INTRODUCTION TO YOGA
In Sanskrit “yoga” means “union”, and it can largely be agreed that all yoga practices encourage union of mind, body and soul.
In the West we focus on the asana (physical practice) of yoga, sometimes including pranayama (breathing techniques, or more correctly expansion and extension of energy) and meditation or mindfulness.
But this is a very broad description, and really doesn’t help when narrowing down your yogic choices. Over thousands of years many different forms have developed, and so it can be tricky to navigate the myriad of options when looking for a yoga class to suit you.
So, without further ado, let me help you to untangle any confusion about which yoga practice might be for you by exploring 8 of the most common styles:
Hatha yoga is the most commonly practiced form of yoga in the West. In Sanskrit “Ha” means “sun” and “tha” means “moon”. Simplified, it really just refers to the physical practice of asanas (postures), so most yoga classes we do in the West can be referred to as Hatha.
In a Hatha class it is likely you will go through a series of standing poses, balances, twists, seated postures and backbends. As the style is so varied, classes could differ significantly from teacher-to-teacher, studio-to-studio. Technically all of the yoga styles listed here are “Hatha” but they won’t all be labeled as such.
Take this class if: you want a general introduction to yoga, you like classes to be varied, or you get bored easily.
In Sanskrit Ashtanga means “eight-limbed”, and so the Ashtanga practice encompasses all of the eight-limbs of yoga: yama (moral codes), niyama (self-observances), asana (posture), pranayama (breath control), pratyahara (sense withdrawal), dharana (concentration), dhyana (deep meditation), and Samadhi. It is traditionally called Ashtanga Vinyasa yoga as “vinyasa” emphasises the synchronisation of breath with movement.
It was founded in the 20th century by Pattabhi Jois and was first described in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. There are six series, each one following a strict sequence.
In theses classes you will perform sun salutations, standing postures, balances, seated postures, twists, backbends and inversions (anything with your legs in the air!). Many classes nowadays will not take you through an entire series, instead they will be Ashtanga based, and will use a variety of the poses.
Take this class if: you’re looking for a physical practice (especially for the upper body), you want a good workout, you want to practice a moving meditation, or you want to be introduced to other aspects of yoga than just the asanas.
VINYASA / FLOW
Vinyasa / Flow classes are often Ashtanga based, and focus on working with the breath whilst guiding the students through a creative sequence of asanas. Vinyasa teachers will also focus on smooth transitions between asanas, often linking together 3 or more poses. So although the postures originate from the more traditional Ashtanga series, each Vinyasa class will be different.
Vinyasa teachers are often Ashtanga trained and so will weave in some of the yoga philosophy from the eight-limbs of yoga.
Power yoga and dynamic flows are similar to Vinyasa, but are usually a little more intense and will focus largely on building core strength. Rocket yoga is another modern variation and will include a lot of arm balancing and strong sequences.
Take this class if: you want a good workout full-body workout, you enjoy variety, you are creative, or you want to learn about some of the philosophy of yoga.
Iyengar yoga was developed by B.K.S. Iyengar. The emphasis of the practice is on correct alignment and precision in each asana, together with pranayama (breath control). As with Ashtanga, Iyengar is firmly based on the eight limbs of yoga.
Yoga props such as blocks, straps, and blankets are often used in Iygenar yoga to help the students find correct alignment and to work safely and steadily towards the full expression of the pose.
Iyengar teachers must complete a more rigorous form of training than other styles of yoga. Therefore they are arguably the most qualified to help people who are recovering from injuries.
The popular Anusara yoga style is based on Iyengar, and was developed by John Friend in 1997. It focuses on attitude behind the pose, alignment, and action (the natural energy flow in the body), and interweaves some of the more traditional Hindu teachings.
Take this class if: you are in rehabilitation from an injury, you like to know the proper way to do things, you like instructions, or you’re a beginner who feels as though you’d like to get to know the asanas safely and correctly before joining a more dynamic class.
