Whether you're a stiff semi-athlete, a flexible cardio-shopper, or a complete newbie to the practice, there is a yoga style out there that you can benefit from. The problem is finding which one it is. While the yoga rage is wonderful in so many ways — more people being exposed to healthy lifestyle choices, a never-ending stream of comfy spandex pants — it can get complicated.
There are new studios popping up on every corner. There are experimental fusion styles being released left and right (um, chocolate yoga?). That leaves you with countless different options to choose from. In the midst of all the exciting growth, I've witnessed many teachers and studio owners forget the fact that there is no one yoga that suits everyone. So they sometimes fail to explain what the differences between different yoga styles are, leaving students confused in a room full of wildly bendy people who have been yoga-ing for years.
Well, no more. Here are the basics of the most sought-after styles out there today, and how to know which one works for you. Of course, there are many varieties within each of these practices, but those will fluctuate from one studio to the next. Initiate conversation with your teachers in order to gain as much information as you can. You can never ask too many questions. It's your body — take care of it!
Here's everything you need to know about choosing a yoga style that best suits your needs.
1. Vinyasa Flow Yoga
Probably the most widely practiced yoga out there today, Vinyasa Flow incorporates a wide range of physical asanas that keep you moving continuously and smoothly. Translated directly from Sanskrit, vinyasa means "connection," and you'll see within a few minutes of your first class just how important it is to link your breath to every movement.
You'll see a lot of sun salutations in Vinyasa classes, and they can be modified to fit your fitness level, no matter what it is. Teachers come up with their own unique sequences, so no two classes will be exactly the same. You'll have the chance to play around with balance postures, inversions, and arm balances, depending on the level of the class — and everything is suitable for all body types.
How You Know It's For You: You're looking for a consistent, well-rounded practice that will keep you fit but also loose and bendy. There is often a lot of variety in this type of yoga, so if you're one to get bored, Vinyasa is your jam. Because there is so much room for visible growth — think of those scary-looking arm balances you see on Instagram — this practice is also good for those are looking to improve their fitness level.
How You Know It's Not For You: If you're someone who's got injuries and is looking for something more restorative, take a different route. Sure, you can do Vinyasa every now and then, especially if you want a little burst of low-impact cardio, but it won't be a major source of rehabilitation. Also, if you're searching for a contemplative practice that will sharpen your meditative mind, this might not be your top choice.
2. Hatha Yoga
It gets a bit tricky here, because Hatha is actually the only one of the eight branches of Yoga that refers to all physical asanas. So technically, all forms of yoga as you know today come from Hatha. However, because none of us are stickler gurus, for the sake of your sanity (and mine, for that matter), let's talk about the Hatha classes that are available to you at everyday studios.
Generally, Hatha Yoga is more about getting into postures with correct alignment and holding them for a certain amount of time than it is about fluid Vinyasa movement. While you might see overlap of some postures, the style is inherently different. You may hear the word "Hatha" used interchangeable with Iyengar Yoga, which uses classical asanas to restore balance and flexibility to the body while utilizing a variety of props. Sometimes there are even short Savasanas (time of rest) between each pose to ensure you reap the full benefits.
How You Know It's For You: You want something tried and true, a practice that is traditional and no-nonsense. If you're also on the hunt for different kinds of breathing techniques, ones that you can put into use when you're particularly stressed, get your butt to a Hatha class.
How You Know It's Not For You: I've known many people who can't seem to get in the groove of Hatha because it lacks the dance-like, free-flowing qualities that other kinds of yoga possess. If you've got enough structure in your life as it is, go with something that nurtures your imagination a bit more.
3. Yin Yoga
I'm one of those teachers who begs people everyone to incorporate Yin into their lives at some point. It's a slow-paced, deep-stretching style of yoga that is incredibly restorative and relaxing. Instead of focusing on cardio or fluid movement, Yin is all about getting into the deep connective tissues of your body and allowing your breath to permeate into the tight areas.
A lot of the practice is spent on the floor, using blankets, straps, and blocks as much as you want. The postures are held for a little longer than you might be used to, encouraging you to meditate and sit with the physical and/or emotional discomfort that may arise. Trust me, it's a lot harder than you might think.
