The Four Styles of Yoga

What are the different styles of yoga and how do you know which one is right for you? Over the years, I’ve practiced and dabbled in various types and “brands” of yoga. Some are more traditional and lineage-based (e.g. Ashtanga, Iyengar, Viniyoga) while others are newer creations of master teachers and yoga celebrities (e.g. Baptiste’s Power Yoga, Sadie Nardini’s Core Strength Vinyasa, Bikram Yoga, Jivamukti Yoga). Every now and then, I will read about some trending yoga combo such as: Doga (dog yoga), Broga (yoga for bros?), and now that recreational marijuana is legal in some states – even Pot Yoga!

The dizzying array of yoga offerings in modern culture is enough to make a beginner either just give up or simply walk into any random class and hope it works out. Here, I’ll talk about just FOUR of the most common styles you will encounter in yoga studios or online videos. This list will give you an idea of the differences between the styles and help you decide which one might best suit your needs.

HATHA YOGA

Hatha is a general term that refers to the PHYSICAL practice of yoga. It’s different from the other aspects of yoga such as meditation and yoga philosophy. Hatha Yoga refers to the physical discipline – the practice of “asanas” or yoga postures. 

Sometimes in yoga studios and online yoga classes you’ll see “Hatha Yoga” as one of the styles. The word can also be used to describe either gentle yoga or a more static yoga practice where poses are held longer (there is no “flowing” movement unlike in Vinyasa).

Who is it for? Hatha style classes can be very beneficial for you if you’re just starting out with your yoga practice. Because poses are held for a long time, students learn proper alignment. There’s enough time spent in the pose for the student to feel subtle sensations in the body. A Hatha class may also include challenging yoga poses but you still come in and out of the pose slowly.

VINYASA YOGA or VINYASA FLOW YOGA

Vinyasa is a SANSKRIT term that has several meanings. The word Vinyasa is loosely translated as “to place in a special way.” In the context of modern yoga and yoga studio classes, Vinyasa refers to the flowing style of yoga practice. In a Vinyasa class, we coordinate breath with movement and we link the poses together to create a flowing sequence that is almost like a dance. Vinyasa is also the term used to describe a specific sequence of poses which are: plank to low plank/chaturanga to upward facing dog to downward facing dog. It’s sometimes referred to as a transition sequence.

Who is it for? Vinyasa is appropriate for those who have some yoga experience and for strong beginners with no major injuries. The style flows from pose to pose so you don’t always have enough time to learn alignment details. You’ll benefit most if you already have a basic understanding of common yoga poses.

Vinyasa has a wonderful dance-like quality and can be a great physical workout. In most classes – you will work up a sweat, generate heat with the ujjayi breathing and dynamic movement, and get your heart rate up. You can increase strength and improve flexibility with consistent practice. It also enhances your concentration and mental focus as you connect the breath with the movement and as you work to transition gracefully in and out of poses.

YIN YOGA or DEEP STRETCH YOGA

I’m sure you’re familiar with the Taoist concepts of “yin and yang.” These are opposite and complementary principles. Yang is the masculine or active energy and Yin is

the feminine or passive counterpart. This is an oversimplification, of course, and there is more to these concepts than can be explained here.

In a Yin class, you’re passive in the sense that you’re on the floor the whole time. You do seated and supine poses (supported by props when necessary) and you hold these for much longer than you would in a Vinyasa class (usually 3-5 minutes). In Yin, we gently and safely stretch the connective tissue that surrounds the joints. When we moderately “stress” or stretch the connective tissue by holding a yin pose for a long time, the body will respond by making it longer and stronger.

If you’re looking at someone in a yin pose, they might look like they’re not doing much. However, yin poses can feel intense. There will be some strong sensations and possibly discomfort (not sharp pain – we never want that in any practice!). The intention is to gradually improve flexibility and mobility. All levels of yoga students can benefit from a yin yoga practice. The meditative quality of  yin can also help with relaxation and tension relief.

RESTORATIVE YOGA

Restorative Yoga is a great antidote to chronic stress. In a class, you might just do a few poses (5 or 6) and you hold these poses for at least 5 minutes. Some supine poses are held even longer, up to 10 minutes. These long holds allow the body to gradually release into the pose and relax deeply and completely.

The body is supported by props. The various props are there to adapt the pose to fit the student’s body so long holds are possible. There is hardly any movement in the pose and this style requires much less effort than Yin Yoga. There is some passive stretching that happens as you stay in the pose for long periods of time but actively stretching is not the intention.

Restorative yoga can be a healing practice. It allows you to slow down and quiet down. It is an opportunity to alleviate adrenal fatigue that results from not giving the body enough time to rest and restore itself. It can be challenging and uncomfortable for the mind that is not used to stillness and silence. This is all part of the discipline of this style.

All levels of yoga students can benefit from this practice. It can also be used when one is recovering from injury, struggling with personal issues, or chronically fatigued.

Which style is right for you?

In the first few months or years of your yoga practice, it’s natural to be drawn to the style that is compatible with your personality. If you’re a goal-oriented and self-motivated type A individual, you may find challenging and sweaty Vinyasa classes appealing. You enjoy the constant movement, the intensity of the poses, and the upbeat music (with some teachers). If you’re more introverted or inner-directed, you may prefer the silence and stillness of Yin and Restorative. You appreciate the quiet approach, minimal stimulation, and less activity of the more passive practices.

