My friend Lisa does vinyasa yoga to get a workout. Gerald attends twice-weekly Iyengar yoga classes to stretch and improve his posture. Emily prefers Bikram yoga because she likes to sweat.
What’s with all these different techniques?
All the yoga styles in American derive from Indian hatha yoga, an elaborate and ancient Hindu method for developing clearer and more expanded awareness. Although it did contain physical exercise, hatha yoga’s poses (called asanas in Sanskrit, the language of the old yoga literature) were a minor part of the tradition; it was really a spiritual practice. Yet it was the poses that inspired the modern, exercise-oriented version of yoga.
Modern yoga evolved to meet the needs of people who want to feel better, heal injuries, lose weight, gain more energy, or feel sexier. The spiritual part has mostly been dropped, so yoga really doesn’t conflict with anyone’s religion. If you’re just starting out, try three or four styles to find one you like. Here are the most common systems you’ll find in course catalogs and why you might choose each one. (Note: Many teachers create classes in these styles for unique-needs groups, such as pregnant women, the elderly, or those with injuries.)
Vinyasa flow yoga
The most commonly taught yoga style by far, according to the Yoga In America Survey 2012, vinyasa flow is athletic, aerobic, and strength-building yoga. Closely related systems are ashtanga, power, Anusara, and Baptiste Power yogas. All of these styles were greatly influenced by K. Pattabhi Jois of India (1915-2009) and by his system, which he called “ashtanga vinyasa yoga.” The method involves periods of continuous movements and considerable arm strength. Best for: those who want an athletic workout.
Created by B.K.S. Iyengar of India (1918-2014), this style emphasizes alignment and precise execution of poses. It involves holding positions for minutes at a time and utilizes props, such as blocks and straps. Iyengar yoga also contains many “restorative poses,” or therapeutic practices.
Best for: Many different body types and needs, including injury recovery.
Bikram yoga and hot yoga
These styles are taught in a very warm room and involve holding difficult poses. Bikram Choudhury of India (1946-) created a script of 26 poses that is taught every time at every Bikram Yoga studio. “Hot yoga” is imitative of Bikram yoga, but contains more variety of poses and teaching styles.
Best for: Those who like heat, sweating, and a challenging workout with familiar positions.
Based on the teachings of T.K.V. Desikachar (1938-), who learned yoga from his father, T. Krishnamacharya (1888-1989), the most famous yogi of the modern era, this style contains a greater variety of practices than most other styles, has more emphasis on breathing, and is customized to the individual, so is useful as a therapy.
Best for: Anyone, but especially those with unique physical needs.
Yogi Amrit Desai (1932-) created Kripalu yoga in Pennsylvania in the 1960s. A number of his students at the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health in Massachusetts transformed it with a more meditative approach to poses than other styles, plus more breathing techniques.
Best for: Anyone, especially those seeking stress relief, increased energy, and healing.
Because all exercise-focused yoga is hatha, when you see a class called hatha yoga, it means “none of the above.” It could be therapeutic, athletic, or stress-reducing, and the teacher may combine many influences and customize the class to students’ needs.
Best for: Your first class, or starting again after a break.