With so many different yoga styles to choose from, figuring out which practice best suits your physical and mental goals can be confusing. Here, instructors break down the most common types to help you find your flow.
As September marks National Yoga Month, there’s no better time to start practising. From fast-paced ashtanga and sweaty bikram to slow, restorative yin yoga, there’s a myriad of yoga styles to choose from. Whether you’re looking to build strength, develop flexibility, improve your posture or manage stress, there’s something for everyone.
“Yoga isn’t a one-size-fits-all practice. It’s about finding a style that suits you and that you enjoy so you can be consistent and reap the rewards” says London-based yoga teacher Divya Patel.
“Remember that each style has different benefits so you might want to incorporate a few yoga styles into your life that you can turn to, depending on your time, energy, health, and so on,” she adds.
With so many different options out there, however, it can be difficult to know where to begin. So, we asked instructors to explain the most common styles to help you get the most benefit and the most enjoyment from your practice. Read on to discover which yoga style will work best for you.
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If you enjoy structure and routine, then ashtanga is perfect for you. “It’s a regimented style of yoga which synchronizes movement with your breath as you move from one asana (pose) to the next in a particular order,” explains yoga, meditation and pranayama guide Angie Tiwari. The sequence is the same every time whether you’re attending a class or practising at home.
Ashtanga is physically demanding so be prepared to get sweaty. Classes begin with Surya Namaskar (sun salutations), designed to build internal heat in order to purify the body, followed by a series of asanas that will get your heart rate up and finally, a closing sequence and rest.
“If you’re looking to build strength and endurance and gain flexibility, give ashtanga a try,” says Tiwari. The asanas require both upper and lower body strength to hold your body weight and balance, and you need a strong core to hold positions such as plank, lower plank and downward-facing dog.
Because ashtanga is a more vigorous style of yoga, Tiwari suggests starting off with vinyasa, before working your way up to an ashtanga class when you feel comfortable.
Vinyasa, which stems from ashtanga, is also a fast-paced, active practice where poses flow from one to the next in a fluid way. Like ashtanga, synchronizing movement with breath is an important part of the practice.
Unlike ashtanga, however, there is no set sequence of postures so classes can vary greatly. You can expect standing and seated poses, twists, forward folds, inversions, backbends and more. “I’d recommend it to anyone who is looking for a high-energy workout and wants some variety from their practice,” says Patel. “It’s one of my favourite styles because no two classes are exactly the same.”
Patel warns that vinyasa classes may not be suitable for beginners: “You do need a certain level of fitness because you have to move between the asanas relatively fast.”
Developed by esteemed yogi B.K.S. Iyengar in the 1970s, this style of yoga is all about precise alignment and, according to Tiwari, is worth a try if you want a deep understanding of the asanas.
It comes from the same lineage as ashtanga yoga and involves many of the same postures but they are held for much longer and don’t flow from one to the next. “Iyengar also makes use of props (such as blocks, belts and chairs) so you can find a place of balance, achieve proper positioning and avoid injuries,” says Tiwari.
It’s a good option for newbies and those with injuries or chronic pain who need support getting into the different postures. It also offers physical benefits as holding the poses for extended periods builds upper and lower body strength while the use of props can help to increase flexibility as they allow you to get deeper into the stretches.
Hatha, which focuses on basic physical yoga postures and breathwork, is a great option for beginners. This is because it moves at a slower pace to other styles such as vinyasa or ashtanga, explains yoga teacher and life coach Kam Bola.
“In a hatha class, you’ll move through a series of standing and seated postures, holding each for up to five breaths before moving on to the next,” says Bola. Think downward-facing dog, warrior I and the tree pose.
“Hatha classes include back strengthening poses, balancing series, mudras (hand gestures), core work, chanting and meditation all in one session so you get a holistic yoga experience and can tune in to all the senses,” continues Bola. As such, it’s a great way to get a good grounding in yoga’s basics before moving on to other styles.
There are a variety of yoga styles designed to make you sweat. One of the best known is bikram, which consists of 26 postures and two breathing exercises in a hot room where temperatures reach over 100ºF (approx 38ºC). The idea is that the heat helps prevent injuries while also enabling your body to go deeper into the poses.
“Dealing with the heat and sweat can be distracting but you learn how to ignore those external distractions so you become more focused,” says Donna Noble, bikram yoga teacher and founder of Curvesomeyoga, an organisation that aims to make yoga accessible for all. “Bikram is a form of moving meditation which helps you get out of your brain and relieves stress.”
Mental benefits aside, Noble says bikram is great if you’re looking to gain strength. “You’re using your own body weight as a form of resistance and this can help strengthen your muscles,” she explains. “Doing the same 26-pose sequence twice over also allows you to see the improvements.”
Although challenging, because the bikram series never changes, it’s good for beginners and advanced practitioners alike.
