The time has arrived: You’ve decided to join the 300 million people around the globe who have realized that yoga indeed enhances overall wellbeing, relieves stress, improves sleep, aids in weight loss, and alleviates pain. With your brand new Manduka mat in one hand and a S’well bottle in the other, you’re ready to find out what the craze is all about.
Then, you waltz into a studio, mentally prepped to warrior your way towards peacefulness, when you realize that the next 60 minutes will be devoted to…breathing?
You’re not alone. The increasing interest in yoga has also brought on an increasing array of options. Should you go with Viniyoga or Vinyasa—and are they one and the same? Should you try an Iyengar class, or Bikram—and is “Hot Yoga” really hot, or just full of young flexible practitioners? It’s enough to make you drop your mat on the spot and head to Pilates instead.
And yet, the mounting number of options is, ultimately, a good thing, enabling more and more people the ability to find exactly what their brains and bodies need.
Here’s a primer on the most popular forms of yoga out there today so that you can select a style that suits you best.
Based on the ancient, eight-limbed yoga system—and one of the biggest influencers of yoga in the West—ashtanga was popularized by yogi and Sanskrit scholar Pattabhi Jois in the 1960s. Rigorous, stimulating, and precise, the practice shares similarities with its grandchild, vinyasa (see below). Unlike vinyasa, however, ashtanga follows a set series of poses that are always performed in the same order. It also emphasizes daily practice and progression.
Best for: Those who relish a demanding workout. The Sun Salutations practiced in ashtanga classes get the heartrate up, while the seated stretches ask for tremendous agility.
Worst for: Those who are relatively new to yoga, and those who dig working out to beats: No music is played in traditional ashtanga classes.
Top benefits: Jois described the “Primary Series” of ashtanga as “roga cikitsā,” or “disease therapy”—a concept based on his belief that the mind and body are inextricably linked, and one cannot be vital without strength in both. As such, ashtanga practitioners experience rejuvenation on all levels, including enhanced concentration, flexibility, muscle tone, and stamina.
Developed in the 1970s by Bikram Choudhury (a four-time Yoga Champion of India who has received as much acclaim as he has condemnation), Bikram Yoga is a proprietary form of yoga that derives its principal postures, such as cobra and tree pose, from hatha (more on hatha below). All official Bikram classes are conducted by Bikram-certified instructors, who must complete nine weeks of training.
Best for: Those who love to be physically challenged—and who love knowing what to expect when they walk into a studio. The 90-minute class follows a tight script with 26 poses and 2 breathing exercises.
Worst for: Beginners since the yoga poses are not shown by the instructor. The teacher stands in front of the room and verbally tells the class what to do. You’re in luck if there is an experienced student in front of you, otherwise you’re lost. And it’s not for those who react adversely to heat: Bikram is taught in a heated space, with temps typically ranging between 95-108 degrees.
Top benefits: The amount of sweat you’ll release in a Bikram class is a potent way to get rid of toxins. Additionally, Bikram promotes increased strength and greater flexibility.
An excellent entry to the practice of yoga, hatha is a general term to describe nearly all of the physical yoga taught in the West—meaning that everything from Bikram to ashtanga falls underneath its umbrella. If a class is marketed as “hatha,” however, don’t necessarily expect the challenge of vinyasa, or the heat of Bikram: Translated as “sun” and “moon,” hatha classes tend to be gentler, slower-moving classes that take care to provide balance in the body—whether that’s equilibrium between strength and flexibility, or steadiness between physical and mental energy.
Best for: Those new to yoga—and those who want to move forward at a serene pace. Foundational asanas—or postures—are taught in a gentle fashion, with particular attention paid to aligning the muscles and bones.
Worst for: Those who are looking for a fast, rocking workout.
Top benefits: You might not work up much of a sweat in a hatha class, but you will likely leave the studio feeling freer and more relaxed. Hatha yoga also encourages stronger immunity and a more radiant complexion.
While hot yoga and Bikram overlap in some areas—chiefly, the use of a heated, humid space—hot yoga deviates from Bikram’s sequence to include additional poses. Classes aren’t necessarily led by Bikram-certified instructors, either.
Best for: Sauna-lovers. The intensity of the heat, coupled with the intensity of the poses, guarantees you will sweat buckets. It’s also a terrific option for those searching for an expedient way to mitigate stress. As the founder of Heatwise yoga studio in Brooklyn, NY reported to Self, “Hot yoga is stress relief disguised as a workout,” adding, “An hour of deep sweat, moving to music in ways that feel good and release tension in your body, stretching everything out, and maximizing blood circulation—all of it puts you in a kind of trance. It’s better than any drug.”
Worst for: Like Bikram, hot yoga may not be the wisest choice for those who are naturally prone to overheating (which in Ayurvedic medicine is known as being pitta-dominated) or getting lightheaded. The Washington Post also reports that you should consult with your doctor before attending a hot yoga class if you have asthma, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, low blood pressure—or are pregnant. Further, the Mayo Clinic suggests skipping hot yoga if you have problems with dehydration.
Top benefits: Nailing difficult poses. Heat increases flexibility, thus allowing you to move into more complicated postures. On this note, however, be sure to pay attention to your body as you move into deeper poses: Heat can also mask pain, leaving you with aches that’ll pop up later.
