Whether you’re looking for a way to cross-train and boost athletic performance — or just want to reintroduce your fingers to your toes — yoga offers something for all. But not every style of yoga is for everyone.
Although most physical forms of yoga practice share similarities, knowing the nuances can help you get started on the right foot, fit your practice to your priorities and physical condition, expand your awareness and make your yoga practice more rewarding.
A few yoga basics
The word “yoga” comes from the Sanskrit word “yug,” meaning “union.” It signifies both the path to discovery of the soul and the union with it. A spiritual and physical art, yoga unites the mind, body and soul in its aim to reach a perfect state in which the mind is clear, the soul turns inward and the body is pure and strong.
Yoga offers a myriad of benefits. On the physical level, yoga gives relief from countless ailments of the body and is an excellent form of cross-training, building flexibility, balance and strength, and body awareness than can help with reaction time and agility. For the mind and spirit, yoga can help improve focus, concentration, confidence and your ability to handle stressful, challenging situations with calm and presence of mind. Many find that it can also steady the emotions and encourage compassion and kindness.
A primer on yoga styles
Kripalu, Kundalini, Iyengar, Ashtanga, Sivananda, Bikram; which is for you? Although the names may cast more confusion than light on this ancient practice, a beginner can find the best yoga path with a little information and some knowledge of their own physical goals.
Most of the yoga practiced in the West falls under the broad classification of Hatha yoga. When people say they are taking a yoga class, they usually mean they are learning the poses (or asanas) and breathing techniques of Hatha yoga. Each of the following yoga practices shares roots in Hatha yoga and a common focus on awareness, relaxation and conscious breathing — yet each follows its own unique yoga path.
The Path: Yogi B.K.S. Iyengar developed a style of yoga emphasizing body placement and alignment. The style incorporates “props” to support postures and accommodates students of varying degrees of fitness and flexibility. Items such as yoga blocks or bricks (which “raise” the floor) or cotton yoga straps (which aid in stretching) are helpful to students with injuries, weakness or inflexibility. Iyengar instructors pay close attention to the details of body alignment which leads to precise, dynamic asanas. Classes are slower due to the concentration given to each pose and the focus necessary to perform them correctly.
Who it’s best for: Iyengar yoga is ideal for newcomers who may enjoy assistance with more challenging poses.
The Path: The most dynamic and vigorous form of yoga, Ashtanga approaches yoga with a continuous flow of movement. Top athletes who seek a more intense workout enjoy this form of yoga, sometimes called vinyasa or power yoga. Ashtanga creates heat in the body to purge it of toxins. Students perform a variety of asanas interspersed with Sun Salutations (set sequence of poses executed rapidly). The emphasis in Ashtanga yoga is flexibility, strength and endurance.
Who it’s best for: Ashtanga classes are best for those seeking physical and spiritual gains from yoga and for those fit and flexible enough to link poses in rapid succession.
The Path: Kundalini is derived from the Indian word kundal, which means, “lock of hair from the beloved.” The uncoiling of this “hair” (often referred to as a serpent) is the awakening of the kundalini, the creative energy stored in the base of the spine in all humans. Kundalini yoga practice aims to activate this energy through breath, poses, chanting and meditation. Several forms of breathing techniques are used to clear the system and allow energy to flow into the chakras, or energy centers located in the body.
Who it’s best for: Practitioners embrace Kundalini as a holistic form of yoga that applies to all aspects of life and does not focus exclusively on fitness.
The Path: Sivananda yoga integrates many forms of yoga, including a traditional Hatha approach. More than just a set of poses, Sivananda weaves a five-point philosophy into every class, including principles of relaxation, exercise, breathing, diet and positive thinking. Classes follow a sequence of breathing exercises, a routine of postures and deep relaxation and meditation.
Who it’s best for: Newcomers seeking a familiar series of poses and a spiritual boost through meditation and chanting will enjoy the supportive atmosphere of Sivananda classes.
The Path: Rising in popularity, Bikram yoga, developed by Bikram Choudhury, uses rooms heated above 105 degrees with about 40% humidity and repeated postures in the workouts. Classes are demanding, even in beginning practice, employing the same 26 postures and two pranayama breathing techniques. Bikram shuns the use of props and avoids demonstration of the asanas in class: students are expected to learn poses by watching and listening to the instructor. Students swear by the results of the disciplined, highly-focused classes.
Who it’s best for: Enthusiasts of action-oriented, high-endurance fitness routines are most likely to gain satisfaction from this challenging form of yoga.