How to Practice Any Yoga Style and What Makes a Good Teacher

by Simon Borg-Olivier MScBAppSc(Physiotherapy)

I am constantly being asked during workshops and after classes what my opinion is about different yoga styles. I do not want to speak against any style of yoga because, with the right principles, all yoga can be performed in a safe and effective way that will help you both physiologically and anatomically. A yoga practiced with the following fundamental principles of the Yoga Synergy System will enhance blood flow in the body and will help develop strength and flexibility without feeling over-tense or over-stretched.

If you want some elaboration on these principles and immerse yourself in human anatomy and applied anatomy, join one of our upcoming courses: Yoga Anatomy and Physiology Online Course , the Essential Teacher Training Online Course , our 200 hour residential Yoga Synergy Teacher Training Course in India, 6 Nov – 4 Dec, 2016 , or our 300 hour residential Yoga Synergy Teacher Training Course in India,  March 4 – April 2, 2017

Simon Borg-Olivier in Eka hasta mayurasana (photo courtesy Eva Kincsei)

Simon Borg-Olivier in Eka hasta mayurasana (photo courtesy Eva Kincsei)


1. Begin each exercise with active movements:

Active movements, when done slowly (at least at first), are the most important feature of a yoga practice that makes your practice closer to traditional yoga. By initiating all your practice (both in exercise and yoga) with active movements you elicit the reciprocal relaxation spinal reflex that allows you to develop strength without becoming tense, develop flexibility without feeling like you’re stretching, increase blood flow without needing to make your heart beat faster and staying relaxed and stress free while still doing something.

2. Before learning any complex breathing learn to breathe naturally into your abdomen:

Abdominal breathing stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system (the ‘relaxation response’), which is responsible for the unconscious regulation of organs and glands of the digestive system, the immune system and the reproductive system. Breathing into the chest, however, tends to activate the sympathetic nervous system (the ‘flight-or-fight response’), which tends to increase stress levels while decreasing immunity, digestion and the functional activity of the reproductive system.

3. Focus on spinal movements:

As a result of modern sedentary life our spines tend to be very stiff. The less the spine is able to move, the less blood and energy can flow through the body as the spine is the main energy channel in the body. Thus, it is of utmost importance to move your spine in all its pure planes of movement (spinal traction and compression, flexion and extension, left and right axial rotation and left and right lateral flexion) and keep it as agile and flexible with regular exercise as possible.

4. Graded use of breath:

It is always good to begin each version of an exercise or posture with simple natural breathing. Then, once that version of the exercise or posture has been mastered (in a relaxed stress-free manner), progress from simple natural breathing to enhanced abdominal breathing, enhanced chest breathing, complete breathing, breath retention and finally breathing into different parts of the body including the limbs. For the modern western body – in which energy is blocked and is usually over-tensed and over-stretched –  the most important task is to learn natural abdominal breathing. Natural abdominal breathing – moving the diaphragm actively down on inhalation and passively up on exhalation – will send out a message to all the internal organs that they are safe and protected. Thus, natural abdominal breathing will sooth the nerves and calm the mind. The progressive development of breathing can also help to massage the internal organs, give relief from prolapsed organs, traction the spine, improve circulation, relax muscular tension (especially with the trunk) and boost the immune system. In addition, if your breathing progresses to the point that you can actually breathe less than normal (mild hypoventilation) you can trigger a slight increase in the acidity levels of the blood that can calm the nervous system, bring relief from asthma, reduce appetite and significantly increase energy levels.

5. Gradation of postures.

Always remember that you have a choice when it comes to performing a moving exercise (vinyasa) or static posture (asana) ranging from simple (easy) versions to complex (difficult) versions of each posture or sequence. Therefore, every person should find the level of difficulty that his or her body is comfortable with. To a make a posture easier simply apply the rules …’stretch less’, ‘tense less’, ‘breathe less’, ‘think less’ and ‘move slower’.

