A Guide to Different Styles of Yoga
For the record, Bikram yoga is hot; however, not all hot yoga is Bikram. Confusing, isn’t it? With so many styles of yoga available, it can be hard to select the one that’s best for you. I’ve compiled a cursory look at some of the most widely available styles, along with some of my own personal thoughts, acquired over the past decade and half of practice. Please feel free to post your own comments, below, about a particular style of yoga you’ve tried.
Created by John Friend in 1997, this relatively new form of yoga has a sizable following around the world. It’s heart-centered philosophy and meticulous approach to alignment create a well-rounded and pleasant practice. New Age phobes, be forewarned; the warm and fuzzy feel can border on the clichéd at times. However, expert teachers know how to temper this risk. For yogis who prefer vigorous, vinyasa-based styles, anusara is a perfect complement.
I refer to ashtanga as the “grandma of power yoga,” as this style initiated many off-chutes (e.g. power yoga, vinyasa, etc.), which have become increasingly popular around the world over the past few decades. In college, I was an avid “ashtangi,” who fell in love with this style’s level of challenge and sense of structure. To date, it remains relatively unchanged from its roots in Southern India, founded by the late Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, who passed away in May 2009. Each class focuses on a particular series of postures, with subsequent series becoming increasingly more difficult. Admittedly, I now find the system a tad rigid, particularly from the standpoint of a teacher of all levels of students. I might be able to twist, bend, bind, and contort just so; however, many postures are not feasible for the average practitioner.
Disclosure: I was certified in this system and taught at the Baptiste Power Yoga Institute as a master-level teacher—multiple classes a day, six days a week, for several years. I trained and worked directly for its founder Baron Baptiste. This style is an athletic, invigorating, and organized system, with borrowed elements from Ashtanga, Bikram, Iyengar, and others. Classes are heated to upwards of 90 degrees and follow the same basic structure each time.
Credited with being the first yogi to brand a style of yoga and franchise studios, Bikram Choudhury is a polarizing figure within the yoga community. Bikram was the first teacher to insist upon a heated room (upwards of 100 degrees). The practice consists of the same 27 postures each time. I’m not partial to this practice due to its lack of variety and often militant approach to teaching (some instructors strongly discourage students from drinking water during class), but I also don’t like other popular things like yellow cake or orange juice- which baffle many people- so don’t take my word alone.
Founded by the intense Ana Forrest, this practice builds unparalleled strength and stamina. Classes can be fraught with arm balances, hip openers, and abdominal work. Ana demands a lot from her teachers, so most are highly knowledgeable and impressively skilled. Classes can vary in terms of sequencing and structure, which keeps things interesting, though does not guarantee consistency.
This umbrella term is slightly misleading, as “hatha” actually refers to all asana practices, as opposed to the other, less physical disciplines of yoga (there are 7), such as karma (service) yoga, bhakti (devotional) yoga, and others. Conventionally speaking, hatha refers to a more gentle style of practice, comprised of static poses, longer holds, and slower, gentler movements. If you’re new to yoga, working with an injury or medical condition, I would recommend hatha as a sensible place to start your practice.
Devised by B.K.S. Iyengar, who turned 90 in December 2008 (thereby supporting the claim that a regular yoga practice leads to longevity), this discipline places ultimate significance on alignment. Iyengar students and teachers are earnest, meticulous, and often serious. Iyengar and his teachers, including Boston-based yoga pioneer Patricia Walden, believe the body is the vehicle through which all things are experienced, thus you must research and train your body to influence and enlighten your experience of the world. Poses are held for an extended amount of time and much attention is paid to the smallest refinements. Iyengar’s books are among the best technical yoga resources available to date.
Established by Sharon Gannon and David Life in 1984, this style physically resembles a blend of many styles; however, its emphasis on the philosophical aspect of yoga is more pronounced than in many others. In class, students chant, read, and learn about a singular theme. Rows of students face one another as in an ashtanga class, yet music plays, bringing to mind more contemporary styles. One consistent and crucial theme is Jivamukti’s fierce support of animal rights. Do not trot into class at its NYC studios in your Uggs or fur-trimmed parkas; it’s considered a major faux pas, if not a brazen display of disrespect.
Developed at the Kripalu Center in the Berkshires of western Massachusetts, this style is gentle and accessible to all. My first exposure to yoga as a teenager was through Kripalu yoga. Some of its best features include its rhythmic movement and welcoming atmosphere, especially to newcomers.
This chakra-based practice focuses on energy points along the spine with the eventual goal of awakening the “snake-like” energy within through meditation and yoga (kundalini translates to mean that which is coiled).
Beryl Bender Birch, with whom I took a workshop in 2002, is credited with first coining this term in the 90s; however, Bryan Kest, with whom I studied in 1999, seems to have also arrived at the same terminology around the same time. In essence, power yoga is defined as a reinterpretation of ashtanga so that the practice could become more accessible and enticing to Americans. Power yoga initiated a wellness revolution wherein yoga transformed from a niche following that practiced in church basements and community halls to a mainstream audience with dedicated yoga studios, to gyms and health clubs around the world.
Vinyasa: It’s up for debate whether vinyasa represents the next evolution of power yoga or simply a shift in semantics. The word vinyasa means “to flow,” meaning, sequences are always linked together and move relatively quickly, rather than the more static holds of, say, Iyengar or Yin (see below). This loose definition allows plenty of room for creative interpretation. In general, it’s a fun style, particularly for experienced yogis who understand the technical aspects of proper alignment already.
Yin: Yin yoga derives its name from a focus on the deeper “yin” tissues of the body, such as connective tissue and joints, as opposed to “yang” tissues, associated with muscles and skin. Poses are held for a long time, allowing the body to reveal new depths of flexibility, greater ranges of motion, and increased energy levels. The practice is particularly good for people who are injured, elderly, or interested in bridging the gap between asana and meditation practice.