Types of Yoga Styles
People who consider beginning yoga, often find it very confusing to know where to start. There are so many different styles of yoga that all seem to have only one thing in common: a tongue-breaking, impossible-to-pronounce name.
When just choosing a practice can be so intimidating, no wonder that many people never make it to square one. Well, take heart. Most types of yoga are essentially based on the same basic yoga postures (called yoga asanas). The different styles of yoga mainly differ in how those yoga poses are being taught and practiced.
While there are many different yoga styles, they do fall into certain general categories. Some yoga styles emphasize alignment and precision, some flow and breath, yet others focus on relaxation and comfort. If you are a beginner to yoga, here is an overview of some of the most common types of yoga practices and the specific yoga styles within each.
Classical Hatha Yoga
Most yoga styles fall into the general category of Hatha Yoga. Hatha Yoga is a system of yoga which dates back to Yogi Swatmarama, who lived in the 15th century in India. The aim of Hatha Yoga is to create greater balance between body and mind, to free the flow of the life force in the body, and ultimately, to prepare body and mind for more subtle spiritual experiences of meditation. A Hatha yoga practice includes yoga asanas, yoga postures designed to improve health and remove imbalances, and Pranayama, traditional breathing exercises to help bring greater peace to the mind and the subtle body.
The following types of yoga are forms of Classical Hatha Yoga.
Iyengar Yoga Kripalu Yoga Anusara Yoga Bikram Yoga
Vinyasa-Vigorous Flow Practices
The word “Vinyasa” is frequently defined to mean “breath-synchronized movement.” Vinyasa Yoga, not surprisingly, pairs a flowing series of poses with paced breathing. Due to the continuous flow of movement and regulated breath, Vinyasa Yoga offers more of a cardio work-out than it’s Hatha cousins. There are many Vinyasas out there, but the two most common forms are:
Ashtanga Yoga Power Yoga
Restorative yoga postures set up the body in a comfortable, relaxed pose (often supported by a multitude of props, ranging from blankets to blocks) that one can simply sink into and enjoy. No strenuous muscular exertion, no required rhythmic breathing; just simply relaxing peacefully into a soothing yoga posture.
Restorative postures are said to stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), lowering blood pressure and heart rate, while stimulating the endocrine and immune systems. Most types of yoga include restorative practices, but some types of yoga, like Svaroopa Yoga focus exclusively on restorative yoga postures.
Perhaps the most striking characteristic of Iyengar Yoga is the system’s attention to detail. For just an introductory yoga teacher certificate, Iyengar teachers must undergo rigorous two-year training in order to accurately instruct and correct students in the traditional series of yoga asanas. Each yoga posture is held for a while to give the student the time necessary to properly align his or her body. This focus on ideal muscular and skeletal alignment is thought to help dissolve physiological and psychological energy blocks, while also cultivating strength, flexibility, balance, and endurance.
Iyengar Yoga was brought to the west by B.K.S. Iyengar from Pune, India, who developed the system over the course of 60 years. The name Iyengar Yoga was given to the system by his students; B.K.S. Iyengar never intended to have his name attached to it. B.K.S. Iyengar drew the series of asanas and their highly specific parameters directly from such traditional texts as the Yoga Sutras of Patanjaili and the Hatha Yoga Pradipika. Based on Patanjali’s “eight limbs of Yoga,” Iyengar Yoga emphasizes the connection between mind, body, and spirit. Iyengar Yoga features the basic standing poses of Hatha Yoga, designed to cultivate physical and psychological strength through developing the lower body and establishing a firm foundation. Iyengar Yoga also focuses on the individual needs of each specific physiology and incorporates multiple props, such as chairs, blocks, belts and blankets. These props provide practitioners with the ability to complete each pose properly, without placing any undue strain on their bodies. The use of props can also help Iyengar students relax more fully into a pose, freeing up their breathing and stimulating blood flow to the muscles and organs.
Kripalu Yoga was introduced in the U.S. by Indian Yoga teacher Amrit Desai and developed under inspiration from his teacher, Swami Kripalvanandaji. A major focus of Kripalu Yoga is on helping students deepen body awareness and attune to the deeper levels of their Yoga practice.
The practice of Kripalu Yoga is described as developing in three stages. In stage I, beginning yoga students learns the Yoga poses, or asanas, and focuses on proper alignment, breathing, and being conscious about their body and breath. This stage is referred to as “willful practice.”
As beginning yoga students progress to stage II Kripalu Yoga, the yoga asanas from stage one are held for an extended time—to the student’s capacity and perhaps beyond, deepening his or her ability to witness and direct thoughts and emotions. This is also referred to as “willful surrender.”
