Styles of Yoga
Yoga has many paths, and modern yoga styles have important differences while sharing a similar essence.
Some styles are vigorous and best suited for people who are young and fit. Two popular ones are Power Yoga and Ashtanga Yoga. Others styles are gentle and good for almost everyone. These gentle classes may be called Restorative Yoga or Relax and Renew Yoga Classes. Restorative Yoga classes use props like bolsters to support your body in poses, opening the body with one’s own weight using the force of gravity. Those who are exhausted, ill, injured or recovering can benefit from this style. Restorative Yoga is therapeutic for the stress of daily living.
One class in one style may be very different from a class in another style by a different teacher. Keep that in mind if you try yoga for the first time and aren’t sure you like it. The various descriptions below can give you a sense of what to expect in various yoga styles.
Iyengar style is an excellent yoga style for a beginner. If you learn Iyengar Yoga, you can take the principles of alignment with you and be safe in whatever style you eventually pursue. Iyengar Yoga uses props that are usually provided by the yoga studio, though you may need to bring a yoga mat. Yoga blocks and straps are typical yoga props, and sometimes bolster pillows, blankets, folding chairs, wooden yoga furniture, and ropes hung from the walls are used in the class. An Iyengar teacher goes into detail explaining the optimal way to do a yoga pose. An Iyengar Yoga class is less of a practice and more of a learning experience that you can take to your home practice. Iyengar Yoga, like the other forms of yoga, is more than a physical practice. Yoga teachers share wisdom about yoga philosophy and spirituality to a greater or lesser extent.
Beginners often start by learning standing poses and later move onto forward bends, twists, backbends, balances and finally inversions (upside down yoga poses) and pranayama, a yoga breathing practice. Iyengar Yoga can be adapted to all people with all abilities and physical limitations. The creator, BKS Iyengar, is well known for utilizing props to make yoga possible for individuals. He has helped heal many people of their ailments with his thorough yoga instruction. Light on Yoga, a book that Mr. Iyengar wrote, is considered by many to be a Bible of the yoga world. Don’t make the mistake of looking at the photos in Light on Yoga and become intimidated by the yoga pretzel shapes. A yoga teacher will adapt the class to your level and make it possible for you to enjoy yoga even if you cannot be a pretzel. Flexibility builds over time for everyone who sticks with it.
Ashtanga Yoga is a practice that involves a focus on the breath, a continuous flow of movement from one pose to another, and focus of the eyes on a single point. Each pose is coordinated with the breath. You will find Ashtanga vigorous, dynamic, and athletic in its approach. The same series of poses are done in an Ashtanga Yoga class and practiced each time. Beginners start with the primary series. The yoga positions are interspersed in the Sun Salutation (Surya Namaskar) throughout the hour and a half long yoga class. Only a short time is spent on each yoga position, but some positions are repeated several times during a class so you hear instructions for a given posture more than once, which can help you learn. A Sun Salutation is a series of yoga positions that are repeated several time during an Ashtanga Yoga class. Because the same poses are done each time, the body learns the poses and goes deeper into them each time without the mind becoming too analytic. This is something that practitioners like about Ashtanga Yoga. Those who do Ashtanga seriously tend to get very flexible over time. Runners like this form and many have recovered from injuries with Ashtanga. The practice is well rounded by including standing poses, seated poses, and then a closing portion with inversions and backbends, followed by Shavasana (Corpse Pose) at the very end as a deep relaxation.
Other vinyasa forms of yoga use elements of Ashtanga Yoga, but do not adhere to the same sequence of poses each time. Power Yoga is a style that includes the interspersing of other yoga positions with the Sun Salutation. Some Power Yoga classes are taught in a room that is as warmer than body temperature. This makes the muscles supple and flexible, which is said to prevent injury. A Power Yoga Class, especially a hot yoga class done in a warm room, can be athletic and demanding to the body, which may be too much for some people who find the heat uncomfortable. At the end of class, one feels sweaty and cleansed, as if one has taken a shower from the inside. Sweating is considered to be cleansing and purifying of the body in yoga. You will feel that you have exerted yourself, and also experience an amazing feeling of relaxation at the end of a Power Yoga session.
Power Yoga and Ashtanga Yoga are considered types of vinyasa yoga. Vinyasa is a flow of yoga postures, sort of a dance from one yoga pose to another. Slower vinyasa yoga classes exist as alternatives to Power Yoga classes. Slow vinyasa yoga is synchronized with breath and is done in a room that has a normal temperature. Try this style if you like movement and want a slower experience that makes the moves easier to follow.
Kripalu Yoga has movement and flow, starting slowly and gently to warm up. The room temperature is normal. Beginners and people of various ages will find that Kripalu Yoga is accessible. A goal of Kripalu is to “do yoga joyfully.” Ultimately, a person surrenders to the wisdom of the body through their yoga. When I go to a Kripalu Yoga class, I find that I go inward and I enjoy the process of unwinding through yoga. I leave in a different mental space than when I arrived, much calmer and soothed by the experience.