Yin yoga is a slow, restorative practice, ideal for those who want to relax and unwind as well as runners and gymgoers who could benefit from stretching and releasing tension in their muscles and joints.
“The practice, which is based around the principles of traditional Chinese medicine, involves long-hold postures – between one and 10 minutes – which work on shifting chi (energy) around the body from tense areas,” explains Bola.
Don’t expect any warriors or sun salutations as yin is a floor-based practice that focuses on lying and seated poses targeting the connective tissues of the body. The aim is to increase overall flexibility, improve joint mobility and encourage a sense of release.
“In our fast-paced lives, it’s not often that we slow down and take time for ourselves,” says Bola. “If you’re someone who finds it hard to switch off, you may initially find the class challenging, but over time, and with consistency, you will learn how to become more mindful and stay in the present moment.”
As relaxing as yin yoga can be, it’s not as easy as you might think. Holding postures for long periods can be extremely uncomfortable, even painful. “You’re faced with the mental challenge of sitting in the pain when all you want to do is give up,” says Noble. “It’s a great sense of achievement and your body becomes more open and flexible.”
Kundalini is a spiritual form of yoga, often referred to as the yoga of awareness, which combines poses, pranayama (breathwork), meditation, music and mantras. Unlike other popular styles such as ashtanga and hatha, the emphasis is on breathwork and the chanting of mantras rather than the physical movements.
A class will typically begin with a mantra to tune in, warm-ups, a kriya (series of postures with a specific mental, spiritual or physical outcome) followed by deep relaxation and meditation and a mantra or song to mark the end of the session.
“The word kundalini, which translates from Sanskrit as ‘coiled energy’, refers to the creative energy of an individual that sits at the base of the spine,” explains Patel. “The aim is to release an individual’s untapped potential by balancing the seven chakras (energy centres) in the body.”
“It’s a fantastic practice if you want to look inwards and embrace your spiritual side,” she adds.
If you want to step out of your comfort zone and release your inner acrobat, aerial yoga, which fuses traditional yoga with pilates, gymnastics and dance, is for you. Instead of performing yoga poses on a mat, you’ll be holding your postures from a silk hammock or sling suspended from the ceiling.
According to aerial teacher Jess Tindall, it provides a slew of physical and mental benefits. “One of the main benefits is increasing upper body strength, particularly pulling strength, as using the hammock to pull up really engages the back, shoulder and chest muscles,” she explains.
Aerial yoga is also said to alleviate back and neck pressure by decompressing the spine, improve posture and alignment, and can help build a stronger core as it’s important to maintain stability throughout the poses.
This gravity-defying yoga style may seem intimidating but Tindall offers reassurance that it’s suitable for people of all abilities and fitness levels. “It’s great because you can achieve challenging poses such as handstands and headstands even if you don’t have the upper body strength for traditional inversions (upside-down postures).
“Not only is aerial yoga a fun, creative way to exercise,” adds Tindall. “It’s low impact and allows you to move your body in ways you didn’t think possible – that’s incredibly motivating,” says Tindall.
If you’re short on time…
“If you have a busy schedule but you want to wake your body up in the morning, I’d recommend a few rounds of sun salutations,” says Bola. She suggests 12 rounds of the 12 poses is optimum but whatever you can manage in the time you have is great.
You can move through each round quickly for an invigorating cardio workout or take it slow for a more relaxing, mindful practice. “Twenty minutes of magic on your mat daily can be enough to help keep the body and mind supple,” she says.
If you want to become more flexible…
“It’s down to consistency if you’re looking to become more flexible,” says Tiwari. It’s about finding the time to practice yoga as often as you can, even if it’s just 15 minutes a day.
Patience is also key, she says. “As much as you’d love to jump straight into the splits, you have to be patient with yourself. Focus on being present in the joy of the process and, with time, you’ll notice a difference.”
Tiwari feels it’s important to point out that flexibility is not an aim or a prerequisite of yoga. “It certainly doesn’t mean you’re a better yoga practitioner than those around you.” As the saying goes, yoga isn’t about touching your toes, it’s about what you learn on the way down.
If you want to start slow…
“If you’re completely new to yoga and not sure where to start, I’d suggest you practise pranayama (yogic breathing techniques),” says Tiwari, offering a reminder that yoga is about more than just the physical poses.
Breathwork is an integral part of yoga, and learning how to calm your body through breathing can help to clear the mind, reduce stress, increase mindfulness and improve sleep quality. “Ancient yogis have been practising this for centuries and there are many studies which show how transformative breathwork can be,” she says.
She recommends starting with basic breath awareness – paying attention to your breathing and how it alters your mental state – before moving onto techniques to alter the breath and explore the powerful effect breathing can have on the mind and body.
Ahead of booking any classes, check out our selection of How-to stretch videos.
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