What Type of Yoga is Right for You?
By Colleen McMahon
Yoga's popularity has been growing steadily since its introduction in the West in the late 1960s, but it has exploded over the last two decades, with yoga classes in even the smallest towns. Frequently classes are available that span different styles, and the choices can be overwhelming for someone just starting to explore yoga. Sampling classes in the different styles can be costly, confusing, and even injurious as some styles of yoga are just not for beginners.
Let's start with the basic idea behind all yoga: it is a spiritual practice, originating in India, that combines breathing, meditation, and movement in specific poses as a path toward physical, mental, emotional and spiritual health. In the West it has become popular mainly as a form of physical exercise and mental relaxation.
This guide gives you an overview of several of the most popular styles, the type of movements each style emphasizes, and who the style may be best suited for.
Hatha is a broad term that describes any form of yoga that emphasizes physical postures, which means that virtually all yoga taught in the West is a form of hatha yoga. However, when a gym or yoga studio offers "Hatha Yoga" classes, it means specifically a yoga class that combines poses (asana) with breathing techniques (pranayama). The goal of Hatha classes is to develop flexibility and balance while learning to incorporate breathing techniques.
Hatha yoga is an excellent starting point for beginners as the "flow" or pace of movement from one position to another tends to be slower. Hatha is generally relaxing and energizing, but you won't work up much of a sweat. Hatha classes are a good way to find out if yoga is something you like, and to learn basic poses and develop strength and flexibility. People who incorporate yoga as one form of physical exercise among a variety of workouts like Pilates, aerobics, or weightlifting often prefer the simpler Hatha classes.
Vinyasa yoga emphasizes poses that develop strength, flexibility, and balance, performed in a fairly quick but smooth flow from one pose to the next. You may be familiar with the "sun salutation", which is a particular series of poses in the vinyasa style. Vinyasa poses usually incorporate lunges and deep stretches, and can work up to inverted poses like shoulder stands and headstands.
Vinyasa instructors often choreograph movements to music, and the fast pace and more challenging poses make it easy to see why it is often called "power yoga". If you enjoy aerobic exercise, vinyasa might be the yoga style for you. It is also excellent for weight loss, as you can burn up to 7 calories a minute!
Bikram is a yoga style developed by Bikram Choudhury in the 1970s. Bikram classes are held in rooms that are heated to 105 degrees with 40 percent humidity, mimicking the climate in Choudhury's native region of India. The hot, humid environment loosens muscles and allows for increased stretches. A Bikram class encompasses a set sequence of 26 poses, done twice, with segments of breathing practice between the sequences.
You will definitely want to bring a bottle of water and a towel, because you will sweat like crazy. You should also refrain from eating for two hours before a Bikram class, because the heat and intense movement on a full stomach can cause nausea.
"Bikram" is a copyrighted term that only applies to classes that use Choudhury's set series of poses. You may also see these types of classes called "hot yoga", which means the classes are held in a Bikram-style heated room, but the routine of movements and poses vary from the official Bikram format.
Bikram or hot yoga is often preferred by people who prefer a strenuous workout and pushing their limits. It also provides a good cardio workout because the heart works harder in high heat. However, this form of yoga is generally not recommended for people who have heart problems or for pregnant women.
Ashtanga is a physically demanding form of yoga, in which you move quickly through a series of postures that emphasize strength, flexibility and endurance. Ashtanga is generally not for beginners. The intensity level is similar to a high-level Vinyasa class, but unlike Vinyasa, the Ashtanga routine does not vary. It is a set sequence incorporating 70 poses in a 90-120 minute session, including multiple sun salutations, backbends, and inversions.
Endurance athletes like marathoners and triathletes often like ashtanga yoga because of the challenge and intensity of the workout. Unless an ashtanga class is specifically labeled for beginners, you should only move to this yoga form if you are already experienced with yoga and in decent physical shape.
There are other popular forms of yoga beyond these, but these are generally the forms you will see on offer in most yoga studios or gyms that offer yoga classes, and are generally the favorite forms for physical exercise. If you are an absolute beginner, the best place to start is with Hatha yoga classes to learn the basics and begin to build strength and flexibility. If you become passionate about yoga, you can then begin to explore the other forms.