Founded by the esteemed B.K.S. Iyengar, this form of yoga prizes alignment—and meticulous alignment at that. To this end, classes are often directed with a number of props at hand, including blocks, chairs, bolsters, blankets, and straps; meanwhile, Iyengar teachers must go through a rigorous level of training and certification. Iyengar yoga includes asanas (poses), restorative poses (that are deeply relaxing and opening to the body, and pranayama (breathing techniques). This is a superb form of yoga to explore if you want to understand a pose, and your body, from the inside out.
Best for: Beginners to learn how to do yoga safely and prevent injury. It is also for those who value exactness, detailed instructions, and a solid mental focus: Poses are held for a short time with beginners, and are held longer as the student gains experience. No music is played which allows the student to concentrate, become mindful, and bring intelligence to their body. It’s also a topnotch choice for those who have suffered from an injury or an illness, as the props help support the body allowing the pose to be done without strain.
Worst for: Those who prefer to move at a fast pace and like to bounce around. Iyengar’s focus on proper alignment requires time in each posture.
Top benefits: Increased strength and balance, and prevention of injury. What’s more, Iyengar yoga has been linked to enhanced flexibility, quietness of the mind, and improved breathing.
Perhaps the most overtly spiritual form of yoga in the West, Kundalini yoga incorporates the esoteric with the physical. Its aim is to release the kundalini energy—said to be coiled in the lower spine—from the body and enrich consciousness. Movement and dynamic breathing techniques are used to accomplish this, creating, in the end, an uplifting class that eases stress and negative patterns of thinking.
Best for: Those who are interested in the more arcane, transcendent side of yoga: Kundalini classes typically include chanting, mudras, mantras, meditation, and what’s known as kriya—a set of practices (primarily breath control techniques) designed to achieve a specific outcome.
Worst for: Those who want a more grounding, calming practice: The breath work in some Kundalini classes may leave you feeling dizzied and unsettled.
Top benefits: Core strength. Kundalini classes weave in invigorating exercises and postures that bolster muscles in the center of your body. Kundalini is also often associated with increased willpower, compassionate communication, and cognitive enhancement.
Restorative yoga is precisely what its title suggests: A set of asanas that target specific areas of the body in the name of healing. Props are used to support the body so that you can fully relax into the posture, which are held for five minutes or longer. Some restorative classes are accompanied by a guided meditation, known as yoga nidra, to help practitioners get to a place between sleep and wakefulness. (Sound dreamy? It is.)
Best for: Those suffering from chronic or acute stress. Restorative yoga is famed for its ability to soothe the nervous system.
Worst for: Those who’d prefer using their spare time sweating out their stress: Restorative yoga rarely includes standing postures and little to no physical exertion.
Top benefits: Restorative yoga has garnered a reputation for delivering a number of health-boosting benefits, including discovering the places in the body where you’re holding tension, moving your nervous system out of “fight and flight” territory, and aiding in digestion and elimination.
Also called “flow yoga” and “vinyasa flow,” vinyasa mirrors ashtanga’s focus on sequences that match breath and movement. Frequently deemed the most athletic of yoga styles, vinyasa—which translates to “to place in a special way”—can range from funky and playful to meditative and dynamic.
Best for: Creative types—especially dancers—and those who despise routine. While every Vinyasa class links breath to movement, the sequence differs from teacher to teacher and class to class. Expect to move from, say, Exalted Warrior to Reverse Triangle to Extended Triangle to Pyramid in a continuous, rhythmic flow.
Worst for: Those seeking quiet, a slow pace, and peace: Vinyasa classes are generally accompanied by lively music, move at a fast clip, and require physical stamina and strength.
Top benefits: Given its pace—which can often feel like aerobics—vinyasa is linked to a number of physical benefits, including more defined muscle tone, weight loss, cardiovascular health, and improved circulation. On the mental side, it’s a major boon for cultivating concentration, determination, and resilience.
Viniyoga, as described by T.K.V. Desikachar, is the form of yoga developed by his father, the great and highly revered T. Krishnamacharya, who created the methodology late in his life. Frequently referred to as the “yoga for the people,” Viniyoga was designed to assist all levels of fitness—and people at all stages of existence. Every Viniyoga class is adapted to address the specific needs of the individual; while one person may be instructed to move into a forward fold, for example, another will be asked to keep a flat back.
Best for: Those at a later phase in life, and those recovering from an injury or illness.
Worst for: Those keen on scoring a good workout. Viniyoga classes tend to move at a slower pace.
Top benefits: While Viniyoga may not have the brisk pace of, say, vinyasa, it nonetheless comes with a number of body-boosting benefits, including an increased range of motion, improved balance, and enhanced coordination.
Similar to Restorative, yin yoga is a slow-paced form of yoga that’s based on seated postures, which are held anywhere from two to five minutes. With roots in martial arts, it includes plenty of deep stretches—particularly for the thighs, hips, and lower back.
Best for: Relaxation. The length of the poses, coupled with the use of props (blocks, blankets, and bolsters), often results in a body-hum that’s downright blissful.
Worst for: Those who want to spend their 60-90 minutes of free time focusing on toning their muscles, losing weight, or getting out of their brain and into their body.
Top benefits: One of the greatest benefits of yin yoga, says Megan Kearney (a Yoga Medicine instructor), is that it offers people the chance to practice staying still. Additionally, while other forms of yoga concentrate on the main muscle groups, yin yoga pays especial attention to the body’s connective tissues and increases circulation in the joints. Translation? An unspeakable sense of freedom in the mind and body—which, ultimately, is what yoga as a whole is all about.