Perfect Yoga Practice: Which Yoga is Best?

Yoga Practices - People practicing yoga, doing the child's pose.

Whether you are looking for a challenging workout or a way to unwind, there’s a yoga practice for you. Yoga’s popularity is growing with everyone from athletes to senior citizens. Based on a 2016 study by Yoga Journal and Yoga Alliance, there are over 36 million practitioners of yoga in the United States alone! This is an increase over 20 million in 2012. “Beyond yoga’s increasing popularity, what’s fascinating is the data shows that those who practice and teach yoga have measurably better perceptions of their individual strength, balance, dexterity, and mental clarity versus non-practitioners,” said Yoga Alliance Executive Director and COO Barbara Dobberthien. “Practitioners are also much more likely to be involved in a variety of other forms of exercise, as well as focused on sustainable living and eating.”
While the top five reasons for starting yoga are: flexibility (61%); stress relief (56%); general fitness (49%); improve overall health (49%) and physical fitness (44%), those who practice report additional benefits of yoga, including a strong sense of mental clarity (86%) and a feeling of being physically strong (73%), rates that are significantly higher than those who do not practice yoga.
Once if you’re ready to get started, how do you find the right type of yoga? There are countless types of yoga, which continue to grow and develop with yoga’s increasing popularity in the United States. Here’s an introduction to many of the more common types of yoga classes and a guide to helping you pick the right fit.

Yoga asana - Woman doing the Cobra Pose

Hatha Yoga:

is what most of us think of when yoga comes to mind. It is any type of yoga that focuses on physical practice of asanas (the Sanskrit word used to describe yoga postures). Areas of yoga outside of Hatha Yoga include pranayama (breath work) or meditation. While some teachers and schools describe the type of class they provide as hatha yoga, it doesn’t tell you much about the type of practice you will experience beyond knowing that it will emphasize physical movement.

Iyengar Yoga:

is one of the most widely recognized types of yoga in the United States.  While these classes are physically challenging, they incorporate the use of props and slower transitions to emphasize proper alignment and accommodate all body types and levels of health. If you would like to focus on building strength and flexibility but appreciate a slower paced class and the incorporation of meditation and breathwork, you will likely enjoy this type of yoga. The postures and alignment introduced by Iyengar are incorporated into most other common types of yoga and will be a good preparation for other practices if you decide you would like to try a faster paced class. Purna Yoga also provides an Iyengar approach to yoga practice.
A woman stretching and doing a Seated Forward Bend

Vinyasa Yoga

This type of yoga links movement between postures with the use of breath. These classes can range from therapeutic to powerful but will usually include both standing and seated postures within a class and may include props for assistance. You will find the level of intensity in a Vinyasa yoga class can vary significantly, so it’s good to touch base with the studio ahead of time to ensure the pace of the class will meet your needs. Power Yoga and Ashtanga Yoga are variations of Vinyasa Yoga, as is ViniYoga, a therapeutic form of yoga (see Restorative below). Om Yoga, Jivamukti Yoga, and Prana Flow yoga also provide variations of a Vinyasa style.

Power Yoga:

includes several types of yoga offered as a vigorous vinyasa practice. Baptiste Yoga, Ashtanga Yoga, and Forrest Yoga are all types of power yoga. Classes are designed to be physically challenging, building strength, flexibility, and mental focus. This type of yoga tends to appeal to athletic individuals who use yoga as a form of strength training or who are committed to a yoga practice as its own pursuit. Most power yoga classes can be modified for varying levels of fitness, but you should expect a vigorous, flowing practice and the opportunity to challenge your strength and balance.
A Woman doing the Crane/Crow Asana

Hot Yoga:

can include any yoga class that takes place in a warm or heated studio, or it might refer specifically to a Bikram type of yoga class (see below). Hot yoga classes range in temperature from a gentle 80 degree room that assists flow and restorative practices to more intense classes that take place at up to 105 degrees. Hot yoga studios typically have high humidity as well, which means you will sweat a lot during class. Those who enjoy hot yoga find that the temperature increases the intensity and focus during their practice and that the warm room increases flexibility. Most yoga classes can also be taught in a hot yoga studio. Popular styles include Power yoga, Bikram Yoga, Vinyasa yoga, and Restorative yoga. Forrest Yoga and Baptiste yoga, both variations of vinyasa yoga classes are also provided in a warmer than room temperature yoga studio.

Bikram Yoga:

is a type of Hot Yoga practiced in a room of 105 degrees. Classes are typically 90 minutes long and always follow the same format of 2 breathing exercises and 26 postures. The classes also incorporate brief breaks between each of the postures, which makes the intensity of the class manageable in the heated studio.  Bikram is designed to be a beginner class, though it does not include props and it provides a challenging class for all bodies.  Bikram is useful for building both strength and flexibility and does not incorporate a great deal of yoga philosophy or meditation in the standard class.  Variations of Bikram yoga may be offered as “Hot Yoga”, “26 and 2” or “Classic Hot Yoga”.  These classes may offer a very similar (or identical) format to the Bikram class but do not take place in a Bikram studio under the guidance of a Bikram trained teacher.
Yoga - Feet, Hands, Mat

Kundalini Yoga/Kripalu Yoga:

emphasizes the movement of prana (energy) within the body based on awakening Kundalini, which is envisioned as a coiled snake at the base of the spine.  Classes will include physical postures, but will also include chanting, mudras, meditation, and breathwork.  Kundalini classes may include vigorous postures, while Kripalu classes are likely to be gentler paced.  These classes will resonate with those who are interested in the mental and psychological benefits of yoga and who are comfortable with incorporating chanting and yoga philosophy into classes.

Restorative Yoga/Therapeutic Yoga:

can include different formats.  Restorative classes are generally focused on improving flexibility and might also include a Yin Yoga approach that includes long holds of postures and incorporates work on the connective tissue of the body.  These classes are slow paced and provide an opportunity to incorporate the meditative aspects of stretching and movement. Therapeutic yoga is not limited to working on flexibility and may include addressing muscle imbalances and building strength in the body.  Therapeutic yoga may also be called Vinyasa or Viniyoga due to its incorporation of breath with movement between postures. Many Vinyasa classes also include therapeutic or restorative yoga during a portion of the class.
The types of yoga described above are only the beginning of understanding the many schools of yoga available.  Yoga Journal provides an excellent resource to learn more about the types of yoga and teachers in the United States.  You can also use their website for instructional videos and brief home practices.  Treating yourself to classes at a local studio is the best way to really experience the energy of a group practice and benefits of individualized instruction.  It is also invaluable in learning proper form and improving the alignment of your body.  You can complement this practice through the many online class resources (here are some of our favorite beginner friendly poses) and affordable DVD’s (check your local library!) that make practicing at home a convenient option.
About the writer: Joli Guenther is a certified personal trainer, yoga instructor and clinical social worker practicing in and around Madison, Wisconsin. Learn more about Joli.



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