Yoga has come a long way since its early days in India more than 5,000 years ago. The health and wellbeing benefits of the age-old practice have been known for some time, but with more reasons for stress and anxiety than perhaps any other point in history, many Americans are turning to yoga for the first time in their lives in hopes of reaping some of those calming effects.
With an estimated 300 million yogis around the world and tens of thousands of yoga studios in the United States alone, yoga has been growing in popularity for several decades. But even as a longtime mainstay of the fitness industry yoga continues to baffle rookie and veteran practitioners alike, and with more than 100 different styles of yoga, from the traditional to the ultra-modern, it’s easy to see where the confusion arises.
Discovering what makes one type of yoga unlike the next can be an overwhelming experience, but it’s important to first and foremost understand which aspects of yoga have stayed true to their traditional roots in Hinduism and Buddhism, and which have been adapted or formed entirely in more recent years.
“In ancient times, yoga was primarily practiced to cultivate spiritual harmony and enlightenment,” says Nadia Agarwal, a yoga instructor and philosophy teacher at Vinyasa Yoga School in Rishikesh, India. “In its earliest forms, yoga was part of literal and metaphorical sacrificial practices, and similar to monkhood, taking up the study of yoga meant that you had to renounce the comforts of your life, so it was limited to a relatively small number of practitioners.”
The practice was long seen exclusively through a spiritual lens, and it was only within the last three or four centuries that yoga became more broadly known as a physical activity. It was during this time that several key figures introduced new forms of yoga, many of which are now seen as the most traditional forms in Western practice. Indian monk Swami Vivekananda, an early missionary of yoga, led classes and tours around the world in the late 19th century and sparked a global interest in Hinduism and the spiritual self-improvement associated with yoga.
The version of yoga that dominates the world today was in large part the brainchild of Tirumalai Krishnamacharya of Mysore, the so-called “father of modern yoga.”
“In the 1920s, he combined the rigorous practices of Western gymnastics with traditional asanas (yoga poses) and attracted a number of pupils who would continue to leave their own mark on yoga,” Agarwal explains.
Among his followers were his brother-in-law, BKS Iyengar, who developed Iyengar yoga; Pattabhi Jois, the creator of Ashtanga Vinyasa yoga; and Indra Devi, who pioneered yoga as exercise and shared it with some of Hollywood’s biggest stars after spending her 20s in India. Though many of these modern interpretations of yoga have commonalities between them and with more traditional forms, each has its own approach, style, and history, and learning about these differences is often the best way to find which type of yoga is ideal for you. But regardless of which style you practice, yoga is about the journey, knowing your body, and developing the tools to practice in a safe way.
One of the most popular styles of yoga in the United States, Vinyasa, a.k.a. “flow” or “vinyasa flow,” is heavily influenced by the more rigid Ashtanga and was really mastered by Krishnamacharya. Meaning “step by step” or “putting one thing after another,” Vinyasa is all about moving through various asanas, or poses, and linking the movement to targeted breath. “What I love about it is that it’s a bit more modern and creative and free, and it’s more alignment-focused,” says Briohny Smyth, a leading yoga instructor at Alo Moves, who specializes in Vinyasa. “It’s basically a practice where you use your breath to guide you through it and heat up your body, so it’s kind of like a moving meditation.”
The Vinyasa itself is a series of postures that are thread together, starting with downward-facing dog, moving into plank, then upward-facing dog, chaturanga, and back to down-dog. Although every Vinyasa practice can differ greatly in its poses and general focus, what makes a Vinyasa class a Vinyasa are these four common postures. “It’s great because within just those four postures, you’re really prepping the body, countering the body, and doing all sorts of things to help balance it,” Smyth explains. “We’ve found that it’s important to not just make shapes and put ourselves in these postures but to actually understand how they affect us anatomically and to make sure that we’re practicing them in a safe and engaged way. So, that’s where Vinyasa differs: It’s much more alignment and safety-focused.”
Ashtanga yoga refers to the “eight limbs” of yoga, as prescribed by the Sanskrit sutras of Patanjali. Popularized by Pattabhi Jois in the 1920s, the physical practice of Ashtanga is very similar to Vinyasa, but it’s a much more rigorous, regimented practice, whereby yogis repeat predefined asanas across six series.
“This style emphasizes building mind, body, and spirit through a steady practice of postures but also enriching the mind through reading ancient texts and meditating,” notes Vibay Chandran Weisbecker, a Holistic Wellness and Mindfulness Expert for Mindbody. “Depending upon the proficiency of a practitioner, they may choose the series (primary, intermediate, and advanced) that suits them, and Ashtanga is especially beneficial for those looking to advance their flexibility and knowledge of the sutras.” While Vinyasa is typically okay for yogis of all experience levels, Ashtanga is much more rooted in tradition and moves at a faster pace.