Viniyoga is a personal approach to yoga, and is therapeutic. Don’t confuse Viniyoga with vinyasa yoga as they are different from one another. This yoga practice includes meditation. The practice includes classical yoga poses and you’ll eventually learn inversions (upside down poses) and advanced yoga poses. The daily practice of Viniyoga is to heat the body with the intention of internal cleansing. Practice includes asana and pranayama, or yogic breathing. A goal of Viniyoga is to make self-study a path to achieve spiritual growth. A teacher or yoga therapist adapts yoga to the individual in a gentle way. For those that need yoga therapy and have challenging individual conditions, this is a wonderful style. It can meet the needs of able-bodied strong people as well by developing their practice in a rounded way with the inclusion of spiritual aspects. In a class, a person warms up the body and gradually moves into yoga positions. Doing a pose in a safe manner is very important in Viniyoga. There is an emphasis on doing one pose well instead of doing many poses in a given session. Quieting poses are done at the end of a session and like many classes, students rest in Shavasana (Corpse Pose).
Integral Yoga and Sivananda Yoga
Integral Yoga and Sivananda Yoga derive from the same yoga lineage and are similar in the practice. Pranayama breathing is included along with asanas, or yoga poses. The class may include meditation that may be done by gazing at a candle. Awakening kundalini energy is a goal of Sivananda and Integral Yoga. Kundalini energy sends prana or life energy up your spine causing bliss; this experience is called “divine intoxication” by founder Swami Sivananda. Yoga is presented as a lifestyle; a disciplined way of living for spiritual growth. For those who are interested in spiritual aspects of yoga and like chanting, this approach is appealing. You will also experience hatha yoga, the physical practice of a sequence of asanas.
Svaroopa Yoga is considered a therapeutic style. Physical opening leads to the opening of all aspects of self, including your emotional self. Poses are done slowly and intentionally with deep awareness. The spine and its parts are a focus of attention for movement and release. In doing Svaroopa, you can dissolve tensions that block your energy and create inner healing. Yoga positions are supported using props that are carefully placed. Svaroopa Yoga is restorative and gradual, evoking healing releases and emotional expression which is allowed and encouraged in a class setting.
Anusara Yoga is a newer style of yoga that is heart centered. The word Anusara means flowing with grace, or following the heart. Training for Anusara Yoga teachers is thorough. Yoga teachers learn to teach about breathing, sequencing, asanas, meditation, philosophy, adjusting yoga poses, and about spiritual elements. A class can adapt to the needs of students of all ages, conditions, and levels of yoga expertise.
Kundalini Yoga is a different sort of yoga experience. The class is often taught by a Sikh, who is someone that follows a spiritual practice with Kundalini Yoga as a part of their path. Starting in a seated position, often sitting on a rug or sheepskin, students tune in with some simple Sanskrit chanting led by the teacher to call their inner guru or teacher. Using rhythmic movements such as spinal flexing with special breathing techniques at the same time, Kundalini elevates the mind. Breathwork includes the Breath of Fire which is fast and rhythmic. Mantra, the repetition of a sound, and meditation are all a part of Kundalini Yoga. It brings mental focus to practitioners. Kundalini Yoga has a history of being very helpful to those recovering from addictions partially because it creates a natural high. It builds strength of the self and has a powerful positive effect on the immune system. There is a strong integrated spiritual focus. Kundalini Yoga has the effect of raising energy which travels up the spine to the higher centers of the mind.
Bikram Yoga is done in a hot room with the intention of cleansing bodily toxins from the system. Bikram is said to be good for weight loss if done regularly. The class begins and ends with breathing exercises. The yoga teacher guides the class through 26 yoga poses with a rest between them, especially the later ones in which Shavasana (deep relaxation) is done. The poses are practiced in front of a mirror. The yoga positions are a mix of standing poses, seated poses, twists and backbends. The whole sequence is done each time with the postures repeated twice, or twice per side of the body.
When you go to a Bikram Yoga class, bring a towel to cover your mat and soak up perspiration, wear shorts, and bring water to sip. Arrive on an empty stomach as you should with in all styles of yoga classes. A natural electrolyte replacement drink might be helpful for those who are sensitive to heat and experience problems with low blood sugar. In Bikram Yoga, the practice is mostly done at the studio, preferably multiple times a week. Bikram Yoga tends to be hot yoga at its hottest, depending on where you attend a class. Drinking liquid and then eating right after class will help you recover from the intensity of the exertion and dehydration from sweating. Bikram is a physically demanding and vigorous yoga and not recommended for everyone. Seeing your progress over time with the discipline of regular practice will be exciting as you work on the same poses each time. You will see more flexibility as your postures improve.
Other Styles of Yoga
I apologize for being able to include all forms of yoga currently practiced. Ananda Yoga, Natural Yoga, ISHTA Yoga, and Kali Ray Tri Yoga and other styles are also common, with additional styles being invented and introduced all the time.
Keep in mind that yoga is a means of self-knowledge, and is a spiritual practice along with having health and fitness benefits which is why many people come to yoga in the first place. All styles of yoga are related and from a similar root, even if they have superficial differences. Yoga styles today in the Western world are mostly forms of hatha yoga, or the yoga of physical postures, which is only a small part of the whole of yoga. Some styles integrate aspects of yoga philosophy, spirituality, meditation, and pranayama. A broader and older yoga tradition includes forms that don’t emphasize asana (yoga poses) yet are also paths to self-realization which allows one to experience their true self and divine essence. Yoga is a science, an art, and a way of life offered by ancient sages and adapted in modern times.
I encourage each person interested in yoga to explore different styles of yoga and find one that seems to resonate with them and their path at whatever stage of life they find themselves.