For someone new to yoga, the choice of yoga style may seem daunting to say the least! In the last few decades as yoga has boomed in the Western world, the number of styles has increased to include a dizzying array of different types of yoga. Some styles may be more suitable for someone new to yoga whereas other styles may at least require a bit of familiarity with basic postures before starting. I hope to shed a little light on at least some of the styles here, in the hope that it makes it easier for a beginner – but also perhaps tempt those more experienced practitioners to try something new. New choices represent new opportunities!
Perhaps first though, a bit about yoga…
The word “Yoga” derives from the Sanskrit word yuj, which means to yoke or bind, or to give it its most recognised and understood interpretation it means “union”, and not least of all, a union of mind, body and spirit.
Yoga is not really a “religion” but more a philosophy. It is a set of guidelines and a framework for both spiritual growth and also attaining mastery over physical and mental health. It originated in India over five thousand years ago, and is often interwoven with hinduism and buddhism, however it is not necessary to study or follow those pathways if you want to study and practice yoga. It is also not necessary to give up or replace your own religious or spiritual beliefs in order to practice yoga!
And it is absolutely categorically not necessary to be flexible in order to practice yoga! This would be a little like saying you shouldn’t run if you’re not fast or you shouldn’t go to the gym because you’re not fit enough!! Yoga in its purely physical form can be practiced to improve not only flexibility, strength, balance and co-ordination, but also to provide a means of de-stressing from our busy modern lives.
Ok then – back to actual styles of yoga : Hatha Yoga
The first “style” of yoga to talk about is “Hatha” yoga. Hatha Yoga actually encompasses all the physical styles of yoga. As mentioned above, yoga in its entirety is more than just the performance of physical exercise, but the practice of doing physical poses, or “asanas”, is the practice of Hatha Yoga. As different as they may seem, when you do Yin Yoga – you are practicing Hatha Yoga, and also when you do an Ashtanga class, this is Hatha Yoga too! A class that is called “Hatha Yoga” will usually involve classical, traditional postures and sequences, suitable for both beginner and experienced practitioner alike.
Sometimes on a yoga studio or gym timetable, a yoga class will be listed as simply “Yoga”, or perhaps “General Yoga’ or “Open Level Yoga”, and so on. It is then worth discussing the various yoga styles. When a studio does this, lists a class as simply “Yoga”, then the style being taught will literally depend on the teacher taking the class. And while teachers often qualify in one particular style, as they continue to teach and practice, drawing on a mixture of influences and techniques, their own style will evolve to become something individual and unique.
A phenomenon in the world of yoga is that even in one particular style of yoga, two teachers will teach the same style in a completely different way! Understandably confusing, especially for beginners! But when participating in these “general” yoga classes, one can expect a mixture of both static and dynamic work, classical yoga postures and sequences, and nearly always options and modifications to make whatever the teacher is covering that day suitable for both experienced practitioner or beginner alike. However it is always a good idea to approach a teacher before a class and let them know you are a beginner along with any ailments, injuries or questions you may have.
Yin Yoga is based on the Taoist concept of Yin and Yang, the idea of opposite but complimentary – two halves of the one whole, and of natural duality. While “Yang” would describe the more active or dynamic elements of yoga practice, a Yin class is built around ground-based, seated or lying postures which are held for longer periods of time – usually for a duration of around 5 minutes.
These longer holds allow the posture to reach deeper layers of “connective tissue” – tendons, ligaments and fascia – which are less pliable than muscle tissue. This often results in a much deeper stretch.
Yin Yoga can therefore greatly improve flexibility within the body, loosening and opening up tight areas, releasing tension and restriction, while also providing a meditative and relaxing class.
Sivananda Yoga is based on the teachings of Swami Sivananda Saraswati (1887-1963) and was brought to the West by his disciple Swami Vishnu Devananda (1927-1993), who also established one of the first teacher training programs. Many many yoga teachers today come from a Sivananda background and training, even if they teach other styles as well!
A Sivananda Yoga class follows a regular structure, typically starting with Savasana (relaxation), then a number of rounds of Surya Namaskara (Sun Salutations) and then follows a traditional path built around twelve basic asanas (postures).
However the practice does also allow for some variation from the teacher, and so, depending on the level and ability of the class, postures may be varied or modified, and oftentimes emphasis or special practice is given to a set of postures in order to master them.
Ashtanga Yoga is found in most yoga studios and gyms around the country, and is a more “choreographed” style of yoga. What we mean by this is that it follows more of a set sequence or structure compared to other styles, often combining classical yoga postures into a sequence built around the “Vinyasa’ or “Sun Salutation”.
Ashtanga yoga is also a progressive practice, consisting of a number of levels or “Series” and so a beginner would start with what is called the “Primary Series”, and then progress once the “Primary Series” is mastered onto the “Intermediate Series” and then on to four “Advanced Series” after that.
The reason that sometimes Ashtanga yoga is not always the most suitable style for beginners is not so much that the postures are any more difficult – it is simply that because of the “flowing” nature of an ashtanga class, there isn’t quite the same opportunity for a teacher and student to stop and learn a posture. So there needs to be at least a certain familiarity with the postures and how to perform them.
Hot Yoga is just that – yoga performed in a hot room. It started with Bikram Yoga, named after the yogi Bikram Choudhury, who designed a sequence of 26 yoga postures to perform in a room heated to around 40 degrees celsius, but has proliferated to now include many other styles of Hot Yoga, all done in a heated setting. I am often asked whether Hot Yoga is better than other styles of yoga and my answer is this: your body is warmer and more flexible in a hot room, and so you will stretch further, but after your body cools down it will revert to its normal temperature, and so a better way of judging the effectiveness of any class is the progress you make from one class to another.
If you are more flexible in a hot room, but this doesn’t seem to be improving or going further over time form class to class, but in a cooler class you seem to be progressing further and further each time, then I would say the cooler class is better for you. That is not saying one is better than the other either! If you are indeed making more progress in the hot class, then the hot class might be better for you.
This is just a small selection of the yoga styles on offer in the modern world. So how to choose a style of yoga? My best advice is this. Try as many styles as you can. Try different teachers too – because we all come from different backgrounds and influences, so even within the same style, two different teachers will teach often completely different ways! It will also be quite a personal thing too, “chemistry” even, that means you will respond and enjoy the way one teacher teaches as opposed to another. This won’t mean that the one teacher is better than the other, it is just they are different, and for whatever reason, one resonates with you in a preferred way to another.