I have been guiding weekly Strala classes around Montreal for about a year and half now and I’m honored to say that so many of you join in regularly and have experienced the magic of this practice for yourselves. Still, there are many people who have questions about the origins and purpose of Strala and why it seems to look and feel quite different from traditional forms of yoga. Here are just some of the many comments and questions I’ve received since I’ve starting guiding classes…
“Is it like a vinyasa class?”
“Is that the yoga where you just put on music and people do whatever they want?”
“Oh it’s like yoga for non spiritual people”
“It’s not real yoga, it’s just a workout.”
“Did you just make this up?”
“Is that the yoga with the crazy music?”
In reference to my class vs. another teacher’s class: “I prefer hers, I like real yoga.”
“Strala Yoga – oh do you mean that “model” yoga?” (because the co-founder of Strala, Tara Stiles, was once a model)
And my personal favorite comment I ever received: “You didn’t allow me to be mindful because we we’re moving so much.”
To be totally honest, some of these comments really hurt when I received them because I truly believe in what I’m doing and I know that this practice has helped so many people, but I am often met with these kinds of assumptions or challenges because there is an expectation of what yoga is supposed to look like or how it is supposed to be taught and Strala does have many differences from it’s more traditional counterparts. For example, we don’t use any Sanskrit or complex anatomy terms, we don’t “om” or chant or reference the chakras, we encourage everyone to stay “soft” in all poses and movements (ie: no “engaging” or “flexing” of muscles), we like to use all kinds of music (with lyrics) and we bring it to the forefront of the class so that it becomes part of our voices as Strala guides and not just a secondary or background track, and we don’t emphasize alignment or do any sort of adjusting because in Strala classes we are moving almost constantly, rarely holding a pose for more than a few seconds and even within poses we encourage people to explore with soft, gentle movement in all directions. So I can see how from the outside these elements may make Strala appear to be “non-spiritual” or “just a workout” and over time I’ve learned not to take these comments so personally but in fact, there is a real science and purpose to everything that we do in class so to answer one of the above questions – No, we don’t just “put on music and tell people to do whatever they want”. But we definitely encourage exploration and there is a real sense of freedom in our classes.
Quite honestly, I’m not the very best person to explain all the details of the practice. If you are really interested it would make sense to get this info from the creators themselves, Tara Stiles and Mike Taylor, and all it takes is a little perusal of their website stralayoga.com where you can find tons of articles and videos for free. You can also read the book, Strala Yoga, which we have at the studio (the French version comes out next month and I’ve already placed my order), or you can reference one of the hundreds of articles that have been written about Strala. In fact, Strala Yoga and Tara Stiles have been profiled more than once in the New York Times, as well as The Times of India, The Chicago Tribune, Harvard Business School, and the list goes on…Tara was also the private yoga teacher of Deepak Chopra for many years and they have since worked together on various projects. So to answer another of the above questions – No, I didn’t “make it up”! LOL
So what happens in a Strala class exactly? To be clear, there are different types of Strala classes, at Viveka I offer Gentle, Relax, Energize and Strong. As you can imagine from the class names, some of them move faster and incorporate more challenging moments (aka the Strong class) and some of them are much slower paced and a little more “simple” for lack of a better word (aka the Gentle class) but regardless of which class you enter there’s one thing you can be certain of: there will be constant, fluid movement in all directions.
What do I mean by “movement” exactly? Strala, unlike some more traditional forms of yoga, is a movement-based practice that takes elements from tai chi, and dance, and fuses them along with the rich vocabulary of yoga to create what I like to call “a moving meditation”. If you’ve ever been to a class, you’ll notice that we do a lot of “swaying” and “rolling around” in almost every position and we don’t really hold any poses for longer than a few seconds. So to answer another question from above – No, Strala is not a “vinyasa”, it really is it’s own unique form of yoga that encourages practitioners to move in and around poses and to explore the natural movement of their bodies in a very soft, easygoing way. Example: we often take a moment in our warrior two to roll around in our hips and belly and soften our shoulders and elbows. There is no specific instruction given on how exactly we expect this movement to look, we encourage each person to move in their own unique way, exploring all the things that their body is capable of and releasing tension along the way.
