Hatha, Ashtanga, or … harmonica? How to find the right yoga style for you

July 08, 2015                 5m read time
Kathleen Dodge Doherty


With so many different kinds of yoga out there, how do you know which one is right for you? We researched nine of the most popular styles, so that you can select your next class with confidence.

More than 20 million people practice yoga in the U.S., yet it can still feel like you need a crash course in Sanskrit to choose the right class. We understand the intimidation factor. No one wants to stumble into a room full of head-standing gurus while sporting spanking-new Lululemon wear. Fear no more—whether you’re a total novice or are simply afraid to stray from your usual practice, we’ve got you covered.

While some core asanas (poses) will be found in virtually all yoga classes, how exactly you walk your downward-facing dog will vary tremendously depending on whether you’re seeking spiritual enlightenment, six-pack abs, or some combination of the two. Consider this your hip pocket guide to a few of the most popular yoga styles so that you can enter the room with your yoga mat held high and your expectations in check. Once you’ve mastered these, you can delve further into some of the more obscure styles, such as antigravity yoga, harmonica yoga, or the relative newcomer karaoke yoga.

Woman doing yoga on a outcrop overlooking a canyon. ZOZI

Woman doing yoga on a outcrop overlooking a canyon.

ZOZI

 

1. Hatha Yoga

Truthfully almost any class you sign up for in the West is a Hatha class, which is a catch-all phrase for yoga that teaches physical postures. But at a yoga studio, it’s usually a code word for a gentler, slower class well suited to anyone seeking stress management, relaxation, and deep stretching. For beginners, this is a great way to learn many of the poses that you’ll encounter in faster-paced classes. Typically Hatha classes are of the non-competitive let’s just all feel good variety.

2. Vinyasa/Flow

In yogi class speak, Vinyasa (or flow) is a general term for any style of yoga that links your movement to your breath in a flowing fashion. Usually intense and often to music, Vinyasa classes are great for athletic yogis who seek a fast-paced challenging workout. Classes can vary considerably depending on teacher styles, which make them appealing for anyone who gets bored doing the same poses all the time.

Woman doing yoga in the middle of the road. ZOZI

Woman doing yoga in the middle of the road.

ZOZI

 

3. Bikram/Hot Yoga

Can’t make it to India? No worries, Bikram yoga will make you feel like you’re practicing in a Calcutta heat wave. Developed in the 1970s by Bikram Choudhury, this is one of the few trademarked yogas. No matter where you step into a Bikram class it’s always the same 26 poses in a 105 degree room with 40 percent humidity. Believers swear by this method of flushing toxins, and the heat definitely provides a dual physical/mental challenge. Studios who don’t want to abide by Bikram’s exacting method (or required adherence to his training) often mix up the poses in an equally heated room and call it hot yoga. This is the perfect style for folks who want to work hard, drip sweat all over their mats, and get out the door. No music, no meditation, no oms. With over 1,000 studios worldwide, this is one of the most popular forms of yoga.

4. Kundalini

Meditative and spiritual, Kundalini (sometimes called laya yoga) is about as far from Bikram as you can get. Linking breath and gentle movement with incorporated chants, meditations, and mantras, Kundalini feels like the groovy bohemian hippie arm of yoga. Indeed, it was brought to the US in the late 1960s by Yogi Bhajan who founded the Healthy, Happy, Holy Organization (3HO). Kundalini has been dubbed the “ultra spiritual yoga celebrities love” thanks to its famous followers, including Al Pacino, Cindy Crawford, and Russell Brand. Concentrating on the coil of energy that sits near the base of the spine, Kundalini practitioners spend a lot of time sitting, breathing, and moving toward greater awareness. You probably won’t sweat too much, but you may find spiritual enlightenment.

Woman doing a full wheel on a rooftop. ZOZI

Woman doing a full wheel on a rooftop.

ZOZI

 

5. Ashtanga/Power Yoga

Ashtanga kicks your butt. While an ancient practice, it was popularized in the west by Sri K. Pattabhi Jois in the 1970s. A Vinyasa style yoga, Ashtanga is fast and challenging with movements linked to your breath. Like Bikram yoga, Ashtanga is always the same poses in the same order with no rest for the weary. Ashtanga’s combo of body sculpting and cardio work is appealing to those wanting to get in shape quickly or who are used to rigorous gym workouts, although like all yogas it’s adaptable to a variety of levels. Power yoga is to Ashtanga what hot yoga is to Bikram. They are very similar in terms of practice and challenge, but power yoga does not always subscribe to the same poses in the same order. And, as the name implies, it’s light on spiritual enlightenment, but often heavy on hard-bodied instructors.

6. Jivamukti

Developed by American Ashtanga teachers and vegans Sharon Gannon and David Life, Jivamukti promotes kindness toward all beings. Like Bikram, Jivamukti is also a proprietary style of yoga. In some ways Jivamukti is like a mashup of Ashtanga and Kundalini. Poses are done in a flowing fast-paced Vinyasa style, but meditation, chanting, and readings are also incorporated. This is another style popular with celebrities and animal-rights activists, and Willem Dafoe, Ellen Barkin, Steve Martin, Heidi Klum, Sarah Jessica Parker, Sting, and Gwyneth Paltrow are all practitioners. If you don’t mind a little proselytizing with your practice, this can be a great way to get in shape and embrace loving affirmations.

Woman on a boulder in the mountains in tree pose. ZOZI

Woman on a boulder in the mountains in tree pose.

ZOZI

 

7. Iyengar

Developed in India by B.K.S. Iyengar, who still practices regularly at 90 years and counting, this style can lovingly be described as the yoga for perfectionists and prop lovers. Poses are held longer than in most classes, and you can expect to use blankets, blocks, straps, and bolsters to help you achieve proper anatomical alignment. Indeed, this attention to correct alignment makes Iyengar great for those who are worried about hurting themselves or have existing injuries. A good Iyengar teacher will help you attain poses that are in your range, but won’t goad you to stretch further than you should. While it may not include a lot of jumping around or fast-paced flow, the attention to detail ensures a great physical and mental workout.

8. Anusara

One of the new kids on the yoga block, Anasura was developed by American John Friend in the late 90s. It’s similar to Iyengar in its attention to proper alignment and use of props, but has the added benefit of being like a therapy class where you talk a lot about opening your heart and getting in touch with your intrinsic goodness. This is the Burning Man of yoga—open, friendly, community-vibe with lots of sharing and emoting. Anusara can sometimes include partner work, so if you don’t feel like touching your fellow yoginis or getting in touch with your feelings, this might not be for you.

9. Restorative

Restorative yoga might be just the prescription you need for total release from stress. This is a gentler Hatha yoga, with many poses done lying on the floor using bolsters and blankets to passively ease your muscles into relaxation. Like Iyengar, it embraces props, but in this case props are used to allow for maximum stretch and release with limited concerted effort. It’s not unusual for these classes to be offered on Friday nights to help recover from the week.

Kathleen Dodge Doherty

Kathleen Dodge Doherty is an SF-based freelance writer, adventurer, and lover of all things outdoorsy. She is the author of "Day and Section Hikes: John Muir Trail" and has written for Fodors, Lonely Planet, Moon Handbooks, AFAR, and VIA Magazine. Formerly a leader of bicycling and hiking tours worldwide, Kathleen largely runs after her kids and jumps in local puddles these days.

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