Whether you do yoga at the Y, a boutique studio or with an app on your living room floor, you probably know that there are plenty of ways to get into the flow. But figuring out which practice best suits you can be tougher than holding half-moon pose.
Yoga (which comes from the Sanskrit root yuj, and means “to yoke” or “to unite”) is a discipline that dates back thousands of years in India. It didn’t catch on in the United States until about 50 years ago, but now it’s a fixture on the wellness scene.
There are so many options and adaptations that it can be difficult to keep them apart. What makes Bikram different from other hot yogas? How does ashtanga compare with Iyengar? Does aerial yoga require experience as an acrobat? How does hip-hop yoga fit into the matrix?
To help you sort your anusura from your vinyasa, we’ve come up with this simple guide:
When people think of yoga, this is the practice that probably comes to mind. It focuses on basic postures such as downward facing dog or the warrior poses. Sometimes the poses are combined into a set or series — for example, sun salutations — with each pose held for several breaths. Breathing is rhythmic, used to drive the motion, as well as a way to find stillness. Great for yoga newbies, hatha also is recommended for anyone looking for a good stretch.
Closely related to hatha, this type of yoga was developed in the late 1990s by American teacher John Friend. It’s based on the idea that humans have an intrinsic goodness that we can experience through yoga. Classes follow set sequences that are physically challenging and aimed at opening not just the body, but the heart and mind. If you’re looking for a workout with a deep focus on the inner and outer sense of self, this might be a good option.
There are different styles of yoga designed to make you sweat. Bikram — named after founder Bikram Choudhury, who popularized the series in the 1970s — is highly regimented: It consists of 26 postures, mostly done twice in a row, in a hot, humid room where temperatures can exceed 100 degrees. The idea is that the heat helps protect your muscles from injury while allowing you to deepen the poses. Because the Bikram series never changes, it’s good for beginners as well as advanced practitioners, unless they’re easily bored.
Hot yoga, on the other hand, is derived from Bikram, but is flexible in format. It just means the room is warm — typically 80 to 100 degrees — and might contain any range of postures or particular series.
In a heated class, an instructor will likely remind students that if they start to feel lightheaded, they always have the option to lie down on the mat. Pregnant women and people with conditions including cardiovascular disease, back pain, asthma, diabetes or low blood pressure should consult a doctor before trying hot yoga.
Developed by the B.K.S. Iyengar in the 1970s, this practice is regimented and form-focused and relies on props such as blocks, straps, bolsters and blankets to support your body. There are hundreds of different sequences, which means there’s also a lot of variety among classes. Poses are held for varying lengths of time and do not flow from one to the next: The goal is to achieve proper alignment, as well as building strength and balance. It can be practiced by everyone from beginners to advanced students and is an especially good way to understand postures from the inside out.
If you’ve ever been to a yoga class where the word “flow” was used a lot, it was probably a vinyasa class. In this type of yoga, the emphasis is on performing poses that are fluid from one to the next. There is no set series, and an instructor may even ask students to call out things they want to work on. Mindfulness of breath, and marrying your breath to movement, is a part of this practice.
Many vinyasa classes are open to all levels, but studios often will designate more challenging intermediate or advanced classes. Vinyasa can be physically challenging. In fact, depending on where you’re taking the class and who’s teaching it, it can feel like a full-on aerobic workout. Even the “flow” can be tough. Many teachers call for students to take a vinyasa between poses, which means moving from downward dog into high plank and then into low plank, then through upward dog and then back to downward dog.
Vinyasa requires a fair amount of strength, but once you get the hang of it, the feeling is powerful. If you have injuries, you can ask your instructor for modifications.
Similar to vinyasa, ashtanga flows from one pose to the next, guided by your instructor, linking your breath to the movement of your body. But ashtanga uses the same poses in the same progression. Expect a good workout. You’ll likely challenge yourself and work up a sweat.
If you’re patient enough to stay in a posture for a long time, then yin might be for you. In these classes, the instructor will have you hold a posture for several minutes, which helps connective tissue (such as tendons, ligaments and fascia) become more flexible. A long half-pigeon pose can be challenging in the moment, but your body will thank you the next time you’re holding Warrior Two.
The goal of this practice, which is good for students of all experience levels, is relaxation, rejuvenation and healing. It is a slow-paced, meditative style that focuses on stretching by holding poses for up to several minutes (sometimes with supportive props such as blankets and bolsters) and turning your attention inward. Restorative classes are often held in evening with the lights turned down. And for a good reason: The classes can be like taking a sleep-free nap that leaves you feeling restored.
If you ever wanted to run away and join the circus, aerial yoga offers you the opportunity to feel like you’re swinging from a flying trapeze — or at least being suspended a few feet off the ground. Taught mostly in specialty studios, students do traditional yoga poses, supplemented by a hammock that allows them to hang in the air. With the aid of gravity, it can help students deepen poses that might be more difficult on the ground. It’s also super fun.
Aerial yoga may not be right for everyone. Pregnant women, and anyone with an injury or medical condition, should consult a health professional before pursuing this practice.
Boutique yoga styles
As yoga becomes an increasingly popular form of exercise in the United States, boutique studios and fitness companies are coming up with new styles. One variation is Y7 Yoga, which pairs energetic flow sequences with heart-thumping hip-hop music (it’s a little like the SoulCycle version of yoga). Paddleboard yoga is another emerging form, in which balancing — and the occasional splash into the water — adds an extra challenge.
Some newfangled styles may not make it into your regular rotation. But who knows? Getting into downward dog with a goat balancing atop your back might be a charming way to enhance your practice.