Bikram is a sequence of 26 set asanas that the practitioner must perform in order. It was developed by Bikram Choudhury and is practiced in a room heated to 40°C at 40% humidity. All Bikram teachers must complete nine weeks of training endorsed by Choudhury himself.
There are many other types of yoga that are now performed in the heat as the heat is conducive for helping students get a workout from their practice (as well as ridding your body of toxins), so head down to a studio if you’re interested to find out more! Be prepared to sweat!
Take this class if: you’ve done yoga before and are looking for your next challenge, you enjoy sweating (a lot!), or you enjoy routine.
Yin is a slow-paced practice, where you’ll perform fewer asanas but will hold them for longer periods of time – for example you might perform only 10 asanas in an hour but will hold each one for 5+ minutes. It was developed by Taoist yoga teacher Paulie Zink and came to the West in the late 70s.
It is a passive practice – meaning that you allow gravity to ease you into each pose – this helps to improve circulation to the joints and increases flexibility. It is advisable to practice Yin alongside another stronger practice such as Ashtanga, as the meditative, restorative nature complements the more powerful practices.
Take this class if: you do high intensity activities such as running / cycling / rugby, you want to increase your flexibility, you practice Ashtanga/Vinyasa/Bikram or similar styles regularly (do Yin once a week alongside these practices), or you want to do a practice that encourages a meditative state.
Jivamukti yoga is popular with celebrities. As with styles such as Anusara it was developed by Westerners (Sharon Gannon and David Life), with their first centre opening in 1993.
It focuses on five main tenets: Shastra (study of the 4 main yoga texts: Yoga Sutras, Hatha Yoga Pradipika, Bhagavad Gita and the Upanishads), Bkakti (devotion to God), Ahimsa (nonviolence), Nada (deep inner listening and chanting), Dyana (meditation).
There are six types of classes you can expect from Jivamukti – five of which include asana practice, which can largely be described as varying levels of vinyasa flows, and one of which is a pure meditation class. There are also messages of veganism and animal rights threaded into some of the classes.
Take this class if: you want to learn more about the spiritual, ethical and physical practice of yoga, you want to get deeper into meditation techniques, you lead a very busy lifestyle with little time to reflect, or you’re a green warrior.
Sivananda yoga involves asana, pranayama and frequent relaxation. It is a gentle practice and the main focus is on preserving health and wellness.
It was developed by Swami Sivananda in the 1960s and a typical class will begin in Savasana (corpse pose/resting pose), followed by one or more pranayama breathing techniques, a series of sun salutations, and then 12 basic asanas. Classes will vary slightly depending on the instructor, but they are guaranteed to be relaxing and wholesome.
Take this class if: you are a beginner, you are more interested in a relaxing practice, or you are recovering from injury and need a gentle yoga practice to ease you back in.
I’ll leave you with my final piece of advice: if you try a yoga class and it’s not for you, please don’t be discouraged – simply try another class, another style, another teacher – and I can guarantee that you will find your practice. I truly believe that yoga is for everyone, but equally that not everyone will suit every style.
So don’t be afraid to try out different classes and to challenge yourself, I promise that you will not regret it when you find your yoga.
Remember your yoga practice is all about you and connecting to yourself, so it is important to find the one that is right for you and then: “Do your practice and all is coming.”
There are some additional modern styles of yoga that I couldn’t squeeze onto the list but are fairly self-explanatory:
AERIAL/ANTIGRAVITY YOGA – performed using a hammock to support you in the asanas. Great for anyone with a back injury or for anyone who is looking for something fun.
STAND UP PADDLEBOARD (SUP) YOGA – asanas performed on an SUP board. Great for anyone who wants to focus on building core strength and balance.
PARTNER / ACROYOGA – performed with two or more people combining yoga and acrobatics. This video is a good example of what to expect. Great for anyone who wants to connect with others through their practice and to have a lot of fun!
VOGA – a fusion of yoga and Vogueing. Great for anyone who likes the idea of yoga but is looking for more of a cardiac workout.