As yoga students move from beginners to advanced, they may spontaneously enter stage III Kripalu Yoga. Also called “meditation in motion,” Stage III Kripalu Yoga is described as an experience in which the student spontaneously flows from one asana to the next, without effort or “doing.” Instead of experiencing, “I do yoga,” some practitioners report, the experience of Kripalu Yoga stage III is that “Yoga does me.”
No matter which stage of practice, the emphasis in Kripalu Yoga is to honor “the wisdom of the body” and to respect one’s individual flexibility and strength. Kripalu Yoga puts great priority on proper breathing and on encouraging the flow of prana, or life force, through the body. Kripalu Yoga helps its practitioners develop a sense of self-acceptance and a quality of witnessing that many report carrying over into their daily lives.
Kripalu Yoga integrates breathing exercises (pranayama), postures (asanas), centering, and meditation. Different levels of Kripalu Yoga are available to students and are classified as either gentle, moderate, or vigorous. Of course, in Kripalu fashion, students are encouraged to follow the needs of their body at the time of the class, not necessarily the specified class level.
The Kripalu Center for Yoga is located in the Berkshire region of Western Massachusetts, and offers many services from retreats, to workshops, to teacher training.
Anusara means “flowing with grace, flowing with nature and following your heart.” Established in 1997 by John Friend, Anusara Yoga has as a central focus the intention to alignment oneself with Grace, the flow of Supreme Consciousness. Anusara Yoga combines the Tantric philosophy of “intrinsic Goodness” with Friend’s “Universal Principles of Alignment.”
In an Anusara Yoga class, the focus for beginning yoga students as well as more advanced practitioners won’t be to master poses, but rather to open up to a higher awareness and the highest expression of goodness within. Anusara teachers incorporate this philosophy of “intrinsic Goodness” through working with students to uncover and augment the qualities of beauty and divinity already present in their yoga practice, rather than attempting to correct alignment and get hung up in the physical expression of yoga asanas.
The “Universal Principles of Alignment,” designed by Friend to bring intention, refinement, and balanced energy to the practice, are comprised of the “3 A’s:” Attitude, Alignment, and Action. Attitude is the approach to the pose the student takes, often one of “opening to grace” or “spiritual awakening.” Alignment is the attentiveness the specific structure of the body during the poses, and action is the engaged bodily energy that grounds the pose with both stability and freedom.
As for the postures themselves, over 250 Yoga poses comprise the Anusara Yoga teacher’s repertoire, including all of the common, traditional Yoga asanas. Anusara Yoga maintains a balance between many different styles of poses, from backbends to forward bends to standing poses, hand-balancings, and others.
Each Anusara Yoga class features opening invocations; a heart-oriented theme (such as a virtue) that the following poses have been designed to cultivate; and a quiet centering, meditation, or Savasana (“corpse pose”) closure. The ultimate aim of Anusara Yoga is to awaken and reveal the student’s own, already-present Divine nature and culture a sense of benevolent self-empowerment.
Bikram Yoga, often referred to as Hot Yoga, was founded by Indian Yoga master Bikram Choudhury. Bikram yoga is a type of classical hatha yoga perhaps most famous for its class environment: a 105 degree Fahrenheit (about 40.5 degrees Celsius) ambiance with 40% humidity. The sauna-like atmosphere of Hot Yoga has two main functions: one, to heat muscles up and promote maximum flexibility, and two, to encourage profuse sweating and the resulting release of toxins.
A Hot Yoga class can be challenging for beginning yoga students; it lasts about 90 minutes and is comprised of a series of 26 standardized yoga postures and two breathing exercises. The yoga asanas and breathing exercises have been formulated to work together to improve lung capacity. According to Bikram, this is an important part of Hot Yoga, because most people only use 50% of their lungs, which cuts oxygen flow to the body and diminishes overall health) and enhance circulation.
Bikram Yoga, or Hot Yoga, emphasizes cultivating well-being on all levels through releasing physical toxins and improving bodily respiration and circulation. The 26 poses of Hot Yoga use a combination of “extension” and “compression” to promote health. During a pose, “compression” temporarily restricts blood-flow to a specific area of the body. When the pose is released, “extension” allows oxygen-rich blood to flood that area. This rapid influx of fresh blood is said to eliminate toxins and wipe out bacteria/infections. The dynamic of compression and extension is also said to massage the lymph nodes and put pressure on the endocrine glands, stimulating proper functioning. The varying volume in blood flow and resulting improved circulation supply fresh blood to the brain as well.
Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga
The most common form of Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga derives from yoga master K. Pattabhi Jois, and it is drawn from the ancient Yoga Korunta text. Unlike other forms of Yoga teaching, which typically include a different selection of yoga asanas from class to class, Ashtanga Yoga has a set sequence of poses. Ashtanga Yoga has a total of six series of poses, or six sets of practices, which involve increasingly difficult poses. Beginning yoga students start with the Primary Series and then progress through later series at their own pace.
Even though students perform the same series of poses each time, no one should be fooled into thinking that Ashtanga Yoga is easy. Ashtanga Yoga is one of the more demanding types of Yoga practice. The Primary Series, Yoga Chikitsa (translates to “Yoga therapy”), features 75 poses designed to develop the body through aligning the spine, purifying the blood, and building strength, endurance, and flexibility. The series takes approximately one and a half to two hours to complete.
Once the Primary Series has been mastered by beginning yoga students, the second series, Nadi Shodana (intermediate series), is introduced. Nadi Shodana is designed to purify the nervous system and the subtle energy channels throughout the body.
Once Nadi Shodana has been mastered, the student can then progress on to the first of the four advanced series, called Sthira Bhaga. The poses included in the Sthira Bhaga are often considered extremely difficult, and only appropriate for advanced students. In fact, many beginning yoga students find that it takes year just to master the Primary Series.
Throughout all of the series in Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga, the relationship between body movement and breath is maintained. For each Yoga asana, there is a corresponding breath (inhale or exhale). The purpose of this breath-motion relationship is to a) warm up the blood for better circulation, and b) increase the oxygen flow within the warmed-up blood. The resulting high-quality circulation purifies the body’s toxins and delivers nutrients to muscles and tissues. In addition, the natural perspiration that ensues releases built-up waste, leaving the body pure, healthy, and strong.
Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga also emphasizes Tristana, or the three-sided practice of posture, breathing, and visual focus. By bringing the students awareness to these three elements, the practice integrates the body, nervous system, and mind.
Originally inspired by Ashtanga Yoga, Power Yoga originated in the mid ’90’s, when yoga teacher Beryl Bender Birch sought to repackage the Vinyasa flow practice of Ashtanga Yoga into a more accessible form. Power Yoga also put a more Western face on yoga. While Ashtanga Yoga traditionally views yoga as a spiritual technique for mind-body purification, in Power Yoga, the emphasis is more on yoga as a form of exercise and a method to develop physical fitness.
The first Power Yoga teachers, Beryl Bender Birch and Bryan Kest (also a former student of K. Pattabhi Jois), both offer forms of yoga that include challenging poses designed to give even the beginning yoga student a comprehensive workout for developing strength, flexibility, and physical grace. Many poses are similar if not identical to those featured in Ashtanga Yoga; similarly, synchronized breathing is emphasized.
Power Yoga also borrows from other forms of yoga (Iyengar, for example) through focusing on holding certain poses to develop both stamina and suppleness. During a Power Yoga session, the room is sometimes heated (as in Bikram Yoga), to establish peak muscular flexibility.
While Power Yoga places a great degree of emphasis on cultivating physical fitness, like other forms of Yoga it also aims to establish mental clarity and harmonize the relationship between body, mind, and spirit. Beginning yoga students find that the disciplined, slow-yet-steady flow of poses in Power Yoga help focus the mind and establish a sense of inner, one-pointed strength.
The Sanskrit word Svaroopa is used by Patanjali in his Yoga Sutras to describe a state of inner, transcendent bliss. Svaroopa Yoga, with its gentle poses and non-straining approach, aims to cultivate just that. Developed by Rama Berch, Svaroopa Yoga focuses on encouraging each student to unfold every pose from within, without forcing his or her body into difficult postures. Svaroopa Yoga emphasizes healing, transformation, and the development of consciousness.
Svaroopa is often popular with beginning yoga students, because of its gentle and restorative sequence of yoga asanas. Physiologically speaking, Svaroopa Yoga places special emphasis on opening the spine, from the tailbone to the top of the head. The progression of familiar poses (based on traditional yogic texts) has been designed to reduce muscular tension and induce a peaceful state of relaxed awareness. Svaroopa Yoga is strictly restorative yoga and places little emphasis on strength-building or fitness. Even beginning yoga students are encouraged to stay in poses for extended periods of time and Svaroopa Yoga uses various props to help support the body to encourage maximum comfort and the least amount of effort.