Yoga has evolved over thousands of years into what it is today. At its core, yoga maintains its foundational principals and philosophy that have been passed down over the years. Today there are many types of yoga that all have these common ground principals structured into their style of practice.
While it’s not important to be a master of all styles of yoga, it is important to understand (especially as a teacher) and be aware of their differences. This allows us to better appreciate and respect the different practices of yogis all over the world, and also select a practice that best aligns with our own personal needs and limitations.
Ashtanga Yoga was introduced to the West in the 1970's by yogi Pattabhi Jois. Ashtanga is a rigorous style of yoga with a specific sequence of poses meant to challenge the mind, body, and soul. Ashtanga Yoga is designed to purify the body and cultivate a deeper connection to the self through asana (physical) practice. Ashtanga Yoga classes are usually high energy and physically challenging. The classes are always sequenced the same, with poses following in the same order. The focus of Ashtanga classes is linking every single movement in the class with breath, or pranayama.
Hatha Yoga Hatha Yoga encompasses many general styles of yoga. While its origin is thousands of years old, it was popularized by Tirumalai Krishnamacharya in the early 20th century. Through breathing exercises in combination with physical poses, Hatha yoga seeks to cleanse and connect the mind and body. Pranayama (the breath) and the asanas (the physical practice) are the most widely recognized parts of Hatha yoga. In Hatha Yoga's original philosophies, pranayama and asanas were meant to achieve a meditative state of oneness with the self. It was also meant to achieve oneness with a higher power; high consciousness, God, or the Universe. In modern yoga, although this is still the ultimate goal of Hatha Yoga, the physical aspects and benefits of Hatha Yoga are the most widely recognized in Western culture.
In the West, Hatha Yoga encompasses all the other major styles of yoga and is the most common class type offered in Western style yoga classes. A class that is titled "Hatha" is usually a gentle level class with basic yoga asanas. This type of class would probably not be considered a high energy class, such as a power or hot yoga class. Hatha yoga instead combines the use of deep breathing and different postures to achieve a meditative state.
The Hot Yoga class concept was first introduced by Bikram Choudhury in the 1970s under the title "Bikram Yoga". Since then, numerous Bikram studios and classes have been branded solely under that trademarked company. Bikram classes are performed in a room with a sauna-like environment. The temperature in these classes is turned up to around 40 degrees Celsius or up to 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Bikram Yoga is a branded form of yoga that includes a 26 pose sequence; with each pose done twice. Bikram Yoga classes are always sequenced the exact same way for every class.
Hot yoga, another version of the branded "Bikram" classes, has been adopted by other yoga studios in the West. These classes are also performed in a hot room with temperatures up to 40 degrees Celsius or 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Hot yoga classes differ from Bikram classes because there are no sequence or pose restrictions. Hot yoga classes focus more on a flow like sequence.
Hot Yoga and Bikram Yoga classes both use heat to aid in loosening stiff joints and strengthening muscles. The flow like sequence of the classes help to promote detoxification of the body through sweating.
Kundalini Yoga is rooted in Hatha Yoga and is commonly recognized for its spiritual benefits. The objective of this practice is to ‘uncoil’ and activate this energy through a series of poses, pranayama, sounds, and meditation. There's usually a specific focus on meditative yoga poses that relate to the core and lower back. Kundalini Yoga was popularized among Western audiences through famed yogi Yogi Bhajan.
A Kundalini Yoga class is typically structured in the following order; a warm up, kriya (a series of asanas, breathing, and sounds), relaxation, and meditation. Classes are typically opened and closed with a mantra.
Iyengar Iyengar Yoga was founded by B.K.S. Iyengar, one of the key influential figures of yoga during the 20th century. Iyengar Yoga classes focus on proper alignment and the precise use of teaching cues and language to achieve alignment. The classes focus on a progressive philosophy that includes basic beginner foundations in early classes. These beginner foundation classes later build upon more advanced classes as students progress in their practice.
