Ashtanga, Vinyasa, Iyengar... oh my! Confused about which yoga class to choose? I was. It took a lot of experimenting to find the style that felt best for me. So as a shortcut for you, here are some insights and hints to help you choose the style and class that's right for you.
Yoga is a very ancient, multifaceted practice that has made a modern revival and become mainstream in our Western culture. T. Krishnamacharya is known as the "father of modern yoga", as the teacher/scholar/ayurvedic healer who revived the classical hatha yoga in Mysore, India, beginning in the 1920s. He had some very influential students, such B.K.S. Iyengar, K. Pattabhi Jois, his son T.K.V. Desikachar, and the American Indra Devi. They and their students were instrumental in evolving the practice into different modern variations, and in bringing yoga out of India and into the world.
As yoga's popularity continues to grow, so do the number of styles to choose from. I can count at least 40 different styles, and new ones are being created and branded every day by various teachers and studios. To anyone new to the practice, it can get very very confusing!
There is much to say about the history and practice of each different yoga style. You can get a wealth of knowledge from books and from videos. But reading and watching videos will only take you to a certain point - taking a class, any class, is the best way to experience and learn, and to find what feels right for you.
The following is a very brief overview of 12 common styles of yoga practiced in North America, and some tips to help you decide whether they are right for you.
1. HATHA YOGA
Classic Hatha yoga is the root of all yoga styles practiced in the West, and in fact most of the yoga we practice could be classified as Hatha. Hatha yoga is adapted to all levels, although some studios may list Hatha yoga as an introductory style. You will work through a series of poses in a slow and mindful manner. It may be less intense and less physically demanding than some other styles, but it is still an excellent way to increase flexibility, strengthen your body, and bring peace to your mind.
Choose this style if: you prefer a gentle, more meditative style, or are fairly new to yoga.
2. IYENGAR YOGA
Developed by Krishnamacharya’s student B.K.S. Iyengar, this meticulous style of yoga focuses on anatomical details and proper body alignment during the poses, often using props such as blocks, blankets, straps, chairs and bolsters to achieve this. Iyengar yoga is adapted to all levels of experience as it offers three levels that you can progress through, learning more and more poses and breathing exercises. It is a great place to start if you are a beginner as you will really learn to do each pose properly. It is also a good style to choose if you have an injury. The Iyengar teachers are very knowledgeable as they go through a very long and comprehensive training before they are allowed to teach Iyengar style.
Choose this style if: you want to learn the postures in depth, if you have an injury, if you want to cultivate steadiness as well as strength and flexibility, or if you don’t like flow-style yoga (see below).
3. ASHTANGA YOGA
This is another style developed by another student of Krishnamacharya - K. Pattabhi Jois. Ashtanga is a very rigorous and vigorous style of yoga (you will work up a sweat) that follows a set sequence of poses that flows gracefully yet dynamically from one pose to the other (vinyasa). There are six sequences, called “series”. The series are like levels, and most people work on series 1. It takes quite a lot of practice to level up, even to level 2. Ashtanga is sometimes taught “Mysore style”. A Mysore class will always be indicated on the schedule and is a class where students go through the learned sequences at their own pace, while the teacher goes around giving adjustments and personalized advice.
Choose this style if: you want to workout while you do yoga, if your focus is on strengthening, and if you’d like to learn and perfect a sequence of poses in depth rather than changing each class. Note that this is possibly the most physically challenging style.
4. POWER YOGA
Power Yoga was created by Brian Kest in the US in the 1980s, then Baron Baptiste adapted it and branded it. It is a vigorous style derived from Ashtanga yoga’s vinyasa style, but should not be confused with Ashtanga. It is a powerful workout that focuses on strengthening as the poses tend to be held longer. Their motto could be “Feel the burn!” Unlike Ashtanga there are no set sequences. Often Power yoga classes are held in a heated room. All references to the philosophical aspects of yoga are removed, there are no Oms, no meditation, no Sanskrit names.
Choose this style if: you want an intense and athletic practice focusing on strengthening and stability but want nothing to do with yoga philosophy, chanting or meditation.
5. VINYASA FLOW YOGA (or VINYASA YOGA)
Vinyasa Flow yoga should not be confused with Power yoga. “Vinyasa” is a Sanskrit word that means “to place in a special way”. In our yoga world, it means a sequence of poses that flow smoothly from one to another. The yoga style called Vinyasa Flow is inspired by Ashtanga in that you flow dynamically through a sequence of poses, synchronized by the breath, with a focus on breath and body awareness. There is no set sequence as in Ashtanga, so each class is different and unique. This variety is said to help develop a more balanced body and to prevent injuries that may happen if you repeat the same thing over and over. As with Ashtanga, this is intense and athletic, and there is often music during Vinyasa classes to keep the pace.
Choose this style if: you want an intense workout (even certain level of cardio) while you do yoga but you prefer variety in the sequences and poses that are done.
6. KUNDALINI YOGA
Kundalini yoga has its roots in ancient and mysterious Tantric yoga. A version of Kundalini yoga was introduced in the US in 1968 by Yogi Bhajan. This very specific style incorporates kriyas (breathing techniques), meditation, chanting of mantras, and poses in order to release Kundalini energy, which is described as a coiled serpent “sleeping” at the bottom of your spine. This release and rise of Kundalini energy is said to expand your consciousness and get you to a state of greater awareness so that you can live to your highest potential. For this reason, Kundalini yoga is often called “the yoga of awareness”. Kundalini practitioners talk about the transformative power of the practice. Don’t be intimidated by the white clothing, the white turbans, or the strange names they adopt as certified Kundalini yoga teachers.