Brought to the West by Yogi Bhajan in the 1960s, Kundalini yoga is centered around purification and differs greatly from most mat-focused and asana-focused styles. In Sanskrit, “Kundalini” means “life force energy,” often called chi or prana among yogis, and the sequences used in this practice are intended to stimulate this energy and cleanse the body and mind of negativity.
“Practitioners looking to deepen their meditation practice will greatly benefit from its techniques,” says Chadran Weisbecker. “The yoga sequences are mostly focused on raising one’s Kundalini, the divine feminine energy said to live in the base of the spine coiled like a serpent, to higher energy centers through a series of simple yoga poses.”
Simple as these asanas may be, though, Kundalini involves holding these postures for extended periods of time and can therefore be quite challenging. “For instance, you’ve got your arms overhead, and you’re opening and closing your palms for 11 minutes,” Smyth adds. “It’s mentally challenging and physically challenging, but it’s a lot closer to a meditative, endurance practice, and again, the goal is purification, so you’re using a lot of breath techniques and building mental and physical endurance.” Kundalini practices frequently contain mantras and chants to help practitioners dive deep into their psyches and essentially burn through to purification. The style tends to appeal to a specific cohort of yogis who are looking to fully dedicate their minds to a practice.
Under the tutelage of Krishnamacharya, B.K.S. Iyengar developed Iyengar yoga as a way of making yoga accessible to all practitioners. Though props like blocks and cushions are usually viewed as optional in other forms of yoga, reserved only for those who need them, this alignment-based style is known for its use of props, including some non-traditional choices, like chairs and benches.
“His technique comprises of using props such as belts, bolsters, blankets, blocks, and chairs for differently-abled practitioners, Chadran Weisbecker explains. “And it is perhaps this custom approach to each practitioner that lends to this style of yoga’s immense popularity.” Often less intense than other types of yoga, Iyengar is suitable for all ages and levels and can be especially beneficial for pregnant women, athletes recovering from sports injuries, and older adults.
One of the oldest yoga styles, Hatha took shape between 1100 and 1500 C.E., and it was among the first to welcome all with open arms. “It didn’t ask its practitioners to renounce anything or follow a certain spiritual path,” says Agarwal. “All you had to do was practice with intention, and success would follow.”
The core concepts of Hatha are rooted in early Hindu and Buddhist texts and are centered around the preservation of one’s “amrta,” or “nectar of immortality,” which is believed to be semen in men and menstrual fluid for women. “Centuries later, the great sage Svatmarama would write the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, a landmark text on Hatha Yoga,” the Vinyasa Yoga School teacher explains. The writing built upon previous knowledge and laid out the foundational requirements for Hatha that included shatkarma (self-purification), 15 asanas, pranayama (breathing), kumbhaka (breath retention), mudras (energetic practices), meditation, chakras (centers of energy), and kundalini. To be considered Hatha, classes must include a mix of all of these, so Ashtanga, Iyengar, Bikram yoga, and a few other styles technically fall under the Hatha umbrella.
Often thought of as a very restorative yoga, Yin yoga is slower and more meditative that what are known as “yang” yogas, which focus on muscles, target the joints, tissue, and circulation to improve flexibility. In Yin yoga, poses are typically held for several minutes in order to fully stretch and lengthen the often-overlooked parts of the body.
“In the yoga world, Restorative and Yin are kind of used interchangeably, but there is technically a difference,” Smyth notes. At first glance, the two forms are very similar, but while Restorative Yoga unloads the muscles so that the physical body can relax, Yin actually compresses the body to rid it of restrictive tendencies and urges practitioners to breathe through the discomfort.
Smyth notes that though Yin is an excellent yoga methodology, it’s not for everyone.“Yin is a wonderful methodology, but it’s one that’s deeply rooted in rigidity,” says Smyth. He aads that it might not be the best pick for those who aren’t as anatomically focused.
Although Bikram’s founder, Bikram Choudhury, is now shrouded in controversy, the style does differ from just “hot yoga” because it involves a sequence of postures that must be practiced in the same order and according to rigid rules. Each class is an hour and a half long, consists of 26 asanas and two breathing exercises, and must take place in a room that is heated precisely to 105 degrees with 40 percent humidity.
“The practice was popular for decades among those looking to break into a sweat,” says Chadran Weisbecker. “However, performing advanced postures in a heated environment requires high tolerance to heat, high levels of flexibility, and remaining adequately hydrated.” With this in mind (and to avoid Choudhury’s involvement), many studios have opted to offer “hot yoga” classes, which allow them to customize the practice.
Gabby Shacknai is a New York-based journalist, who covers beauty and wellness, food and travel, and consumer-facing business. Gabby is a former Condé Nast editor and currently works as a freelance writer, contributing to Forbes, ELLE, Women’s Health, Fortune, Departures, and many other outlets.
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