritual practices through the Energization, pranayama exercises, Hong-Sau meditation — and the higher AUM and Kriya Yoga meditation techniques, if you know them — you deepen your attunement with the true source of all creativity, intuition, and power: Spirit, Divine Mother, or whatever form of the Divine is most dear to you. When you are “awake and ready,” charged with that unlimited energy, you are truly able to tune into your students and offer just what they need!
The affirmations, too, are powerful tools for lifting awareness. As I ask students to notice, there are no negative affirmations! So, even if the physical body is not “cooperating” in the posture at the moment, you can modify the asana or return to a resting pose, stay focused on lifting the energy, and remember that inner peace is your true nature, come what may.
I know that newer Ananda Yoga teachers are sometimes hesitant about integrating the affirmations or Energization Exercises into their classes — and perhaps even more hesitant about integrating them into “sub” classes. They’re afraid students won’t like it. Along those lines, I recall the story of Yogananda giving a series of talks in Carnegie Hall in New York in 1926. He mentioned to some friends that he planned to include chanting during his appearance.
They cautioned him that chants would be “alien” to Americans, but intuitively he knew that those present would be able to understand and feel the divine yearning of his heart as he led them in chanting. One evening at Carnegie Hall he began with Guru Nanak’s chant, “O God Beautiful” — and led it for an hour and a half! When he stopped, the audience actually continued without him. The next day, many people told him about healing and experiences of divine peace that had occurred that night. Chanting became a regular part of such talks.
If he could lead New Yorkers in “O God Beautiful” in 1926, you can be at ease about offering affirmations, Energization, and “lifting your energy” in the 21st century. It’s just a matter of incorporating them deeply into your own practice, and then offering them to others with clarity, enthusiasm, and joy so that they may benefit from them, too!
I have felt such empathy for teachers who have told me they never learned meditation as a part of their yoga training. Meditation is the foundation, not only of Ananda Yoga, but of the entire science of Yoga. And to go a step further, in addition to a regular meditation practice, why not strive to experience that uplifting energy of meditation no matter what you are doing, in the very midst of everyday activity?
This brings me to a final point: I strongly recommend to all Ananda Yoga Teacher Training grads that, if you haven’t done so yet, you deepen your asana and meditation practice via Ananda’s Level 2 Yoga Teacher Training courses (or if you’re trained to teach another style, take the Bridge Course to dip into Ananda Yoga). Every course — Meditation Teacher Training, the Bhagavad Gita and Yoga Sutras courses, Advanced Pranayama — has profoundly deepened both my personal sadhana as well as helped me share fresh insights and tools with my students. I can’t recommend them highly enough.
It’s an ongoing process to stay inspired. Did you know that CPR also stands for the Constant Process of Re-inspiration? If it’s been while since you’ve done CPR, do it now! Who knows, you might be inspired to do something wild, like sub for a power class, boost your current class with more Ananda-style power, and rediscover your own true nature as ever-new joy.
All authors are graduates of Ananda Yoga Teacher Training.