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 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 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.