Choose this style if: you are looking for a more spiritual practice, and you prefer a more reflective style. This is not a style that features dynamic movement but it can be quite intense, with a lot of breath work.
7. RESTORATIVE YOGA
The purpose of Restorative yoga is just that: to restore, relax, rejuvenate your body and mind. It is good for everyone, but it is also ideal for people who are recovering from illness as it is so gentle and restful. Typically, only 5 or 6 poses will be done during a one hour class. Each pose is done either lying down or seated, and your body will be supported by props for optimum comfort because each pose is held for 5 to 6 minutes. Each pose is an opportunity for meditation and mindfulness, to expand your awareness of your body, breath and mind. You will come away relaxed and peaceful, and will probably sleep like a baby the night after a restorative class.
Choose this style if: you need to balance out your active lifestyle with a relaxing and meditative yoga class, if you feel exhausted and need to reboot your body and mind, or if you are recovering from an illness.
8. YIN YOGA
Yin yoga is a form of long-held poses, a practice strongly rooted in ancient yoga, that were first introduced to North America in the 1970s by Paulie Zink, a martial arts expert who created a form of active+passive yoga called Taoist yoga. In the 1990s, teachers Paul Grilley and Sarah Powers realized the benefits of this form of long-held poses, revamped the practice, coined the term Yin Yoga, and popularized the practice. Similar to Restorative yoga, yet clearly for healthy bodies, Yin yoga is a slow-paced style, using a limited number of seated or supine poses that are held with the muscles relaxed for 3 to 5 minutes in order to increase circulation and improving the flexibility of the deeper connective tissues such as ligaments, fascia, tendons and joints. Yin yoga can be a practice on it’s own, but should be balanced by doing a more active (yang) practice (not necessarily at the same time). It would be the same imbalance if you just did an active practice wihtout including a more meditative element such as meditation or Yin poses.
Choose this style if: you want to include a series of postures in your practice that will balance out your more active practice and create a complete and balanced approach.
9. MINDFULNESS YOGA
Mindfulness practice allows us to take yoga to a different level. Mindfulness yoga takes a meditative, mindful approach to the practice of hatha yoga. It is an exploration of the body and the mind through the postures and their variations as we build awareness of the breath, the body and the sensations we feel, any thoughts or emotions that may come up along the way. We use our breath as an anchor, working to stay present in the moment, and not lost in the past or worrying about the future. Mindfulness yoga helps build strength, alignment and awareness so that you can practice safely.
Choose this style if: you want to build mindful awareness, practice staying in the present moment, and if you'd like to experience the poses from the inside out. The HUM HOME PRACTICE is Mindfulness Yoga: yoga and meditation grounded in mindfulness and forged into one powerful, transformational practice.
10. BIKRAM YOGA
Founded by Bikram Choudhury in India and popularized in the US in the 1970s, Bikram yoga has two specificities. 1) It follows a specific sequence of 26 Hatha yoga poses designed to synergistically work every part of the body, muscles, ligaments and internal organs, “for optimal health and maximum function”. The same sequence is used for every single Bikram yoga class, no variations. 2) Bikram yoga is practiced in a room that has been specially heated to 35–42 °C (95–108 °F), a temperature said to mimic the hot Indian climate, and said to optimize the practice for enhanced benefits. Classes are 90 minutes long. As the room is so hot, expect to sweat heavily and be prepared by wearing appropriately light clothing and make sure you have a large towel handy to cover your mat. Bikram Choudhury claims his style is under copyright and has sued studios for using the name Bikram Yoga without permission, and the signature 26 posture sequence can only be taught by teachers trained and certified by Bikram Choudhury.
Choose this style if: you love the idea of practicing in intense heat and if the benefits they claim resonate with you (full body health, detoxification due to the sweating, greater flexibility so deeper work due to the heat) but know these claims are not backed by scientific studies.
11. HOT YOGA (and MOKSHA YOGA)
Only studios and teachers licensed and certified by Bikram Choudhury can call their style or studio “Bikram” yoga. If you see “hot yoga” you will have the same type of heated room but the sequences will not be Bikram’s 26 and will vary from studio to studio. “Moksha” yoga is a hot yoga style created by two Toronto yogis who have also created franchises, so you can find Moksha hot yoga studios across Canada.
Choose this style if: you want to practice yoga in a hot room and you prefer more variety to the sequences and classes.
12. JIVAMUKTI YOGA
You likely won’t come across Jivamukti classes unless you are in a Jivamukti yoga studio. It was created in New York City in 1984 by Sharon Gannon and David Life as a “path to liberation through compassion to all beings”, and they subsequently branded and franchised their name and style. Plus, they have trained a lot of teachers over the years who take the style into their own classes and studios around the world. Jivamukti offers vinyasa-style classes with various levels of intensity. You will also find spiritual teachings, chanting, meditation and exuberant music (the choice depends on the teacher’s style).
Choose this style if: you like a devotional aspect to your yoga, if you are looking for a good workout, and if you love to do yoga to music.
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