Yoga is everywhere these days, and there is a lot of talk about the benefits: flexibility, strength, peace of mind, anxiety relief, and even spiritual awakening. The trouble is, there is so much yoga out there. How do we really know what class is right for us?
The trick to falling in love with yoga is finding the right class for you. Yoga can mean many different things, from fitness to chanting to meditation, and it’s not always obvious what kind of class you are going to based on what is listed in the schedule. Even if you’ve been practicing yoga for over a year, it can still feel like you are rolling the dice when you go to a new studio or try a new style.
Are you all about the contemporary yoga renaissance and embracing creativity? Are you dedicated, hardcore and loyal? Or are you a mystical time-traveling nomad seeking ritual? This guide will help you find out:
“Traditional” refers to forms of yoga that originated in India and have been transmitted from teacher to student over decades, if not centuries of time. Many forms of traditional yoga have a leader called a guru who transmits the teachings to students. Traditional yoga emphasizes the spiritual pathway and believes the purpose of practice is to achieve enlightenment.
Hatha, a Sanskrit word is often translated as sun (ha) and moon (tha), is an umbrella terms given to all forms of yoga that involve a physical yoga practice called “asana.” A typical hatha yoga class includes three major types of yoga practice: asana (physical practice), pranayama (breathing practice) and seated meditation.
Know before you go: Hatha yoga teachers are usually “old school,” and there will not be music or heat, and the pace of the class will be slow by modern standards.
Physical intensity score: 3-6
Kundalini is an ancient form of yoga that employs meditation, breathing practices (pranayama), chanting mantras and physical yoga asana to liberate oneself from Karma. Kundalini yoga involves awakening the “life force at the base of the spine,” metaphorically described as a coiled snake, so that the energy can rise up through the chakras and creativity and spiritual potential can be unlocked.
Know before you go: While it is about as far away from a typical Western workout as possible, Kundalini is challenging and powerful.
Physical intensity score: 6-8 (it will surprise you!)
Bhakti yoga is focused on building and expressing devotion for God as a means to spiritual enlightenment. From this premise, Bhakti classes use chanting and physical asana to feel the divinity within us and the connection to something greater than ourselves.
Kirtan is a form of Bhakti yoga, where the leader plays a harmonium and calls out a devotional verse and the students respond by singing the verse back. Many kirtan songs are about Hindu deities, although devotion to God can be non-denominational.
Know before you go: Bhakti yoga is perhaps, out of all the yogas, the most inviting to come as you are. The physical practice is less about how you look and technicalities and more about paving a pathway to discover God within you and within everything around you. You do not need to be of a certain religion or even religious to practice Bhakti yoga; all you need is an open mind and a heartfelt reason for showing-up.
Physical intensity score: 3-6
Modern traditional yoga
What makes modern traditional yoga different from traditional yoga is that these styles of yoga were founded in the 20th century. Yoga has been around for thousands of years, thus the modern traditions are still very new forms of yoga. There is still a focus on yoga as a means to “freedom from suffering,” and the physical practice is considered a purification technique to prepare the body and the mind for seated meditation. Modern traditional yoga is also hierarchical, having one leader who teaches a group of senior teachers who in turn spread the practice more broadly.
The word Ashtanga means “eight limbed” and is a reference to the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, an ancient Indian text that informs the spiritual ascendants pathway to morality, physical purity and freedom from suffering. Pattabhi Jois popularized Ashtanga yoga during the 20th century and died in 2009. Jois’ students are still teaching Ashtanga yoga worldwide.
Ashtanga yoga is a set sequence of yoga postures, of which there are six series. The Primary series is plenty challenging and contains innumerable “vinyasas,” which is a transition that is used in both the warm-up of Sun Salutations and as a transition to “wipe the slate clean” after poses later in the sequence.
Most led Ashtanga classes begin with an invocation that is chanted by the teacher and any students who feel comfortable joining in. During the physical practice, the teacher counts how long each posture should be held and gives assists to students. Going through the entire Primary series can take upward of 90 minutes, so many classes are truncated to ensure that the “finishing postures” can be performed before savasana. Seated meditation is often offered after savasana.
