If you’re new to yoga, it might be a surprise to learn that there was a time when yoga classes were at least 90 minutes long. Today that seems almost quaint. Who has 90 minutes to spare in our current hyperconnected, hyperproductive, ridiculously busy culture?
I vividly remember a little more than a decade ago, when yoga studios across my hometown of Los Angeles started to reduce class times from 90 minutes to an hour. The change left many experienced teachers and traditionalists asking, “But, don’t we need 90 minutes to have a complete yoga practice?”
Honestly, I felt the same way at the time. I was a Mysore Ashtanga practitioner, and my daily practice was often two full hours. Whenever I went to classes that were shorter, I would feel…dissatisfied. Granted, those were also the days when my yoga practice was my priority over everything else, including family, friends, even my own needs.
My available time is very different these days. I am married with a toddler and a newborn. Not only is an hour-long yoga practice more than sufficient, frankly, it’s a luxury. And I am not alone. The world has become increasingly busy and many students may only have 20 to 30 minutes to get to their mat—yet, because they assume they need a full hour or hour and a half for a “complete” practice, they don’t even bother.
When I get to my mat for even a few minutes a day, it makes a tremendous difference. So I decided to explore how these 90-minute and 60-minute class lengths originated in order to possibly debunk the myth that yoga requires a certain amount of time to be practiced “properly.”
Why 90 minutes?
The 90-minute timeframe for yoga classes seems to have been fairly random.
Ganga White of the White Lotus Foundation started the iconic Center for Yoga, one of the oldest yoga studios in Los Angeles, in 1967. He is also credited with coining the term “flow yoga” and, later, “vinyasa flow.” Each class on the schedule lasted 90 minutes. White admits that even he can’t remember where that class length came from, other than that it seemed an appropriate amount of time to have a well-balanced practice.
Maty Ezraty started working at Center for Yoga in 1985, first at the front desk and eventually as a manager. Two years later, she co-founded YogaWorks with Alan Finger and oversaw the company for nearly two decades with her longtime partner, Chuck Miller. During that time, she trained thousands of teachers, including Seane Corn, Max Strom, Annie Carpenter, and Kathryn Budig. In the style of Center for Yoga, Miller and Ezraty offered mainly 90-minute classes on their schedule.
As Miller revealed, it wasn’t as though there was a specific tradition they were following. In fact, he agrees with White that “the number is actually kind of arbitrary.” Miller remains an advocate for longer practices. He and Ezraty studied Ashtanga yoga under Sri K. Pattabhi Jois with daily practices that were often two hours or longer. Yet, he acknowledges that not everyone is able to “dedicate the time or indulge” in asana practices of these lengths. As such, he shares that the 90-minute class slot felt to him and Ezraty like a time that was both long enough and still accessible for the average student. “It is a good start,” he says. Or it was at the time.
When did things change?
Hour-long yoga classes have been offered at gyms for decades. But yoga purists in the 80s and 90s balked at the shorter length, often disparagingly calling it “gym yoga.”
Then the popular chain CorePower Yoga started offering hour-long classes at locations nationwide between 2008 and 2010. It was around this same time that YogaWorks, now under new ownership, opened its newest studio in the South Bay of Los Angeles, where the majority of classes on the schedule were also one hour in length.
The meteoric success of these business models appeared to have led many other traditional yoga studios to rethink their class lengths. Soon, 75 minutes and 60 minutes became the standard for a “complete” practice. Many longtime students struggled to adapt to the shorter slots, and the response among teachers was just as mixed. As a result, many classes were removed from schedules or replaced with newer teachers who had less attachment to the way things were.
“The change to class times was not all bad,” says Mynx Inatsugu, who was a teacher, manager, and teacher trainer for a well-known studio chain in the Bay Area during the time of the transition. “It was a chance to experiment and innovate on how to lower the resistance to start,” which she believes had mixed results. Some students felt too hurried, while others were grateful to finally be able to fit a practice into their busy day. However, as Inatsugu points out, “varied success was true of 90-minute classes as well.”