So why all this movement? The soft, easygoing swaying and exploring all around comes from various discoveries in the field of Mind/Body medicine. In particular, this way of moving is designed to stimulate our body’s relaxation response. The ‘Relaxation Response’ is defined rather thoroughly in this article from Psychology Today, which begins with explaining that it is a term “coined by Dr. Herbert Benson, professor, author, cardiologist, and founder of Harvard’s Mind/Body Medical Institute. The response is defined as your personal ability to encourage your body to release chemicals and brain signals that make your muscles and organs slow down and increase blood flow to the brain. In his book The Relaxation Response, Dr. Benson describes the scientific benefits of relaxation, explaining that regular practice of the Relaxation Response can be an effective treatment for a wide range of stress-related disorders.” The relaxation response can be turned on in many different ways including various meditation practices, breathing exercises, acupuncture, massage therapy and even prayer. When it comes to Strala, I like to compare our soft, easy movement to how we may feel when we go for a walk in the park on a nice sunny day. When we are simply outside, enjoying nature and moving in a natural way (without thinking about it, without forcing ourselves to keep a certain pace or walk in a particular fashion) we inevitably feel more relaxed and less tense in our bodies and minds – we can turn on this same relaxation response during our yoga practice by allowing our bodies to stay soft and movable in a similar way as strolling through the park.
So to come back to the comment above from the person who told me that the movement in Strala does not “allow” people to be mindful – all I can say is that in fact, at it’s core, Strala is very much a mindfulness practice. All the exploration and swaying and softening is meant to relax the entire nervous system so that practitioners can really tap in to how they are feeling in the moment and discover all the amazing things that their bodies can do. That being said, any activity in life can become mindful or not mindful depending on how we approach it – if we approach our yoga practice with specific goals (ex: I want to get a good workout, I want to be able to do a crow pose) then we are shifting our focus away from the present moment and towards a future objective, if we approach our yoga practice with a
commitment to focus on our breath, to explore our bodies and find what feels natural and comfortable then we will likely switch on this relaxation response. It is not the type of yoga or the yoga teacher or the studio or the pose that makes something mindful – it is YOU. So perhaps all this movement was not helpful for this particular person, perhaps this type of yoga practice was destabilizing and it made it more difficult for them to feel fully present, that’s ok, I can’t expect Strala to be for everyone but let’s just remember that mindfulness and meditation do not necessarily equal stillness in the body. The “stillness” that we often refer to in yoga is a stillness of the mind, it is what happens when we are fully present and in the moment and it can occur in any type of activity or practice that relaxes us and connects us inward.
And to quickly address the lack of “spiritual” elements that we tend to see in yoga classes (ex: Sanskrit words, chants, traditional Indian music, Buddha statues, crystals, references to chakras, etc…) these elements were not eliminated in Strala to “westernize” yoga or to trivialize or ignore the ancient traditions where they come from – as Strala guides we simply believe that spirituality is an internal and personal experience that cannot be defined or forced upon someone. So while many people feel more spiritually connected when these elements are in a class, that doesn’t mean that there is no spirituality happening without them. Just like the practice of mindfulness, no person or object can make you more or less spiritual. Spirituality and mindfulness comes from within. Our mission as Strala guides is simply to create a safe space, where you can feel fully relaxed and in the present moment – if this leads to a spiritual experience that’s great, if it doesn’t that doesn’t mean you can’t reap all the other positive effects that yoga can have on one’s health and wellbeing.
To summarize, I believe Strala is a holistic, movement-based practice that can help to decrease our bodies’ stress hormones and connect us back inwards. It’s a practice that has taught me how to follow my intuition and to celebrate my uniqueness and this has had a profound effect on almost every aspect of my life. But whether you see it as “real yoga” or not, or “spiritual” or not, or “mindful” or not is entirely up to you – the best I can do as a guide is to give you the space and freedom to interpret it for yourself. I hope at least that this little post can give you some insight into what we are doing and why so many people all over the world are taking up Strala as a daily practice (and no – its not because Tara did some modeling many years ago! LOL). So if you haven’t come for a class yet or you’re still not sure what this whole “Strala” thing is all about then I welcome you to come give it a try – you know where to find me 😉