If you are new to the practice of yoga it may be mind-boggling to try to navigate between the different styles of yoga while trying to decide where to start in the first place. After all what’s the difference anyway? Isn’t yoga just yoga!? I often have to field questions from new students who are overwhelmed and confused at the various styles in existence, so I thought I would write a little article with my thoughts on the topic in the hopes to help clarify. The following perspective is my personal experience and I am sure will heat up a large debate among yoga teachers and passionate practitioners of a particular style, but here goes nothing…
The REALLY, REAL different types of yoga are:
Raja Yoga – meditation
Karma Yoga – practicing selfless service, working without a focus on reward
Jhana Yoga – yoga of knowledge, converting knowledge to wisdom and self inquiry
Bhakti Yoga – practicing devotion to god and includes “Japa Yoga” – devotional chanting or mantra
Hatha Yoga – practice of asana (postures) to purify our body and mind
When we talk about “Yoga” in the West, we are typically talking about “Hatha Yoga.” “Hatha” means “Ha” – Sun and “Tha” Moon. It is meant as a practice to cleanse the body of toxins and balance the duality of Sun (masculine / energetic / left brain) and Moon (feminine / receptive / right brain) energies within us.
To break it down further, the modern approaches to the practice of Hatha yoga consist of five main differences:
1: A dynamic practice of asanas: flowing, connected to breath, moving in and out of postures, limited use of props – if at all)
2: A static practice of asanas: holding postures for a period of time, working on alignment within the posture and using props)
3: A practice of always the same sequence of postures: these can eventually be memorized or even practiced at home
4: A varied practice with different focuses, whether it be on a philosophical theme or an area of the practice such as anatomy or building up to an advanced posture. Sometimes it can be taught intuitively by the whims of the instructor.
5: Pace of the practice: slow, medium, fast paced
Unfortunately we are plagued by a lot of different “Styles” which are not really styles but a variation of these differences. Sometimes all of the above can be named after the instructor, such as Iyengar or Bikram, which can also add to the confusion of too many names or appearances of style. To help distinguish some of the various styles and names that I have experienced, here it goes:
Ashtanga – Dynamic, the same sequence of postures, can be done slow, medium or fast pace
Vinyasa – Dynamic, varied sequence, can be done slow, medium or fast pace
Restorative – Static, varied sequence, very slow (holding postures, mostly reclining with lots of props for long periods of time, meant to be restful, rejuvenating, meditative
Hot Yoga – Can be any of the above 4 qualities just in a hot room
Power Yoga – see “Vinyasa”, typically done very fast pace
Kundalini – Dynamic, mostly seated postures, can be done slow, medium or fast pace
Yin Yoga – Static, varied sequence, very slow pace, holding postures for a long period of time.
Mysore – Dynamic, the same sequence of postures, can be done slow, medium or fast, practiced on your own with an instructor circulating the room helping to adjust postures like they do in Mysore, India
Styles named after an instructor or developed by a popular instructor
Iyengar – Static, varied sequence, usually very slow pace
Bikram – Dynamic, the same sequence of postures, can be done slow, medium or fast, in a very HOT, heated room!
Anusara – Dynamic, varied sequence, can be done slow, medium or fast pace, founded by John Friend
Sivananda – Static, the same sequence of postures, usually slow to medium pace
Jivamukti – Dynamic, varied sequence, can be done slow, medium or fast pace, found by David Life and Sharon Gannon in NY
Integral – Dynamic, varied sequence, usually slow or medium pace, found by Swami Satchidananda
Kripalu – Dynamic, varied sequence, usually slow or medium pace
the list goes on and on…
As you can see, most styles can be categorized in these basic ways, but they are ALL Hatha Yoga. Naturally there are differences in focus, approach and the personality of the instructors. I hope this little guide will help you to experiment and choose or try a type of practice that you are drawn to. I find that it’s very important that you feel connected and hopefully encouraged and uplifted by the instructors you may find and the style they teach. This will be most evident by how you feel after class and maybe even throughout the week. Hopefully you will find an instructor and a style that makes you want to go to class or even practice more on your own.
In my personal practice, I feel it’s balanced and healthy for me to vary my approach to yoga based on how I feel energetically and physically. The body knows what it needs if only we are able to listen to it. When I feel fatigue and need healing, I am usually drawn to a slow or restorative practice. When I feel energetic or even heavy and lethargic, I find a vigorous Vinyasa style is what helps to balance me, either releasing energy or invigorating me. It’s good to also balance knowledge of alignment and anatomy with face-paced, flowing classes, so in my opinion a mixture of Vinyasa, Iyengar and Restorative from time to time are helpful.