Less and less time for yoga
Fast forward to today when time to practice is even more scarce. With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020, teachers, studios, and students found themselves having to change their practices overnight. As many people juggled working from home, running a household, and trying to manage anxiety in the face of the unknown, the amount of time anyone could dedicate to their asana practice shrunk even further.
Luckily, the shift to online classes offered many people an entirely new way to practice: on-demand sessions that were even shorter, some 20 minutes or less.
Briohny Smyth, a popular teacher on Alo Moves (formerly Codyapp), created her own online platform called Aligned Yoga in 2019, which offered her signature teacher trainings virtually. When things began to shut down at the beginning of the pandemic, she sensed an increased demand for shorter videos. Both on her personal platforms and through Alo Moves, she began to share free tutorials and 15- to 20-minute on-demand classes, which all performed incredibly well. She recently explained that students are gravitating back toward 30- to 45-minute classes and that there seems to be less interest in classes any longer than that.
So, how much time do we really need for a “complete” practice?
What is “a complete practice”?
Chris Stein, a senior Iyengar teacher based in Southern California, has been regularly traveling to Pune, India, to study with the Iyengar family since 1990. Stein shared that one of her big takeaways from B.K.S. Iyengar’s teachings was that we should all strive to practice “any amount.” She continued to explain that there is no ideal amount of time. Rather, a “complete” practice should be based on listening to what you need that day. Stein suggests that the lengths of classes on studio schedules should have no influence over our personal practice time, which should fluctuate between shorter or longer lengths depending on that day, that period of your life, or simply whatever amount of time you have available.
Inatsugu was raised in the Viniyoga lineage, which also doesn’t require any set amount of time to practice. As she describes, practices in this lineage should be “relevant and doable.”
Created by T.K.V. Desikachar, this lineage advocates that each practice, and therefore the length of each practice, should be adapted to the changing needs of the individual student. Desikachar is Tirumalai Krishnamacharya’s son. Krishnamacharya is often credited as the father of modern yoga, as he taught pivotal teachers such as B.K.S. Iyengar.
White feels similarly these days. “Any amount of time is better than nothing,” he explained. “I always said that if you have a fixed idea of time then you won’t practice if you don’t have it. It’s surprising how much you can get out of even five or ten minutes.”
What science tells us about physical practice
In the 2nd edition of the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans released in 2019, the CDC released recommendations for general wellness and heart health. It suggests that each week, Americans need a minimum of 150 minutes of moderate movement, such as slower forms of yoga or brisk walking, or 75 minutes per week of vigorous movement, like jogging or swimming laps or intense vinyasa.
And that’s just how much physical activity we should aim for. Remember that asana, the physical postures, is just a tiny portion of the practice of yoga. Recent research suggests that we may only need seven minutes of contemplative practices per day, such as meditation or mantra, to calm our nervous system and improve mood.
So, if a “complete” practice has little to do with how much time passes on the clock, how do we measure a “complete” practice?
A shorter practice
Putting all of this information together, I feel more confident than ever that getting to our mats for even 15 minutes is plenty of time to do a “complete” practice. In fact, Inatsugu often tells her students, “Practice can be a single breath done consciously.”
Lisa Walford, a senior Iyengar teacher who has been teaching since 1982, believes that, no matter what style of yoga we practice, we should attempt to find balance between the active Sun element (“ha”) and the quieter Moon aspect (“tha”) of movement. Admittedly, when I am short on time, I tend to focus only on the Sun quality, doing a ton of Surya Namaskar (Sun Salutation A) and then leaving little time to rest. No wonder I would often feel incomplete.
Our practice is entirely personal, so if you feel depleted but want to practice, you may want to balance yourself with a more mellow sequence. For example, Stein will do a short restorative practice anytime her back is tender. If you’re feeling energized you can engage in a more dynamic practice. Remember, these opposite qualities exist on a spectrum and every practice should include a balance of the two. After all, that was the intention behind yoga, to create union among all aspects of ourselves.