Yoga is touted as one the best activities for combatting stress, but with so many styles out there, the sole act of choosing a class, can be, well, a bit stressful. And even if you're already devoted to one type of practice, you might not always be in the mood for the same workout — some days you want an all-out sweat sesh but others you crave a slower, more relaxing routine. We asked experts to share their tips for pinpointing the best type for your body and fitness goals, whether you're a newbie attempting your first downward dog or an experienced yogi craving a serious body challenge.
If you're new and want to improve flexibility and balance... Try Hatha
The traditionally slower and gentler pace of Hatha makes it the perfect practice for yoga virgins. "This style is perfect for those wanting a solid foundation of yoga postures and breaths," says Jessica Matthews, MS, a registered yoga teacher and assistant professor of exercise science at Miramar College in San Diego. But the reduced speed doesn't mean you won't score any body-boosting benefits. In fact, Hatha can help improve balance and flexibility while also boosting endurance. A 2005 study from the University of Wisconsin at LaCrosse found that after completing an eight-week Hatha program, participants' flexibility increased by 13 percent, especially in the shoulder and torso area. They also had more stability when holding balancing poses like tree or eagle pose. The study authors speculated that these improvements occurred because Hatha involved holding poses for at least 30 seconds, so you're continually stretching and lengthening key muscle groups. This type of yoga can boost the brain too: a study from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign found that just 20 minutes of Hatha improved speed and accuracy on cognitive tests— further proof that going slow has its perks.
If you want to sneak in a bigger workout... Try Vinyasa
Any yoga style will help tone and tighten, but the faster pace and more challenging poses of Vinyasa are the answer for anyone looking to add yoga to their repertoire of spinning and kickboxing. "You'll focus on breath-synchronized movements designed to create a flow throughout the practice which can boost muscular strength and endurance," says Mathews. The University of LaCrosse study from above found that on average, participants blasted about 170 more calories in an hour-long Vinyasa class than a traditional Hatha class
If you're a runner...Try Iyengar
Hitting the pavement is one of the easiest ways to to get in fat-blasting cardio, but even the most dedicated runners need a few days off to cross-train and reboot. Iyengar yoga may be the perfect way to take a break and even work out any injuries. Precision is key in this style, and it uses a variety of props — blocks, blankets, straps and ropes hanging from the wall — to get every posture in exact alignment, down the the fingers and hands. You won't get away with a lazy downward dog here! "In Iyengar, the emphasis is placed on holding postures longer as opposed to quickly flowing from one posture to another. Plus it really focuses on proper body alignment so it's a great way to complement any running routine," says Mathews. And because instructors go through intense training program (it can take a minimum of four years to become certified to teach an intro level), they have the knowledge and experience to address any running injuries with alternate postures and modifications.
If you want to completely zen out... Try Kundalini
A tough week at the office or a social calendar filled to the brim with happy hours calls for a day of mental recovery... sans the martinis. Kundalini, a style that fuses meditation, postures, chanting, breathing exercises and even singing and dancing, is sure to bring your frazzled self back to equilibrium. Unlike Hatha or Bikram, Kundalini doesn't follow a set routine of postures, so no two classes are alike. The point is to focus on harnessing your inner energy and bringing balance to the mind and body. "This can be a great style for people seeking greater enlightenment and awareness and drawn toward living a more spiritually focused life," says Mathews. And spiritual doesn't have to mean religious: Kundalini, like other styles of yoga, is nondenominational and welcomes all, regardless of beliefs.
If you're a skeptic... Try Bikram
Even an advanced Hatha class will have your ticker racing, but if you're not sure that yoga will give you the kick-butt workout that you need, this toasty style is sure to challenge even the biggest of fitness buffs. A series of 26 poses is repeated twice in seriously heated room — we're talking 105 degrees with 40 percent humidity — so prepare to discover sweat glands in places you never knew existed. This practice comes with demonstrated body benefits too: A study in the Journal of Strength Conditioning Research found that Bikram significantly increased lower back, hamstring and shoulder flexibility and even helped shed body fat.
Image Credit: EpicStockMedia/Fotolia