Back to Basics
Wannabe Yogi Guide to Yoga Styles
As our children return back to school and the excesses of the summer holidays
become a distant memory, September often feels like a good time to hit the reset
button. Friends have been asking me what kind of yoga they should take up, but
asking that question is not all that different from enquiring about what form of
exercise might be good to increase one’s fitness levels. The answer is: lots and it
depends what you enjoy doing.
Most practising yogis out there know that yoga is not a one size fits all philosophy. It encompasses a breadth of practice and understanding: different schools of yoga,
traditions, methodologies and approaches. From a physical practice that leaves you
hot and sweaty to one that barely takes you off the floor, there is something for
everyone. Needless to say, it’s worth experimenting with different styles and teachers (even within schools) in order to find one whose approach and personality suit you. Different teachers might say things that seem contradictory so once you do find a style or teacher whose work you enjoy it’s worth persevering with it exclusively for a while to get your bearings.
Having said that there is also no law against changing styles, or even – in my opinion, although purists would argue against this – practising two different styles
simultaneously. There may be times or days in your life when you crave a more
physically-demanding practice and others when – perhaps through injury, stress,
chronic illness, post-partum or just plain exhaustion – that your body needs a more nurturing practice. The joy is that it is all out there waiting to be accessed.
For what it’s worth, here’s my whistle stop tour of yoga styles.
Hatha Yoga is a general category that includes most yoga styles. Translated from
Sanskrit as “effort” or “force”, Hatha Yoga is the branch of yoga in which physical
practices – such as postures (asanas), breathwork (pranayama) and diet – are used to prepare the body for meditation. However, a classed described as Hatha Yoga will usually include a gentle warm up, a sequence of physical postures followed by a relaxation at the end. More advanced classes may include breathwork and meditation. Classes will vary greatly depending on the interests and teaching style of the teacher so it’s worth trying a few different ones before settling on one that suits you.
Astanga (pronounced “ashtanga”) Yoga is a physically demanding and quick-paced
yoga popularised and brought to the West by K Pattabhi Jois in the 1970s. Each class involves following a series of specific poses, held for five breaths and flowing
directly from one to the next. There are six established pose sequences – the primary series, second series and so on – practiced sequentially as progress is made. In an Astanga class you will always perform the same poses in the same order. In more demanding classes you can expect an aerobic workout.
Vinyasa (or Hatha) Flow
Influenced by Astanga, a Vinyasa class is similar in intensity to an Astanga class
except that the sequences led by the teacher vary so that no two Vinyasa classes are
the same. A Hatha flow class similarly will vary the postures and flow from one to the next.
Meticulous and precise, Iyengar Yoga is a purist style of yoga developed and named
after BKS Iyengar in the 1960s. Iyengar Yoga places emphasis on correct precision
and alignment and uses a vast array of props (including chairs, belts, bolsters, blocks, blankets and fixed-wall ropes) in order to achieve this, however new to yoga you are or however stiff or inflexible you feel your body may be. Iyengar teachers undergo a thorough training and have a great anatomical knowledge. It is excellent for building strength and flexibility.
Bikram (or Hot) Yoga
Bikram Yoga was developed by Bikram Choudhury in the early 1970s. Choudhury
designed a sequence of 26 yoga postures to be performed in a room heated up to 105 degrees with 40% humidity in order to facilitate the release of toxins. The poses are designed to stretch and strengthen the muscles as well as cleanse the organs of the body. Controversially, Choudhury trademarked his style of yoga and has sued studios who call themselves Bikram but don’t teach the exact sequence, hence the rise of Hot Yoga (to avoid litigation). Prepare to sweat.
Viniyoga is a therapeutic style of yoga developed by TKV Desikachar and popularised in the west by Gary Kraftsow. Viniyoga is not a standardised programme but yoga tailored to the individual according to their physical, emotional and mental needs and abilities. Aspects to this practice may include pranayama meditation, philosophy and chanting and there is a strong focus on adapting postures to accommodate any limitations. It is a very nurturing practice.
The term “yin yoga” comes from the Taoist tradition. Yang relates to (often
repetitive) movement that creates in heat in the body. Yin is about finding stillness
and cooling the body. And so, the theory goes, we need both to come into balance and find harmony. Yin yoga is practised sitting or lying on the floor. There are no planks, no warriors, no dynamic sun salutations. The pace is slow and poses are often held for up to five minutes. A complete antidote to today’s hectic lifestyles, it is great at releasing tension, both in the body and the mind.
A highly individual form of yoga, a Scaravelli-inspired practice is not necessarily physically challenging but instead demands mindfulness as it uses asanas as a framework for self-exploration. Developed by Vanda Scaravelli who was a student of both BKS Iyengar and TKV Desikachar, it encourages students to develop their own approach focussing on finding space and connections through the body and
particularly the spine. A Scaravelli-inspired teacher will guide students gently through a session, sometimes only moving through three of four postures in one 90-minute class. Change can often feel slower than with other forms of yoga but that doesn’t mean it isn’t as profound.
And there’s more!
There are a myriad more classes out there that I haven’t covered in this blog – some more established (such as Sivandanda, Kundalini or Jivamakuti) others less so (Broga, Disco Yoga, Pub Yoga and – my favourite – Goat, yes you read correctly, Goat Yoga). Clearly some will last the distance; others might be just a passing fad.
Ultimately it’s about celebrating all forms of yoga. I have been to many different
types of yoga classes over the years and while I can safely say that not all types of
yoga are for me, I truly believe there is something out there for everyone. Just give
one – or two or three (until you find what’s right for you) – a go.
Image of Vanda Scaravelli and BKS Iyengar from Awakening the Spine.