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Know your Yoga: Choose your Style

This article was originally published on a local Patch.com blog on May 14, 2012.

As a local yoga instructor, I hear it all:

“I tried yoga at the gym and it wasn’t for me. The instructor kept barking orders and we just stood there for a while. I was totally bored!”

“Ugh, that hot yoga stuff? No thanks!”

“I went to a class once and it was too hippy-dippy and slow for me.”

No matter what the person’s opinion of Capital-Y Yoga though, when I ask what style of yoga they tried, they are rarely certain of the answer. Usually people are referring to the physical practice of yoga, rather than the many other philosophical, spiritual, or physiological meanings associated with the word over the last approximately 5000 years. This gets further complicated when a style named for a particular teacher becomes trademarked or sequences are copyrighted to restrict other usage. How is a beginner supposed to keep up?

The most important thing for a beginning practitioner to realize is that just because you don’t like one style or even one instructor does not mean that yoga isn’t for you. Here’s an overview of what to look for when deciding on a class.

Some elements of beginning yoga classes are usually the same. They will generally feature some combination of physical activity, some attention to breathing techniques, and some attention to meditation and usually an element of philosophy will be presented in some way. Generally all classes end with “savasana,” a pose in which students lay down and are invited to meditate, either guided or silently. Many classes will have a centering in the beginning, or a meditation prior to beginning the class.

After this though, there can be major deviation in classes. The philosophical element might be ethical or it might be metaphysical and spiritual. The significance and frequency of breath work and meditation might vary. For this post, I’m going to begin with styles that embody major principles that help people to categorize yoga. There are many more styles of yoga represented in this community, and I will be adding more in upcoming weeks. I have also stuck to the ones I believe are most commonly found in a variety of settings like churches, adult ed and parks and rec classes, gyms, and studios.

Adaptive: At our studio we call the modern adaptation of the style that originated with BKS Iyengar “adaptive” because it adapts the poses to suit the individual with the ample use of props. Sometimes this will be called “Hatha Align” or something similar to emphasize the importance of alignment & use of props to aid students in forming the pose. Traditional Iyengar classes can be quite strict and regimented, but many contemporary variations are more relaxed in approach and incorporate elements from other lineages. Generally, the focus is on skeletal and anatomical alignment and poses are held for long periods of time. This style is good for those who like a lot of detailed, verbal instruction and are looking for strength & safety in form as well as flexibility & fitness. This style, due to its extensive focus on anatomy and adjustment, is also good for those recovering from injury, age-related issues, or who are just out of shape.

Vinyasa Flow: Unlike Adaptive yoga which focuses on each pose in depth, vinyasa yoga or flow yoga is more concerned with how the poses flow into each other. This style is smoother and often faster paced than Adaptive and usually has less verbal instruction. These classes vary greatly in exertion and difficulty, ranging from gentle flow classes, which teach sequences that are slower paced and require less exertion, to more strenuous and fast-paced cardio styles. People who enjoy traditional dance and fitness classes often enjoy this style. This style has roots in Jois Ashtanga yoga, a more regimented and strict style that prescribes a certain order of poses and order of sequences in its training process.

Hatha Yoga: While this has a deeper meaning in terms of yoga history and philosophy, specifying when the practice shifted from a seated, meditative philosophical practice into a more physical and ritualized one, the term is more often used today in class names to describe classes that will be drawing from a variety of aspects of yoga. These classes usually serve as a good broad introduction and balance breathwork, movement, holding poses, and meditation. Many classes that are not specific about their tradition or lineage fall into this category.

Bikram Yoga: This term is trademarked, its poses are copyrighted, and studios must be franchisees of the Bikram, Inc. corporation in order to offer classes. There are some studios that offer Hot Yoga classes, while being careful to not allow their thermostats to increase into the legally actionable temperature ranges. This style tends to be very controversial due to the extreme nature of the classes and the doubts some people have about the healthfulness of the practice. (In the interest of full disclosure, my studio, , does not offer nor does it intend to offer Hot Yoga classes.)

While this post focused on the more commonly experienced forms of what is sometimes called Modern Postural Yoga,there are many other contemporary and classical practices, including Kundalini, Integral, Anusara, Viniyoga and others.

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