Iyengar. Ashtanga. Anusara. Flow. Kundalini. Hot. Yin. With all the different kinds of yoga out there and all the esoteric terms, it can be difficult to decide what kind of yoga classes to attend. On this page, I will decode the different styles of yoga, what makes them different from each other and why you might choose one over another. Of course, you may not be so lucky as to have a choice. The options in your town may be limited to general yoga at a gym. Or the one yoga studio in town is strictly Iyengar. Well, there is always travel yoga: visiting a yoga class when you travel to a larger city or going on special yoga retreats and vacations.
Lets start with the basics: Hatha Yoga is an umbrella term for the physical form of yoga that originated out of the Hindu spiritual tradition in India. There are a few other kinds of yoga that originated from other traditions, namely: Kundalini Yoga, Tibetan yoga, and Daoist yoga which come from Sikhism, Tibetan Buddhism, and Daoism, respectively.
From the Hindu tradition, Hatha is only one of several yogic paths. The other paths include Raja (Royal) Yoga, Jnana (Knowledge), Karma (service), Japa (mantra), and Bhakti (devotional).
Types of Hatha yoga commonly practiced in America today:
Iyengar yoga is probably the most widely practiced form of Hatha yoga in America. Iyengar yoga was developed by B.K.S Iyengar who was a student of T. Krishnamacharya who is known as the grandfather of modern yoga. Iyengar classes are known for their precision in alignment, use of props such as blocks and bolsters, and relatively little spiritual focus (at least in the beginning). This, combined with the fact that you hold the poses a long time and thus the class moves relatively slowly, makes it a great style of yoga for beginners, elders, and those with physical disabilities.
Ashtanga yoga was developed by Pattabhi Jois, another student of T. Krishnamacharya. It is one of the most athletic forms of yoga. Students follow the same series of postures linked together with their breath every day they practice. There are known to be 7 series, but even the first is too difficult for most beginners to do without modifications. Traditional Ashtanga classes are known as Mysore style classes and are not led by the teacher. Instead, students practice the series at their own pace and the teacher comes around and helps students individually. Ashtanga yoga has inspired several different kinds of uniquely American yoga styles, most notably Power yoga, Vinyasa yoga, and Jivamukti yoga.
Krishnamacharya’s third famous disciple and son T.K.V Desikachar created viniyoga. Viniyoga is usually taught one on one and focuses on practicing yoga according to one’s individual needs. Viniyoga also uses specific sequencing and balancing each pose with a counter-pose.
Also known as hot yoga, Bikram is controversial in the world of yoga. The founder, Bikram Choudhoury, has copyrighted his sequence and the term Bikram yoga. He requires that all Bikram instructors be certified by him and has brought several lawsuits against studio owners. Thus the term hot yoga is used by practicioners of Bikram who have not been taught by him or have fallen out of grace for one reason or another. He is very specific about how Bikram yoga can be taught, so a teacher could lose the right to use the term Bikram by teaching out of sequence or saying things during class that are not proscribed by him. Like Ashtanga, Bikram is a specific sequence of poses, however this sequence was developed specifically for Americans and is done in a very hot (100-110 degree) room. The 26 poses combined with the heat make for a very vigorous practice that Bikram claims purifys the body and prevents disease.
Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health in Lenox, MA is the largest and best known yoga retreat center in the US. It was founded in 1966 by Amrit Desai, who named his style of yoga after his guru Kripalvananda. In 1994, Desai resigned as spiritual director of Kripalu and the center moved away from the guru-disciple model to become an interdisciplinary yoga retreat center. The main style of yoga taught there is still Kripalu as originally taught by Desai. Kripalu yoga is a three part system. In the first level, students hold the poses for a short period of time and focus on alignment and coordinating breath and movement. In the second level the poses are held longer and meditiation is included in the practice. The goal of the third level is to acheive meditation in motion.
The goal of Integral yoga is to integrate all the different kinds of yoga together: Hatha, Bhakti, Karma, Raja, Jnana, and Mantra. An Integral class might be comprised of gentle physical postures, deep relaxation, breathing techniques, chanting and meditation.
Anusara is a relatively new form of yoga developed in 1997 by John Friend, a former Iyengar instructor. Anusara focuses both on detailed alignment and the emotional, heart opening aspects of yoga. Anusara certification is one of the most rigorous yoga certifications available and certified teachers are highly knowledgable in the therapeudic applications of yoga. Classes will vary in vigor depending on the teacher and the classes impart a sense of community with partner work and lots of very happy people.
Based on the teachings of Parmahansa Yogananda (author of autobiography of a yogi), Ananda yoga is designed to prepare students for meditation. These gentle classes include affirmations associated with postures and consciously sending the body’s energy to different organs and limbs.
One of the forms of yoga that does not directly originate from the Hindu tradition, Kundalini yoga is based on the Sikh tradition. Kundalini was popularized in the West by Yogi Bajan who founded the 3HO (Healthy, Happy Holy) organization in 1969. Kundalini yoga is designed to awaken the kundalini (energy) in the body. Classes are usually taught as kriyas or sets of exercises designed to accomplish a specific purpose (for example cleanse the liver, balance head and heart, etc). They include chanting, breath control, meditation, and postures, often done in specific numbers of sets. While it is not required that one become a Sikh to take Kundalini classes, the teachers are usually practicing Sikhs.
One of largest schools of yoga in the world with over 15 ashrams worldwide, sivananda yoga includes asana, chanting, and meditation. The classes tend to be very serious and devotional in nature without a lot of talking or explaining poses.