Yoga studios. In some cities they are as common as hipster coffee shops and adorn every city block. Within a square mile you can find a hatha yoga studio, a Bikram yoga studio and, one block over, a vinyasa studio. As a beginner yogi, convinced that you should give yoga a try, you experience one of the biggest nightmares known to new practitioners – what do all those funky names mean and which studio should I go to?
There are numerous styles of yoga. Just as climbing divides into subcategories like trad, sport, bouldering, soloing, deep water soloing, and even ice climbing, yoga takes many forms. Each style that has been popularized in the western world appeals to certain personalities and, thus, not every style is right for every single person. Equally, your preference might change over time, or even day to day. Understanding the difference between each style and how each can benefit your body is your all-access-pass to experiencing the full benefit of a yoga practice. The following are, by no means, the only nine styles of yoga, but they are nine styles to help you get your feet wet.
(For when you want guidance and foundation, but not a drill sergeant)
Anusara, developed by John Friend, is an excellent style for beginners as well as advanced yogis. Similar to vinyasa with its sequential movements, anusara links each movement between poses with breathing. However, anusara is slower paced than most vinyasa classes. These classes are based on centering one’s focus around the heart. Before you think this sounds cheesy, hear me out. In anusara, the heart represents one’s nature – your natural tendencies. Instead of forcing students to correct a “wrong” pose, instructors encourage students to find their own expression, or version, of a pose. Therefore, your personal nature comes out in your practice. Your current state, whether energetic or passive, becomes expressed through the physical yoga poses, resulting in the most positive benefit for you.
(For when you are ready to adopt yoga philosophy into all aspects of your physical and mental being)
Ashtanga means “eight limbed yoga” and incorporates the eight limbs through vinyasas (flows). Classes follow a strict series of postures that are performed in a specific sequence. As you become stronger, movement between each pose will become easier, but that only happens as you master each of the eight limbs in the practice. These classes are powerful, rigorous, and fast-paced. You will be extremely challenged. The style incorporates many principles into the practice and is a well rounded yoga experience; physical, mental, and spiritual.
(When you don’t want variety and you want to just sweat a whole lot)
Bikram became very popular very quickly. Perhaps it is because of the 100 degree studios or maybe the array of half-naked, sweaty people that may or may not be nice to look at. . . either way, this style is controversial and not for everyone. Bikram, established by Bikram Choudury, is a regimented style. Each class guides yogis through 26 poses – period. Classes do not vary. Each pose is performed twice and utilizes every part of the body to cleanse and purify. The studios are heated to a hot and humid 100+ degrees to promote sweat – and lots of it. As your muscles loosen due to the heat, your body releases toxins and tension. You also utilize two types of yogic breathing – don’t be intimidated when you witness your first breath of fire. Try it out if you want to, but first Google the pros and cons. Oh, and word to the wise – if you see carpet on the studio floor, turn around and leave.
(For when you want to get back to basics)
Technically, hatha pertains to any physical yoga practice – so almost every practice on this list. In reality, hatha is generally a slower, foundation based class. Postures and breathing techniques are basic, sequences are short, and the class as a whole is gentle. You won’t sweat like in a Bikram or ashtanga class, but you will feel relaxed and looser.
(For when you want to sweat a whole lot, but with a bit more variety than Bikram)
Don’t be confused, hot yoga is not Bikram yoga. Various styles can be practiced in a hot room, Bikram is not exclusive. Hot yoga methods, like Baron Baptiste’s, vary from Bikram in that they have more variety of postures but generally stick to basic breathing techniques. The classes flow through more varied series of poses and even take you into inversions and arm balances (careful, you might be too slippery from all the sweat).
(For when you want extreme physical and mental challenge)
Perfection in poses comes from proper alignment and, in iyengar classes, your instructor will nitpick until you get there. These classes are slower paced and tend to have less flowing, more holding of poses. Props such as straps and blocks are frequently used to attain the alignment necessary to each pose. The biggest challenge you will face in this class, especially if you were born with a nervous twitch, is to stay still. Mentally, this style can challenge you more than a 5.12d, physically, it has amazing benefits that will improve muscle endurance as well as flexibility. If you are searching for a heightened sense of connection between your physical and mental state, this might be worth a try.
(For when you need a little balance)
This style prepares you for a holistic lifestyle. The philosophy of kundalini encourages proper breathing, relaxation, diet, exercise, and a positive mental disposition to create living yoga. The classes are gentle, unhurried, and embrace balance. Twelve basic postures are generally performed between sun salutations and every class ends with savasana.
Highly athletic and fast paced, vinyasa classes are my favorite style – to practice and to teach. Vinyasa literally means “to flow,” and these classes lead you through numerous poses, linking each movement with the breath – similar to anusara. However, wehre these classes vary, is they balance both aerobic and anaerobic exercise. Constant movement keeps your heart rate up, but holding poses with attention to alignment builds muscle endurance and strength – especially in power vinyasa classes. Some studios slightly heat their rooms, usually around 80 degrees Fahrenheit, and so you will conclude each class with a healthy puddle of sweat surrounding your mat. Each vinyasa instructor has their own theme to teaching, some constantly move through sun salutations while others encourage playful experimentation in arm balances and inversions.
(For when you really can’t move and you need to give yourself a personal massage)
For those days when your hip flexors are frozen in a 90-degree angle, your oblique muslces feel like they will snap, and your latissimus dorsi might just fall off, yin yoga is where you should go. Yin complements the more powerful, yang styles of yoga like vinyasa and ashtanga and is extremely slow paced. Be prepared to stay in each pose for about four to five minutes. As a result, the classes lengthen your connective tissues, the small muscle fibers that yang styles of yoga strengthen. Instead of holding yourself up in virabhadrasana 2 (warrior 2), yin yoga is a passive practice and encourages you to let gravity do the work. This is another style where your mental strength grows. Staying still in these poses is a challenge and a journey. The first minute is enjoyable; minute two is mental agony as your body screams to move; and minute three is uncomfortable. After those first moments of challenge, you settle into a state of complete surrender. The discomfort and challenge returns when you have to move to another pose. Sometimes you might need the instructor to assist you.
Thankfully, styles are not exclusive. Each has unique elements and benefits. Depending on the day, you might crave a sweaty, hot yoga class or you might be in need of a restorative yin class. Whichever class you unroll your mat in, remember that yoga is a way for you to simultaneously challenge and nurture your body and mind. Attend the class that leaves you with a sense of progress, purpose, and balance. A yoga class, as a whole, is just like a yoga pose, “Trust your body. If a pose (or class) feels painful, then modify. If it just feels uncomfortable, then stay there, breathe, and allow your body to learn.” In other words, if a class makes you feel out of place or uncomfortable, assess the reason why, and then modify accordingly. Find the class that benefits you today, because yesterday you were a different person, and tomorrow who knows what life will throw at you.