Know before you go: “Mysore” is a self-led Ashtanga practice. It is a window of time where the studio is open and a teacher present to offer assists and maintain a safe atmosphere. The teacher does not give formal verbal instructions although they may advise students on how to advance. Mysore is best for experienced yogis who have gone to plenty of led Ashtanga classes.
Physical intensity score: 7-9
Iyengar yoga was pioneered by B.K.S. Iyengar, who began teaching at the age of 18 in Pune, India. Iyengar studied under Sri Tirumalai Krishnamacharya, who also taught Pattabhi Jois. Although he had the same teacher as Jois, Iyengar’s contribution to modern yoga was very different.
B.K.S. Iyengar is known as the innovator who brought props to the yoga world. Props like blocks, blankets, straps and chairs are used to modify postures as well as enhance the benefits of the poses. Iyengar yoga is very focused on proper alignment, and teachers take time setting up poses and offering detail on how to perform them well.
Know before you go: The use of props and the rigorous test outs that Iyengar teachers go through to be certified make Iyengar an excellent choice for people working with injuries or health conditions. Do not let the therapeutic focus fool you. Iyengar classes are challenging because they demand precision and holding postures longer than most forms of yoga these days.
Physical intensity score: 6-8
Most of the yoga classes offered in the Western world fall under this category. These styles of yoga have been established or trademarked within the past 50 years and may not have a guru, spiritual focus or a goal to find seated meditation. Modern yoga is very eclectic, and there are many more besides the most common ones listed here.
Vinyasa Flow Yoga
Vinyasa yoga was born from Ashtanga yoga because it incorporates the transition called a “vinyasa” throughout the class. Vinyasa yoga emphasizes linking breath and movement together that creates a dance-like flowing aesthetic.
Vinyasa yoga is not regulated by one leader or school, which allows for a wide variety of interpretations. Some teachers may give alignment cues; others might just call out the poses. Creativity abounds in this genre of yoga. For example, instructors may make up a new pose or let you “flow” on your own without guidance for several minutes.
Know before you go: Given the diversity of expression in this style of yoga, always check the level of the class you are going to and read the teacher’s bio. If you are new to yoga, go to a beginner’s class, which will move slower and offer more instruction. It is typical for vinyasa to be moderate to fast-paced; it is often accompanied by music and the room may be heated.
Physical intensity score: 6-8
Like Vinyasa, Power yoga was derived from Ashtanga yoga. A few teachers standout as pioneers of this form of yoga: Beryl Bender Birch, Bryan Kest and Baron Baptiste. While it varies from teacher to teacher, this style is characterized by fitness-style strengthening and stretching within an aerobic flow of yoga postures. Classes are fast-paced and often pumped with heat to facilitate sweating.
Know before you go: This style of yoga is best suited for people who enjoy a fit lifestyle. Due to the physical focus of this practice, it is not advised for people with injuries or brand new beginners.
Physical intensity score: 7-9
Restorative Yoga and Yin Yoga
Restorative yoga is a quiet, slow and a meditative practice. All of the postures taken will be done seated or lying on the floor and modified by a bunch of props to induce comfort and relaxation. The poses are done passively — so passively, in fact, that falling asleep is completely acceptable. The primary goal of restorative yoga is to put the body in gentle shapes that encourage your mind, body and spirit to receive nourishment and enter a state of relaxation.
Yin yoga looks very similar to Restorative yoga but has a different goal. Yin yoga targets gently stretching the connective tissues like fascia rather than engaging muscles like most other forms of asana. Yin yoga also incorporates Chinese Meridian theory and uses yoga poses similar to acupressure to balance chi in the body. In both Yin and Restorative yoga, poses are done with long holds, up to 10 minutes.
Know before you go: Yin yoga is cautioned for pregnant women and anyone who is hypermobile because the connective tissue is already incredibly flexible. For these populations, the benefits of a quiet meditative practice and balancing meridians can be achieved by using props to take them well away from flexibility’s edge.
Physical intensity score: 1-3