I was talking with a friend the other morning about the difference between yoga instructors, classes, and the different feelings we come out with from different classes with different teachers. All other things being equal – say, if we’re discussing Vinaysa – the relative format is the same. You go into any Vinyasa class and you can expect to merge movement with breath. The variables: pace, sequence, energy of the room, how long you hold each pose, and of course, the level of experience of the practitioners. While these seem like common variables in any given yoga class (regardless of style, save your designated sequences like Ashtanga, Bikram), there’s another variable that we often fail to consider. This is the focus variable. In my years of study, I’ve found there are two types of focus – the focus within and the focus without.

The focus within is an internal focus, where regardless of the teacher, the sequence, the energy, the style..you are focused within yourself, within the four corners of your mat, within your breath. You see your practice through your mind’s eye, not your physical eyes. You are listening to the cues of the teacher, listening to their silly jokes and quips (without pulling your attention). You are not listening to the grumbles of your neighbor, not focused on their practice, their level of advancement (or lack of advancement) in the given poses. While you are aware of these other beings, you are not focused on them, and they don’t affect your practice one way or the other. You may not even “see” them because your gaze is so strongly focused inward. You feel the breath on the internal layer of your skin, caressing your organs, interweaving with the brain cells, muscle tissue, bone marrow.

The second type of focus: the focus without. I don’t mean a practice without focus, but in the adverb (literary, archaic) sense of the word ‘without’ meaning ‘outside, not within’ – an external placement. Your focus is on the group collective. You focus on your breath and your poses, but that focus is turned outward. You feel your breath as part of the group, your pose as part of the collective corps de ballet, as something you’re giving to the room, to the world, to the teacher. Your contribution to the world of yoga. You view your practice through your physical eyes, not your mind’s eye. You physically see the objects and people around you. You feel your skin at the surface, how the air feels against the outside layer of skin, how you push through the molecules of O2 externally. Now, this is not the same as a distracted class where there is much chit-chat with your neighbors, laughter, and clapping – I consider this to be a class without focus, not a class who’s focus is without. While levity and questions can be appropriate during class, extensive conversations are a recipe for injury (through distracted practice). There is a seriousness to the practice for reasons of safety, no matter how light and casual the atmosphere.

I’m not saying one focus is more right than the other.. I’m simply making an observation I’ve come to find over the years. In fact, I think we need the existence of both. For those who are constantly in their heads, constantly taking from the world (not in a negative/greedy way), continuously receiving and never having the opportunity to give, I feel the focus without is a more fulfilling type of class. For those who are constantly extending themselves and their words to others, constantly contributing to the world, continuously giving and never having the opportunity to receive, I feel the focus within is a more fulfilling type of class. This is why it is important to try different styles of yoga, and especially different teachers. If you come out of a class with feelings of agitation, perhaps ruminate on the practice – first, did you do a lot of hip openings, but then see if you felt inward or outwardly focused. If you tend to be a giver in the world, find a focus within and take a little time to be selfish. If you tend to be a receiver, find a focus without and have a chance to share something. On the flip-side, take note if you come out of a class feeling like you’ve just come home..examine the tendencies of that class. One teacher may be the kind who encourages the focus without, and other may encourage the focus within. You need to find what works for you, and at the same time..allow yourself to evolve. In one lifetime you may flip between focus depending on which aspect of your life needs balance. And isn’t that one of the grander points of yoga practice, to find balance (and no, I don’t mean in Uttitha Hasta Padangusthasana 😉 )…