This is all well and good. However, remember that yoga is also about bringing balance into our lives. I suggest you explore the practices that don’t initially appeal to you. Get out of your comfort zone and try the class that’s unfamiliar. Cultivate the opposite of your habitual patterns and tendencies. Yoga is about facing the discomfort and finding ease within that discomfort. And believe me, you will be mentally and emotionally uncomfortable whenever you try something new. The go-getter types might be bored and frustrated with just “sitting around doing nothing” in Yin or Restorative. The passive types might resist pushing themselves physically in strong flow classes. This is all part of the process as we continue exploring yoga and deepening our practice. You will probably always gravitate to the classes that are most familiar and comfortable for you;  but it is worth exploring the other styles to bring balance into your practice.

How Yoga Taught Me the Importance of Self Care

“You can’t pour from an empty cup. Take care of yourself first.”

It sounds simple enough. It’s like what the flight attendant says while waiting for the plane to take off: In case of an emergency, put the oxygen mask on yourself first before helping others. In daily life and intimate relationships however, this is easier said than done. If you’re like me and you have the “Giver” or “Helper” personality, then you probably put the needs of others before your own. Your default mode in most situations is to ask yourself, “What do I need to do for them?” and not “What do I need to do for me?”

I was in denial when two very close and extremely insightful friends pointed out to me that I was a TYPE 2 or Giver/Helper on the Enneagram (a personality typing system I will talk about in another post). Here’s an overview of the type from The Enneagram Institute website: “Twos are empathetic, sincere, and warm-hearted. They are friendly, generous, and self-sacrificing, but can also be sentimental, flattering, and people-pleasing. They are well-meaning and driven to be close to others, but can slip into doing things for others in order to be needed. They typically have problems with possessiveness and with acknowledging their own needs.” Yikes. It was hard for my ego to accept the truth behind these statements. When reading about a certain type makes you emotionally uncomfortable and brings up a lot of resistance, then you know there’s something there you need to investigate.

And investigate I did. I started noticing my pattern of “overgiving” to my family and to whomever I was currently involved with. There was a time in my life when I was the main breadwinner of the family and I played that role very seriously. I would give and sacrifice to the point of exhaustion and depletion; then somewhere down the line I would explode in anger and reveal my true feelings. My constant helping and giving, which perpetuated my self-image as a good person, almost always led to resentment. This was how I behaved in intimate relationships too. I wanted to be seen as “the good one” and my boyfriend as the one who is taking advantage of my niceness and therefore needs to change. In my social circle, I was “everybody’s friend” who was always there for them. I enjoyed being liked and I was good at morphing myself into what I thought other people needed me to be. Even in my career as a performer and teacher, these tendencies were present. It didn’t matter what I wanted or needed. It didn’t matter what was authentic for me. I was able to present myself to the world in a way that won me the approval I didn’t realize I was always angling for. Being honest with myself and others about what I really thought, felt, and needed was low on my priorities.

Something obviously needed to change. There was too much drama in my relationships. I had financial problems because I didn’t know how to say no to my family and how to manage my money well. My acting and voice-over career was going well but I felt depleted by almost every job and professional interaction because I wasn’t being authentic. I realized I had no problems with giving but I had issues with receiving. I knew I had to start taking care of myself. I had to learn how to be vulnerable, how to admit weakness, and how to ask for help.

Enter yoga. Along with the personal growth work I did (self-study of the enneagram and psychology in general) and lifestyle changes I made (quit smoking, better diet, and exercise), starting a yoga practice was a major factor in my transformation. With regular practice, I started to learn how to be truly in the present moment. We need to be present enough to notice our habitual thoughts, emotional patterns, and reactive tendencies. What I realized was I was always outer-directed and rarely inner-directed. 

This realization had profound effects on my work and relationships. As an actress, I was always performing and I was used to being watched, judged, and critiqued. I was my own worst critic, of course. On my yoga mat however, it was the complete opposite. For the first time, I wasn’t performing or competing. I didn’t need to achieve the pose. I didn’t need to accomplish anything. My time on the mat was for me and me alone. It was time to slow down and tune in to what I truly needed in the moment. Did I need to push and try? Did I need to hold a pose? Did I need to steady my breath? Or did I need to rest and drop into child’s pose? There was absolutely no need to impress anyone. It was such a relief to really listen to myself for the first time and honor my own needs. It was such a relief I found myself crying in yoga class! I can’t count how many times I’ve cried on my mat. I didn’t cry from physical pain (that would not be good!) but mostly from the relief that comes with surrendering. I surrendered and set aside my expectations, my tendency to please others, and my desire to control outcomes. Before then, I didnt realize the extent of my self-neglect. I’ve ignored my own wants and needs for so long it took a while for me to find out how to take care of myself. These changes spilled over into my personal life as I transitioned out of toxic relationships. Slowly, I spent more time and energy reflecting on my authentic needs and desires. I became less preoccuppied with what I think I need to do for other people or how to gain their approval. Yoga was a well that replenished me and enabled me to give more authentically and to receive more graciously.

Like everyone else, I’m a work in progress. I’m married to a wonderful guy who still needs to remind me to look after myself. As a yoga teacher, I know I need to take my own advice! I’ve been through stages where I was teaching so much yoga (15-18 classes a week) that I began to resent it and I started neglecting my own practice.  Year 2017 is going to be particularly challenging with our first baby coming (I’m 37 weeks pregnant as I write this!) and the need for self-care is more important than ever. As a mom, I know I will be tempted to focus all my attention on my family and not attend to my own needs. That’s why I’m glad my yoga mat is always waiting for me. It’s there when I need to unplug and unwind. It’s there when I need some quiet time. It’s there when I want to have some fun! Most importantly, it’s there when I need to nurture myself. It is my hope that you find what you need on your mat as well.