Even though yoga is over 4,000 years old, studies about how it improves health are still relatively new. The work that has been done in the field however, has shown that the practice can lower blood pressure, reduce stress, and increase muscle tone, strength and flexibility. It can also help reduce or eliminate chronic pain and let you get a better night’s sleep.
While you might have heard about yoga variations like hatha (which is really the overarching category into which all other yoga styles fit) or hot yoga, what you might not know is that there are dozens of forms of the exercise on offer, each with their own take on getting bendy. Here we examine a few of the most popular yoga styles so you can find out which might be right for you.
This style of yoga was developed by B.K.S. Iyengar, a 90-year-old yogi currently living in India. With over 2,000 teachers worldwide, Iyengar is one of the world’s most popular yoga styles. It is also one of the best for beginners, as it has an intense focus on correct alignment in all of its postures. The classes move slowly and teachers work very closely with you to ensure that your body enters into the various poses the proper way. To assist in this, students are encouraged to use props like blocks and belts, which has earned the style its nickname of “furniture yoga.”
Performed in rooms that are heated to around 105 degrees with approximately 40 percent humidity, Bikram classes challenge not only your flexibility, but your ability to stay conscious for a full hour. But if you persevere, the rewards can be mighty. The high heat and humidity helps to loosen and relax muscles, so you are able to go deeper into the various yoga poses than would be possible in a normal room. You’ll also burn a good deal of calories — around 350-600 in a typical 90-minute class. Be sure to take lots of water to a Bikram class and monitor your exertion closely. Injuries have been reported in Bikram classes because the heat can give your body a false sense of just how far it can go in a posture. An official Bikram class consists of 26 poses repeated in sequence. Twice.
If Bikram yoga is all about heating the body from the outside in, Ashtanga focuses on creating intense internal heat — as evidenced by the excessive sweat an Ashtanga workout produces. Founded by K. Pattabhi Jois in Mysore, India, this style of yoga has students execute a consecutive series of poses in rapid succession. There are six different series in the system that progress in difficulty as students improve. Because of its fast pace and the demands it places on the body, Ashtanga offers a great toning workout, however it would be best to start with a slower style if you are a beginner. Also, be aware that some Ashtanga classes are self-led. These are called Mysore classes and you must know the order of the poses by heart as there is no instructor to call them out for you.
Sometimes called “power flow” or “vinyasa flow,” power yoga is a distinctly American form of the art, although it does use Ashtanga as its base. It was founded practically simultaneously in the 1990s by Beryl Bender Birch in New York and Bryan Krest in Los Angeles. Both teachers had studied with Ashtanga master K. Pattabhi Jois in India. One major difference between Ashtanga and power yoga is that the American style doesn’t rely on an orderly progression of proscribed poses, so the classes can vary widely according to the teacher. Power yoga classes do share Astanga’s intensity, however, and are best for intermediate yoga practitioners or athletes with a good level of fitness and flexibility.
In Chinese philosophy, yin presents a more passive approach, while yang is more active. This style of yoga then, has its practitioners hold poses for long periods of time — sometimes five minutes or more — allowing gravity to pull them deeper and deeper into the stretch. Unlike other styles of yoga that stretch the muscles, Yin works on the connective tissue in the body. The biggest proponent of the style is American Paul Grilley who developed it after he found himself getting uncomfortable while sitting for long periods of time in meditation.
Another school of yoga that was started by students of K. Pattabhi Jois, this one was born in New York City in 1984 by David Life and Sharon Gannon. Jivamukti means “liberation while living” and it incorporates this philosophy into its classes beyond just the physical execution of poses. Their “open” classes typically have a theme which is explored through yoga but also through scripture, chanting and meditation. Each open class always touches on the five tenents of Jivamukti: ahimsa (vegetarianism); bhakti (the acknolwedgement that self-realization is the goal of yoga); dhyana (meditation); nada (deep listening); and shastra (study of yogic texts).
According to its practioners, Kundalini is a source of energy at the base of the spine that is often pictured as a coiled snake. The goal of Kundalini yoga is to get that snake to unwind and allow the energy to travel up the body, awakening each chakra, or energy center, as it goes. This is accomplished through yoga poses that differ greatly from those found in other yoga styles, joined with an intense focus on the breath. So students work through a regulated series of poses and get instruction on how to breath in each of them, to move the energy along. Breathwork might be slow and shallow or long and deep. With its focus on internal energy, Kundalini tends to be more of a spiritual practice than a system like power yoga.
Perhaps most famous as a new age retreat center in Massachsetts, Kripalu is also the form of yoga taught there. It was developed by Amrit Desai, a student of Kundalini yoga master Sri Kripalvananda. Kripalu tends to be a more gentle form of yoga that’s good for beginners or anyone who is not at their physical peak. It teaches students to truly listen to their own bodies and engage in the level of practice that best suits them, with an emphasis on healing and meditation.
While not a particular style of yoga, this category refers to classes that are held to accommodate people with special needs. Pre-natal yoga for example, is for pregnant women or those looking to get back into shape after having had a baby. Integrative yoga therapy works with people who have specific medical conditions such as AIDS, depression or heart disease. And restorative yoga is idea for people who have a specific injury such as a bad back or painful wrists, as it works slowly and specifically to heal the body.
Beginner Yoga Tips
Be patient. If you’re new to the practice of yoga, it’s extremely important to take things slowly. You might feel frustrated or challenged when you see other yogis wrapping their legs around their heads while you can’t even touch your toes, but just have patience and know that the flexibility will come. If you push yourself too hard, you’re likely to get injured, which likely mean you’ll have to stop practicing altogether until you heal.
Wear comfortable clothes to class. Yoga is hard enough; you won’t want to worry about your clothes restricting your movements. Lose comfortable clothing works well for most, but if you have loose t-shirt on, you may want to tuck it into your shorts or sweatpants so that it doesn’t fly over your head when you’re in a pose like downward dog. Alternatively, you can wear form-fitting but flexible clothes to ensure they stay in place. All yoga classes are performed barefoot.
Bring supplies. Be sure to come to class with some water and, if the studio doesn’t supply them, a yoga mat plus blocks and straps to help you get into some of the more difficult poses.
Arrive early. This will not only allow you to choose a mat in a place in which you’re comfortable, it will also give you the chance to warm up your muscles through some of your own stretching before the class begins.
Eat — but not too much and not too close to class. Your best bet is to have eaten a meal that agrees with you about two hours before a yoga class so that you do not have a full belly that can get in the way –literally — of enjoying some of the poses.
Relax and breathe! This seems like an obvious direction. After all, yoga’s all about breathing in and chilling out, right? But in some poses, you might find a tape running in your head about how hard it is, how you’re never going to make it, how you shouldn’t have eaten that burrito just before class (despite our advice). At these moments, just shift your focus back to your breath, let go of the negative and just focus on your body relaxing into the pose.