De-Mystifying the Many Styles of Yoga
Yoga is a hit in the West. It seems that nearly every town, no matter how small, offers some style of yoga classes. My own little Northeastern town offers everything from Bikram to Kundalini and Power to Anusara—and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Choosing a particular style can be daunting, especially when you are first dipping your toes into the yoga waters. The wide variety of styles can be intimidating and confusing to those who are curious about branching out from their established practices.
Although this ancient Indian philosophy and practice relatively recently made its way to the Western world (largely gaining popularity in the 1960s), we have quickly assimilated it into our culture and made it our own. Many Western styles focus on the fitness aspect of yoga. However, it is truly more than a physical exercise practice. Yoga works with the mind, body, and spirit to increase the health and wellness of individuals. This mind-body therapy involves physical postures, breathing exercises, and meditation to improve overall well-being1.
While the original braches of the practice still remain strong, we now have many variations and trademarked styles, each offering their own unique perspective on yoga. While some yoga practitioners are purists and stick to one particular style, many experiment with several different styles throughout their practice. My own path began with a gentle Hatha yoga, then branched into Iyengar, flirted with Ashtanga, settled in with Embody yoga, and seasoned it all with Vinyasa and Anusara—the trick is to be open to it all. At its core, yoga is a radical acceptance of who you really are. It teaches you to be non-judgmental to others and yourself, allowing you to find the style that is exactly right for you.
As we change, so may our practice. Before you begin to research a particular style of yoga, it is perhaps best to start by asking yourself what you want to get out of a yoga practice: A physical workout? A gentle stress reduction? Meditative classes that may lead to spiritual fulfillment? Do you want to take classes at a gym, a studio, or community center? Keep in mind what is available in your area, and where the classes are offered. The answers to these questions can help guide you to a particular style.
If you are still wary of heading to a studio, try a podcast or video. Check out Kaplan University’s Center for Health and Wellness link for Yoga and Meditation for some great resources. Once you have an idea of what may be right for you, then you can sample a class or two. Finding a teacher that can skillfully guide you towards your goal is by far the most important factor.
Beneath all the styles, the same basic philosophy runs deep. According to Jennifer Cook “Classes that have gained popularity in the United States usually teach one of the many types of hatha yoga, a physical discipline that focuses mainly on asanas (postures) and breathwork in order to prepare the body for spiritual pursuits2.” Below you will find a brief listing of some common styles of hatha yoga that are currently being practiced in the United States, according to the University of Maryland Medical Center3.
- Ashtanga or Power yoga: A more demanding workout where you constantly move (“flow”) from one posture to another.
- Anusara: A spiritually inspiring yoga focused on a deep knowledge of outer and inner body alignment; all levels and limitations are honored.
- Bikram or Hot yoga: A series of 26 asanas (postures) practiced in a room that is 95 to 100 degrees in order to warm and stretch the muscles, ligaments, and tendons, purifying the body through sweat. It is physically challenging and detoxifying.
- Embodyoga®: This practice teaches you how to listen to your body-mind connection. It allows you to evolve your own personal practice, helping you grow and change throughout your life.
- Integral: A gentle type of yoga that may include breathing exercises, chanting, and meditation.
- Iyengar: This practice emphasizes great attention to detail, precise alignment of the body, and holding poses for long periods of time.
- Jivamukti: A physically challenging series of asanas with classes that include chanting, meditation, readings, music, and affirmations.
- Kundalini: This practice emphasizes the effects of breath on the postures, with the aim of freeing energy in the lower body to move upwards. It is gentle, meditative, and includes chanting.
- Viniyoga: This practice adapts postures to each person's needs and abilities, and synchronizes breath and postures. Breath leads the body into each posture.
While these are some of the most common styles of yoga practiced today, there are many more. For example, you may see Vinyasa classes listed at your local studio. Vinyasa simply refers to a series of flowing movements linked to breathing. While there are some exercises that involve holding postures, Vinyasa classes tend to move from one pose to another more quickly—a meditation in motion.
Check to make sure that your teacher or studio is registered with Yoga Alliance. Yoga Alliance is the national certifying body for registered yoga teachers and schools, and ensures that the public can be confident of the quality and consistency of instruction4. Other great resources include International Association of Yoga Therapists (IAYT) and Yoga Journal.
Much research has been published on the benefits of a yoga practice. Those who suffer with anxiety, stress, depression, arthritis, high blood pressure, and even migraines could benefit from a regular yoga practice5. Regardless of your motivation to try yoga, you may be surprised at the deeper gifts this ancient practice offers.
Kristin Henningsen, M.S., C.H., R.Y.T.
Kristin Henningsen is an adjunct professor with Kaplan University’s School of Health Sciences and teaches courses such as Vitamins, Herbs, and Nutritional Supplements and Contemporary Diet and Nutrition. Ms. Henningsen has deep roots in the fields of ethnobotanyand herbal medicine. After receiving both her Bachelor of Science in Botany and Bachelor of Arts in Cultural Anthropology, Ms. Henningsen went on to complete her Master of Science in Biology at Northern Arizona University where she studied the medicinal plants of the area, focusing on their traditional uses by the 13 Native American tribes in the region. She has also worked as a research assistant with the nonprofit organization the Arizona Ethnobotanical Research Association, completing a field guide to the native plants of Arizona amongst other projects.
Ms. Henningsen has extended this work into the field of complementary and alternative medicine. She is a certified and practicing consulting herbalist, and is the proprietor of an herbal health and healing company. She has been researching, using, and teaching about medicinal plants for more than 10 years. Ms. Henningsen is also a certified yoga instructor and utilizes yoga therapy as an alternative healing technique.