How You Know It's For You: Maybe you've got a lot of stress that needs a solid outlet. Or you're an athlete who could use a way to unwind those overworked muscles you train every day. Perhaps you've got chronic pain that needs relief. These are just a few of millions of reasons to give Yin a shot. I'm a firm believer that it's for everyone.
How You Know It's Not For You: You want a yoga that focuses a bit more on strength training and developing lean muscles. That's OK; however, I still highly recommend doing Yin every now and then to counteract the hard work your body does for you.
4. Ashtanga Yoga
This is the yoga Pattabhi Jois brought to the U.S. and made wildly popular in the '70s. It's Vinyasa Flow, but it's also its own beast. It's practiced in a Mysore style, meaning it's a sequence of postures that students memorize and practice together in a classroom without being led by a teacher. There is an instructor present who will adjust and correct individually where they see fit, but they're not teaching in the way most of us are used to.
There are six different series of Ashtanga, each one more difficult than the last. You kick off with a few rounds of the basic Sun Salutations before moving on into your respective series. Oh, and you don't start learning the next sequence until you've nailed down the one you've currently got on your hands. It's Vinyasa Flow at its most methodical. After you've been at it for a while, you'll find yourself doing some pretty incredible arm balances and inversions.
How You Know It's For You: You're wonderfully Type A and you need a healthy kind of challenge in your life. That, and you love a good routine. One great part about Ashtanga is that you know your series by heart, so you can do it anywhere — perfect for you jet-setters. Test out this yoga if you want to build up upper body strength or get yourself moving in a rigorous way.
How You Know It's Not For You: High-impact isn't your favorite kind of movement? Fair enough; steer clear of Ashtanga, then. It's a practice that demands a lot, so if you're the kind of gal who already has enough intense physical activity on her plate, move along. Honestly (and I may catch a lot of heat for this), I also find Ashtanga to be very difficult for both beginners and curvy body types. If you're either, be careful that the fast, compact movements don't do you more harm than good.
5. Acro Yoga
Acro Yoga is a jolly combination of asanas and acrobatics. There are three roles that need to be filled in order for the practice to work: The Base, the person on the ground; The Flyer, the one up in the air; and The Spotter, the person who oversees everything and makes sure nobody falls.
It's aesthetically gorgeous and a lot easier than you would expect! There are some Thai massage influences tied in there, allowing you to stretch and bend into the areas of your body that you probably couldn't reach yourself. You can learn a lot about awareness as well, as this yoga teaches you to notice whether you're moving yourself or being moved by another. You'd be surprised at how much strength and balance you can gain from doing Acro.
How You Know It's For You: You want fun! You want fun with other people! Acro is great for all you creative folk who like to experiment while also keeping your body supple. If you've got a buddy or partner you've been wanting to get physical with for a while, it's time to give Acro a shot.
How You Know It's Not For You: You don't like people touching you. And you don't like heights. If you would prefer a more traditional form of yoga, maybe enroll in something else. Finally, Acro Yoga likely isn't for you if you would like to adopt a practice that nurtures your meditative state and instills inner independence.
6. Bikram Yoga (Hot Yoga)
Bikram Yoga is Hatha Yoga — just really hot. It's 90 minutes, 26 classical postures, and two breathing exercises, all done in a 105 degree room. The instructor teaches verbally, without demonstrating, so you learn by listening and watching the people in front of you. There is no impact at all in Bikram classes; instead of flowing through the poses, you perform one posture, pause (either standing or lying in savasana), and then slowly go onto the next. The series focuses a great deal on back and knee injuries, which is why a lot of athletes use it as a side practice.
This branch of yoga doesn't have the best reputation these days after all the messy, disgusting scandals the founder has been exposed for, but that doesn't take away from the healing benefits of the practice. Many studios have disassociated from the name while keeping the yoga, so you can choose a studio that isn't affiliated with the man Bikram Choudury. (Tweet me if you want some suggestions.)
How You Know It's For You: Got back and neck issues? Knee injuries? In my experience over the years both teaching and practicing, I can promise you this yoga will help you recover in ways you could never imagine. For example, it helped my scoliosis. If you're on the hunt for a challenging yoga, one that leaves you feeling accomplished and totally high on endorphins afterward, this is the style for you.
How You Know It's Not For You: Heat is not your friend, in any way, shape, or form. You also don't care for much strictness or discipline in yoga. In fact, you want a yoga that will prep you for a yummy night's sleep.