Fundamental principles of the Yoga Synergy System and how to respond to a teacher:

These 5 points listed above are some of the fundamental principles of the Yoga Synergy System that are accessible to everyone. These principles and the Yoga Synergy method can be applied to any physical practice. If you follow these principles with any style of yoga you can be fine. If a teacher does not let you apply these formulas during your yoga class, then it may be better not to carry on with those classes. Be careful not to be pushed into doing anything that does not feel good or that you do not wish to do. Good teachers try to encourage but not impose. They should know that, but if they have forgotten, maybe you can remind them that you are trying to be ‘firm and steady, but also calm, relaxed and peaceful’ (‘sthira sukham asanam’). Remind them that you are trying to exercise in a stress-free way for your body and mind. Tell your teacher what you and your body and mind needs and also what it wants. Generally you know your body-mind better than most teachers or therapists do. If a teacher will not listen to you in these matters then I think maybe you should think twice about attending their class.

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Comments 8

  1. Dear Simon and the yoga synergy team
    Once again spot on and comprehensive, covering all the bases in a logical and safe order of progression.

  2. Excellent article,Steve.Your suggestion & humble approach is great.Yoga is basically one.God is one,paths & approaches to reach are different steps.Sooner or later, we all meet to the same source & that is Breath.Move slowly & practice deep breathing & find your own style.Be natural,be gentle & inner voice will guide you.Yoga is not physical,rather spiritual.Connection with inner soul.Good teacher will guide the students with love,harmony & develop the connection with students through their eyes 7 teach them according to their needs. blessings, Veena

  3. Hello Simon,
    As a yoga practitioner and yoga teacher, I really love your clarity here about the fundamental principles of practice that are important regardless of the style. The style of what we practise is not as important as HOW we practise.
    Do you have an article that explores your idea: the aim is to stetch less, tense less, breathe less, think less, move slower. I enjoyed your clarity around this at your Melbourne workshop last year and would love to post more about this to yoga students.
    Thankyou for your ongoing clarity.

  4. Post

    Hi Anahata
    Thanks for your feedback
    I do have more information on the reasons why to stretch less, tense less, breathe less, think less, move slower etc but they are spread through our blogs and also on our yogasynergy youtube channel – i will also be releasing more on this stuff shortly – it is also spoken a lot about in our course ‘essentials of teacher training – yoga fundamentals’ available at
    cheers and best wishes

  5. Hello Simon, thank you for your inspiring attitude and all the information you provide on your blog. Can you pls write about your opinion on yin joga style? Thank you and wish you all the best. Misa

  6. Post

    HI Misa, good to hear from you – The modern style referred to as Yin Yoga is similar to the passive restorative yoga that was popularised by the late and great Sri BKS Iyengar in the 1970’s. It definitely has its place but should not be considered top suffice as one’s only exercise. As many Yin Yoga teachers will say, ‘you need to have some sort of Yang practice as well that is more active and dynamic and actually moves blood and activates some muscles.Yin Yoga is supposed to target the connective tissues, such as the ligaments, bones, and even the joints of the body that normally are not mobilised very much in a more active style of asana practice. It is common to see postures held for three to five minutes or more in Yin yoga. The time spent in these postures can be like time spent in seated meditation but I have observed than many people end up being too uncomfortable and thus are not able to enter the space of meditation. I also do postures that are now included as part of yin yoga, but usually I use very specific pranayama to make them more effective in targeting the regions I need to target inside my body and also to focus my mind. I have seen many people do passive postures that are not suitable for their bodies. It is important in passive postures to not let the already flexible parts of the body become overstretched. However the major danger with this type of practice is that stiff parts of your body will usually stay stiff and the flexible parts become over-flexble top the point of laxity and possible tearing. This can be avoided if the practitioner is experienced enough to know exactly where their own weak points are and does not collapse into them. On a physical level I believe the main purpose of yoga is to connect the body tangibly and the best way to do that is through increasing the circulation of blood. Passive postures can do that if you have good understanding of you use your mind and breath but most people the energy inside the body will only really move if the whole body moves and muscles can actually turn on and off while lengthening and shortening. It has taken me many years of practice to get to the point where in a passive posture I can get hot and feel my blood circulate while being physically passive for a long time but to do this i am using breathing at the rate of about one breath per minute and taking my consciousness with my breath throughout the body. In summary I love this type of practice and I occasionally give it to my experienced students but I find that I have never got good results (with except for a few people) when i teach like this in a general yoga class.
    cheers and thanks

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