Despite the popularity of yoga for many decades in the West, there are still a surprising number of misconceptions about what it is and how to practice it. When most people think of yoga they imagine it involves contorting the body into pretzel-like poses or they imagine women in yoga pants and halter tops doing a little stretching. While both these things may be true of yoga, it is not nearly the whole picture. There is a large variety of yoga styles and, when chosen correctly, can benefit people of any age, gender, or fitness level.
If you have tried yoga and found it to be too difficult, too easy, boring, or painful, you haven’t found the right yoga style to match your needs. There is no one size fits all. I have been practicing yoga for 17 years, and I have tried many styles of yoga. The thing I’ve learned is that incorporating different styles into my practice based on what my body and mind need at that moment is the best way to achieve all the benefits and to keep my practice fresh.
If that sounds daunting to you, not to worry. I will break it down very simply. The thing to understand is that there is a yoga style for every mood, ailment, and energy level. So if there’s a problem you’re looking to fix, there’s a yoga for that.
But before jumping into the different styles, I want to highlight some benefits that a regular yoga practice can have regardless of the style you choose.
The list goes on, but the point is yoga’s a great addition to anyone looking to improve their health and happiness. Unfortunately, many people never stick to a regular practice because they don’t find the right style for them.
As I said, I practice many styles depending on what my mind and body need on any given day. So I will break down the different styles based on the need you are looking to fill. These styles are not exclusive to each need. But they are most closely matched and will leave you feeling refreshed and fulfilled rather than disappointed or irritated.
NEED: Injury prevention
YOGA STYLE: Iyengar
BKS Iyengar started Iyengar yoga and brought it to the United States in the 1970s, according to Yoga Journal. It is a meticulous practice that focuses on proper alignment and increasing the body/mind connection. The teachers go through extensive training and are well versed in advising how to work with pain and injuries. They use a lot of a specific instruction to keep the mind focused and in sync with the body during class. They use an array of props, including yoga blocks, belts, chairs, bolsters and blankets. This style of yoga is suitable for beginners to advanced students.
It is particularly useful for athletes as it provides strength and balance training to increase stability and flexibility. Classes offer a variety of standing poses and floor poses. We hold them for slightly longer periods of time than flow classes, giving you time to feel the pose and understand the alignment intended.
Iyengar yoga is my go-to, all purpose yoga that gives me the perfect complementary workout to my endurance training.
Contraindication: None, but always let your teacher know if you are pregnant or have an injury or medical condition.
NEED: Stress Reduction
YOGA STYLE: Restorative
If you’ve had a long and stressful week, this is the best yoga class to attend. You will be treated to a relaxing and peaceful experience for the body and mind. Restorative yoga uses blankets and bolsters to hold relaxing positions for up to ten minutes at a time.
The poses should never be uncomfortable or cause pain. Often instructors will diffuse essential oils to enhance relaxation. These classes are great for muscle recovery after intense training sessions. I try to do a weekly restorative class during triathlon training. This can also be a good class to do when you are getting over a cold or illness as it rejuvenates the body and strengthens the immune system.
Contraindication: Don’t take a restorative class if you feel energized and want a vigorous workout.
NEED: Focus the Mind, Increase spiritual connection, Increase energy
YOGA STYLE: Kundalini
Kundalini yoga can be a little “out there” for some but if you can get over the self consciousness, it can be one of the most elevating and transformative yoga styles available. It involves chanting, rhythmic breathing, and repetitive movements. It was brought to the West by Yogi Bhajan and he designed the motions to move the energy up the spine through the 7 chakras. The sequence of movements are called kriyas, consisting of a posture, a breath, and a mantra. It is repeated for a specific number of minutes. Because it is so repetitive, it naturally focuses the mind, helped by the synchronization of the body and the breath.
Class begins with a chant, Ong Namo Guru Dev Namo, meaning “I bow to the creative consciousness. I bow to the divine wisdom within.” Class ends with another chant, Sat Nam, meaning “truth is my identity.” There is also a long seated or lying down meditation period before the end of class so you can get your movement practice and your sitting practice done in one shot.
Contraindication: Don’t take a Kundalini class if you are looking for a more traditional yoga class, if you are averse to “woo-woo”, spiritual stuff, or if you have trouble regulating the breath.
NEED: Increase flexibility, strengthen the joints, relax the mind
YOGA STYLE: Yin
This is one of my favorite styles of yoga because it calms the mind and opens up the body. Yin yoga is like restorative with slightly more effort.
We hold poses for 3–5 minutes and you are aiming for that sweet spot between discomfort and ease. There should be moderate stress on the connective tissues to increase circulation in the joints and increase flexibility. Props are often used to support the muscles for more comfort during longer holds. I often find myself feeling so peaceful that sleep comes easily. I always leave class feeling looser and more flexible in my body.
Contraindication: Don’t take a Yin class if you have a lot of excess energy to expel.
NEED: Vigorous workout
YOGA STYLE: Power Yoga/ Vinyasa Flow/ Ashtanga
These are three different styles of yoga but they will all get your heart rate up and give you a good workout. Sri K. Pattabhi Jois started Ashtanga yoga as a set sequence of asanas (poses) to be completed back to back. It’s a vigorous practice and meant to be physically challenging.
Power yoga was invented as an alternative to Ashtanga to give teachers more freedom in the poses they choose. Teachers don’t follow the set sequences of Ashtanga but still move quickly and vigorously through the poses to maintain the physical challenge of Ashtanga class.
Vinyasa style yoga is a general term to describe many styles of yoga. It means to synchronize the flow of movement with the breath and refers to classes that include rapid flow through sun salutations and other sequences of poses linked to the breath. This is the most common type of yoga found in Western studios across the United States.
All three styles will challenge your balance and have you alternating between bending over, standing up and being on the floor throughout class.
Contraindication: Don’t try these styles if you are a beginner and want a slower-paced introduction to the poses.
NEED: Beginner Friendly
YOGA STYLE: Hatha
Hatha is another general term for all styles of yoga. Traditionally, it refers to the pairing of asanas (poses) and pranayama (breathing exercises) in order to prepare the mind and body for meditation. Most Western yoga studio Hatha classes are a slower version of Vinyasa flow and very beginner-friendly. They go through sun salutations and a variety of other poses and stretches suitable for all abilities. Generally, the first part of class will be a warmup of some simple floor poses, building up to standing poses and cooling down with more floor poses with some longer holds.
Contraindication: None, but always tell the instructor if you are pregnant or have a specific injury.
If I were to plan out my ideal yoga day, it would begin with an Iyengar class to strengthen and balance my body. In the afternoon, I would take a Kundalini class to get the energy flowing and my spirits high. Finally, I would end the day with a Yin or Restorative practice to prepare my mind and my body for a good night’s sleep.
Hopefully, this guide helps you understand the different styles of yoga available and the best way to match them to your own specific needs. There really is a yoga style for everybody. Namaste.