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Yoga Demystified

Different Styles of Yoga Explained

I started Vinyasa yoga about three years ago with my friend, Yoga Mom,  from my first preschool.  It’s definitely intimidating to walk into a yoga class as a newbie without a friend!  She went on to become a yoga teacher and I now take her classes but when she takes a break, I go to this other yoga studio that I love and it is here that I met Om Gal (a.k.a. Rebecca).   She was a substitute for a class whose usual instructor was also one of Yoga Mom’s mentors.  Small world!

After the last class with Om Gal (and it was an excellent class), I asked her if she’d be willing to write a post on demystifying all the different sects of yoga.  She was and, in fact, she had already written on just this topic for her blog, The World According to Om Gal:  A Yoga and Wellness Blog with Soul, Style and Smarts.  Check it out!

Even with three years of yoga experience (but still a beginner, really), I find the different labels of yoga confusing:

Bikram yoga is hot yoga but is different from Vinyasa Yoga?…

  • Vinyasa yoga can be hot or not?
  • Is Power Yoga also Vinyasa yoga?
  • What the heck is Ashtanga Yoga?  That’s Madonna’s style of yoga.  Is this partner yoga?
  • Which is the yoga that you hold poses for a really long time?  Is it Bikram or Iyengar?
  • Hatha yoga … what’s the deal with that?  For older folks who only want restorative?
  • What kind of yoga does Gwyneth practice?

Read on and Om Gal will clear up all this confusion.

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For the record, Bikram yoga is hot; however, not all hot yoga is Bikram. Confusing, I know. With so many styles of yoga available, it can be hard to select the one that’s best for you; so, I’ve compiled a cursory look at some of the most widely available styles, along with a brief description and a few thoughts derived from my own personal experience. Please note that while I am aware of throngs of other styles, I only wrote about those with which I have direct, personal experience; feel free to post additional entries by simply leaving a comment if a style of yoga with which you’re familiar is missing. Don’t be bashful about adding your personal insight. Sing the praises of your favorite discipline, or voice constructive criticism for a practice of which you’re not a fan.

Anusara: 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 borders on the clichéd at times. However, expert teachers know how to temper this risk, including two of my favorites in this discipline, JosephineSelanderof Sweden and Julia Novina of Boston. For yogis, like myself, who prefer vigorous, vinyasa-based styles, anusara is a perfect complement.

Ashtanga: I like to refer to ashtanga as the grandma of power yoga, as this style initiated many off-chutes (e.g. power yoga, vinyasa, etc.) that have become increasingly popular in the U.S. In college I was an avid “ashtangi,” who fell in love with its level of challenge and structure. To date, it remains relatively unchanged from its roots in Southern India. Each class focuses on a particular series, with each subsequent series becoming more difficult than the next. Admittedly, I now find the system a bit rigid, particularly from the standpoint of a teacher. Sure, I can twist, bend, bind, and contort just so; however, many postures are not as feasible for the average practitioner. This style was founded by the late Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, who passed away in May 2009. TheOmGal.com post referencing the life of this influential teacher features videos and additional information.

Baptiste: I was certified in this system and taught at the Baptiste Power Yoga Institute locations in Boston (this location is now defunct), Cambridge, and Brookline as a master-level teacher– multiple classes a day, six days a week, for several years. It’s 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. Baron Baptiste , the founder of this practice, is a former student of Bikram Choudhury.

Bikram: Credited with being the first yogi to brand a style of yoga and franchise studios,BikramChoudhury is a polarizing figure within the yoga community. Bikram was also the first teacher to insist upon a heated studio (upwards of 100 degrees). The practice consists of the same 27 postures each time. I’m not partial to this practice due to the 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 baffles many people- so don’t take my word alone.

Forrest:Founded by the intense Ana Forrest, this practice builds lots of strength, the depths of which are not easily replicated by other styles. 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.

Hatha: This umbrella term is slightly misleading in the U.S., as “hatha” actually refers to all asana practice, as opposed to other, less physical disciplines of yoga, 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 good place to begin.

Iyengar: Devised by B.K.S. Iyengar, who recently turned 90 in December 2008- 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 some of the best yoga resources available.

Jivamukti: 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 other practices. In class, students often chant, read, and learn about a singular theme. Rows of students face one another as in an ashtanga class, yet music is used, bringing to mind more contemporary styles such as vinyasa. 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.

Kripalu: 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, taught by Carol Dubin of Cape Cod, MA. Some of its best features include its rhythmic movement and welcoming atmosphere, especially to newcomers.

Kundalini: This chakra-based practice focuses on energy points along the spine with the eventual goal of awakening the “snake-like” energy through meditation and yoga. Disclaimer: Unlike the other styles listed here, I have not practiced this style but only researched it over the years.

Power YogaBeryl 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 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 revolution wherein yoga transformed from being practiced in church basements and community halls to 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,” so that sequences are always linked together and move relatively quickly (i.e. not static). The 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 asanas already.

The following post originally appeared earlier this year but has been revised to included additional information.

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By Mia Wenjen, PragmaticMom

12 Comments

  1. Thanks for the breakdown. As a 52-year-old woman who has been weight training for 27 years and lifts heavy, what do you recommend for me to get away from “wear and tear” of body joints, etc. and yet keep muscle definition? Thanks, but I’d like to give my body a break from too many years of heavy weights.

    • I really do think yoga is a great counterbalance to weight training or any high impact exercise and there are many styles of yoga so there is likely one that you will really enjoy. Swimming is also great!

  2. Aside from the different types of yoga, the poses have been integrated into a variety of dance and exercise routines. Whatever kind of yoga a person does, they will obtain mental and physical health benefits. I do prefer hot yoga as the temperature of the studio helps me sweat which I need to regularly detoxify. Thanks for you informative article.

    • To Yoga Teacher,
      Thank you for stopping by and leaving a comment. I don’t do hot yoga that often but I always enjoy it when I do. It does feel great to detoxify!

  3. I started a couple of months ago and after the first session, boy i could not move the next day, but i’m really starting to feel the benefits now.

    • To Best Double Stroller,
      I was so sore after my first time doing yoga too. I think it lasted three days so now I try to do it at least once week. I miss it when I can’t make a session. It is the only time I can actually slow down.

  4. I never realised Yoga was so hard. It looks easy but i learned the hard way. After a few sessions i am now starting to enjoy and reap the benefits.

    • To Toddler Bikes,
      I know what you mean. I am doing yoga just once a week after taking off a few weeks in August and I am sore for a day or two. Sometimes I even need a nap afterwards!

  5. I’m starting to get on in years(dont tell anyone) and yoga is a great way to stay in shape. More people should give it a go

    • To Wagons for Kids,
      I’m in the same boat and find that yoga is helping me to be more flexible than I have ever been in my life! Plus it’s calming and I really need that!

  6. This article is worth reading. I found here very informative and useful things about various types of yoga.

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