Iyengar Yoga classes are structured around gradual progression of the practice over time. The classes are highly focused on finding proper alignment in each pose and breath connection in the poses. Iyengar classes also focus on the use of props to perfect alignment for each pose. In Iyengar classes, blankets, straps, blocks, chairs and other props are used frequently to help students understand key alignment principles for poses and for adjusting poses. Iyengar classes are usually slower pace with the poses being held for longer periods of time.
Restorative Yoga Restorative yoga is rooted in the teachings of Iyengar Yoga and was first introduced in the 1970's by Judith Lasater, a yoga teacher who was a student of Iyengar Yoga. Restorative yoga classes focus on a slow-paced style originally developed for students recovering from an illness or injury. Restorative yoga is also considered an ideal balance to hectic and stressful modern lifestyles.
Restorative yoga classes are very calm and slow-paced. These classes focus on the use of props to achieve restorative poses that calm and promote healing in the body. A restorative yoga class will usually include only 5-8 poses that are held for longer periods of time; up to five minutes or longer. The purpose of these classes is to relax and rest. The poses involved are calming and require minimal effort.
Like Hatha Yoga, Vinyasa Yoga also has a wide definition and encompasses many different sub genres. Hatha Yoga will often hold a pose for several breaths, striving for a meditative state and perfecting a posture before moving into the next pose. In contrast, Vinyasa Yoga is a ‘flow’ between poses. Vinyasa classes also include breathing techniques that focus on the transition of the flow between poses. In Vinyasa, the synchronization of the breath and movement is an important part of the practice.
Ashtanga Yoga is a subcategory of Vinyasa and follows the same predefined sequence in every class. In contrast, Vinyasa maintains a flexible approach to the practice of yoga with a more creative class sequence.
Vinyasa focuses on the transition between poses. It also maintains a more rapid flow of movement through different postures. The structure of Vinyasa flow will vary greatly from class to class since the definition of the style is so broad. Due to its faster class pace, many people are drawn to Vinyasa classes for its fitness benefits.
Yin Yoga Yin Yoga was founded by Paulie Zink, who came from a background of martial arts and Taoist yoga. In the 1970's, Zink introduced his students of martial arts into Yin Yoga, as he believed the flexibility drawn from it had suitable applications in the martial arts field. It was further popularized by Paul Grilley who incorporated his knowledge of anatomy into the practice, and later by Sarah Powers who helped to bring today’s version of Yin Yoga mainstream. Yin Yoga provides a slower and more meditative style of yoga. In Yin, different poses are held for longer periods of time for a deeper stretch. In these classes, a pose is usually held for 1-2 minutes, but can sometimes be held for up to 5 minutes in duration. The purpose of holding poses for long periods of time is to target the deeper tissues in our body; our connective tissue, ligaments, joints, and fascia. In Yin Yoga philosophy, it’s believed that by releasing our tissues in this way, we can improve and remove blocked Chi or energy in our body. Another benefit of Yin Yoga is that a static pose is a safer way to apply stress to the joints.
Yin Yoga is rooted in Taoist philosophy from the Yin-Yang symbol which represents the feminine side. Yin poses are still and calm poses that reach deeper muscle tissues. In contrast, yang poses are warmer and more energetic poses. Yin Yoga is often a great compliment to high energy yang style classes that are most commonly seen in today's Western yoga classes. In Yin classes, there is no warm-up and the emphasis is put onto connective tissue rather than on the muscles. Because of this, the cues and format will be pretty different from Hatha styled classes. The names of the asanas will also be different usually to draw attention to the fact that the approach to a certain posture is actually going to be different even though they may look similar. Gravity is usually going to be the biggest factor getting into a pose, rather than relying on the muscles.
So people aren't exactly sure what they are getting themselves into when they sign up for a Yin Yoga class or Restorative Yoga class. Knowing the differences will keep you from 1) being surprised about what a certain class entails and 2) can help you join a practice that best suits you physical and mental needs and capabilities. People from different backgrounds, cultures, and interests seek out yoga for a variety of reasons. All these differences are what truly make yoga such a beautiful and unique practice, giving everyone an opportunity to experience it in their own special way.