When faced with a seemingly endless array of yoga choices, it is helpful to remember that most yoga practices are offshoots of a main body of practice called hatha yoga, and as such, they all share the goal of cultivating balance and awareness, while also building mental and physical strength and flexibility. Where styles begin to differentiate themselves is through the ways in which they go about achieving those goals. For example, Ashtanga yoga places an emphasis on a flow of physical postures (asanas) and controlled breathing (pranayama), while Iyengar focuses more on proper alignment and sustained poses.
Both your fitness goals and your personality will help to determine which yoga style is best for you, so we’ll begin by dividing the available styles into those that are focused more on physical postures, and those which place more of an emphasis on meditation and breathing. Again, keep in mind that all yoga styles are a blend of most, if not all, of these elements; it’s simply a matter of finding one that emphasizes your personal preferences. We’ll progressively narrow down our list of choices based on the main features of each style-let’s get started!
To begin, let’s separate out a few styles that focus mainly on the meditative aspect of yoga: kundalini and tantra. Kundalini yoga primarily uses postures, chanting, breathing exercises and meditation to awaken and channel the life force, or prana. Tantric yoga is a mixture of various disciplines, but similar to kundalini its main focus is energetic. Tantra combines visualization, meditation, chanting, and other spiritual practices to harness prana. Both of these styles are excellent choices for the yogi or yogini in search of an intense energetic awakening and cultivation of a deep inner focus, with less of an emphasis on physical postures. If you’re looking for a more physically challenging practice, continue reading…
There are a number of yoga styles designed to build strength and flexibility. We’ll start with one that really stands out from the crowd: Bikram yoga, also known as “hot yoga” or “fire yoga.” Bikram is practiced in a room kept at 85-105 degrees with high humidity levels, and it is a physically and mentally challenging practice centered around 26 poses and two breathing exercises designed to cleanse, stretch and balance the body and mind. If you’re not a fan of heat, you’ll want to choose another style of yoga.
Next on our list is Ashtanga yoga, and for simplicity’s sake, we’ll include in our discussion its most popular offshoot, power yoga. Ashtanga and power yoga incorporate a series of yoga postures, beginning with a sun salutation sequence, into a flowing series of movements linked through intentional breathing. Those new to yoga may find Ashtanga a difficult place to start, with the fast-paced flow a bit overwhelming, but many classes and videos offer sequence breakdowns for the yoga newbie. Regardless of your skill level, Ashtanga and power yoga provide a physical challenge equal to that of an intense aerobic workout while cultivating awareness and balance.
If you’re a fan of flowing movement but are searching for a workout with less physical intensity than Ashtanga, two gentler options are Viniyoga (sometimes called Vinyasa) and Sivananda yoga. Both of these styles incorporate a sequence of poses with coordinated breath, chanting and meditation. You’ll still reap many of the physical benefits of Ashtanga yoga, but at a more relaxed pace. Viniyoga is increasingly used for therapeutic purposes and is considered an excellent choice for beginners. Sivananda yoga incorporates tenets of a vegetarian diet and is also a great tool for achieving deep relaxation.
If sustained postures, rather than flowing movement, is more your style you may want to explore Iyengar or Kripalu yoga. Iyengar places great emphasis on anatomical alignment, and poses are generally held for longer amounts of time often with the aid of various props, such as blocks and straps. Controlled breathing and guided physical adjustments aid in achieving balance and symmetry in Iyengar practice. Kripalu yoga also focuses heavily on alignment, with a typical practice progressing through three stages; the first consisting of a steady practice of postures, the second aiming to hold postures for longer periods of time combined with inner attention and awareness, and the third a surrendering to the “body’s wisdom” resulting in an almost automatic flow of postures accompanied by a meditative state of mind.
Similarly, Ananda and Anusarayoga also emphasize careful alignment paired with controlled breathing, with Ananda offering a somewhat less rigorous physical workout than Anusara. Ananda focuses on postures coupled with affirmations, strongly linking the physical and meditation components of the practice. If you’re looking for a gentle, inward focused workout with an emphasis on relaxation and awareness, Ananda is a good choice. Anusara, which means “following your heart,” combines alignment and breathing with a strong philosophical core, which aims to cultivate bliss and joy, both on the mat and in everyday life. A popular choice with many Western practitioners, Anusara places a strong emphasis on optimism and encourages yoginis to look for the good in all things.
While this is by no means a comprehensive listing of all the available yoga styles, you should now have a better idea of what the major practices have in common and how they differ. Start by choosing one or two styles that sound appealing, and try taking a class at your local yoga studio. Ultimately, you’ll have to get on the mat and test drive a particular style before deciding if it’s a good fit for you, but regardless of which brand of yoga you choose, with continued practice you’re sure to enjoy the benefits of greater physical and mental fitness, increased relaxation, and a more positive outlook. Namaste!