What Do All The Different Types Of Yoga Actually Mean?
The Debrief: Because we hatha no idea
Illustration by Sara Maese
We've finally reached a point where everyone knows better than to assume that yoga practice is reserved for hippies, spiritualists and Demi Moores of the world. It's everywhere and is very much for anyone and everyone willing to have a go at it. These days we're just as likely to be spotted lugging yoga mats around as we are juggling bottles of special offer prosecco. We're all about both lives.
That said, while we may have new trendy yoga classes coming out of our ears, do we actually know much about what these different types of classes really mean? I don't know about you but even though I've come to terms with downward dogging, when it comes to picking a class from a timetable, it’s more a case of eeny, meany, miny, mo, than educated decision making. Which might have something to do with coming out of some classes feeling like I've mastered the thing, and coming out of others trying to work out how long I'd been asleep for.
To help sort the yins from the vinyasas and solve the mystery of what we're meant to be getting from each class, I spoke to the very wise Chris Magee, who heads up the yoga side of things over at the Another_Space studios in London. Here's your comprehensive list of some of the most popularly practised styles of yoga, and a handy guide to what their defining features are.
See, aerial yoga looks like a blast, but can also just look a bit like you're hanging out in a hammock if you don't really know how to approach it (see the time Social Media Editor Alyss and I tried it for evidence). But what's great about it is that it's incredibly freeing. 'Think of it the same way as an athlete recovering from a knee injury', Chris says. 'They might be put in a pool to train, for example'. In the same way that training in a pool would be beneficial for this poor injured theoretical athlete, doing aerial yoga can have similar effect – decreasing the impact on some areas of your body while still working the areas you want. 'The hammock can take lots of the strain from your joints and gravity does the work for you', he explains. 'Decompressing without needing as much effort'.
What's it good for? The fun times, ease of movement and avoiding strain on weak joints
Can I go as a beginner? Knowing the basics might be helpful, particularly for your confidence. But Chris says it's also a good way to teach people certain inversions too.
Ashtanga seems to be one of the more popular yoga variations. Chris explains that it’s built around a set series of moves, so every time you go back to a class you’ll be lead through the same movements in the same order. Basically, you’ll always know what’s coming. It’s pretty common to see self-led Ashtanga classes on offer too but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they're particularly easy. ‘You need reasonable dexterity and body awareness’, Chris says. ‘Lots of people rush themselves through the moves and end up with injuries’. So it would help to be pretty confident in what you’re doing for this one.
What’s it good for? If you want something a bit more vigorous.
Can I go as a beginner? It’s got some pace to it. Chris wouldn’t recommend if you’ve never done yoga before
You’re probably already familiar with this specific form of hot yoga. Bikram yoga is only Bikram yoga if it’s practised an intense the 40-degree heat and humidity. The class revolves around a set 26 poses that you do repeat on both sides of the body. ‘All Bikram teachers have to go and train at his [Bikram Choudhury, the founder of this style] studio, so if you go to any Bikram class you’ll hear them say the same thing', Chris explains. So if you're looking for variation, this might not be the one. And yes, it's like being a sauna. Chris also says that Bikram classes are more about the sequence than the individual teachers.
What’s it good for? A very sweaty challenge.
Can I go as a beginner? You’ll want to have a comfortable idea of yoga poses before you practice them in that sort of heat. It takes a lot out of you.
All yoga is Hatha, you guys. 'The asana part of a practice, the poses that we do all come from a type of Hatha', says Chris. 'It's very beginner friendly bridges the gap between having the time to find poses with enough time to understand how they connect'. Hatha classes are pretty gentle and cover a lot of the fundamentals of yoga. That said, it's not one Chris'd recommend if you want a physical challenge.
What's it good for? Learning combinations
Can I go as a beginner? If there's anywhere to start, it's here, my friend
So any yoga that's done in above room temperature settings but not at Bikram's specific level of heat, is just called hot yoga and there are so many variations. For example, Chris' class infrared heat at 32 degrees so you still get the benefit of your muscles being warm but also don't get the same level of dehydration that you find with warmer traditional classes. The other difference between hot yoga and Bikram is that you're not dependent on the specific routine that Bikram follows so there is room for variation.
What’s it good for? If you want the heat and increased muscle flexibility without the intensity of Bikram
Can I go as a beginner? Just be prepared to be challenged a little differently
Iyengar yoga is also named after a person. It was founded in India by a guy called Bellur K. S. Iyengar and the style is very similar to Vinyasa only much slower and very methodical, prop heavy rather strict on finding specific alignments. You'll be told when you're doing things wrong and what you should be doing better in a class, but Chris says it can feel a little militant if you're not used to that as a means of instruction.
What's it good for? Precision and knowing exactly what certain poses are meant to look and feel like
Can I go as a beginner? Yes - it's so slow and specific that your muscle memory will develop from the correct poses
This one is probably the most spiritually orientated of the lot. The first thing you'll notice is that in Jivamukti classes, they always begin with chanting and singing. ‘They’ll sing a call and response, that’s how they open, and they normally operate with a theme of the month’, Chris tells me. Again, every teacher will take you through more or less the same thing but they tend to allow space within sequences to do their own thing if you’re a fan of things ups. But if you’re not into the chanting thing, you (really) might want to choose another type of class as it plays a pretty significant role.
What’s it good for? Giving that spiritual connection a go
Can I go as a beginner? Sure, but you won’t see the benefits until you’re really in the flow of the classes. Chris says you’ll probably need to go 10-15 times.
This is the sort of class you’ll probably lean towards if you want more of a relax and unwind type of experience from your yoga sessions. Restorative yoga typically uses lots of props but is generally a slow and gentle practice. ‘You might only look at ten poses within a class’, Chris says. ‘You gently ease yourself into a pose and then you’ll stay there, holding the shape for 5 or 6 minutes’. It’s meant to give your body the chance to decompress and compose'. It’s a lot more meditative than the others, too.
What’s it good for? Besides physical and mental relaxation? It's a good way to complementarily incorporate yoga into your wider fitness training.
Can I go as a beginner? Yes, there tend to be lots of levels of this one.
Here we've got another super popular, very widely practised type of yoga. Chris explains that it's all about conscious breath and movement and, in fact, you'll find lots of elements of the Vinyasa style in a lot of the things you'll do in an Ashtanga or Yin classes. 'You're connecting your breath and movement together which means everything flows a lot more', says Chris. 'Lots of people hold their breath when they first start practice', he added. And yes, I'll put my hands up, I'm definitely guilty of casually forgetting to breathe.
What’s it good for? Diverse levels of ability and getting comfortable with your breathing technique.
Can I go as a beginner? Yes! It's a great way to get into the habit of what how movements should feel.
Yin is very similar to restorative, and yes, it’s called Yin as in the other side of yang. Unlike restorative yoga though, the use of props isn’t anywhere near as integral to the practice. It's typically more of a passive practice where you allow your muscles to *really* release tension. There’s a big focus on mentally releasing though, too. The Yoga Unwind class at Another_Space is a combination of slow flow yin and restorative yoga, which is pretty much the dream end of week exercise scenario.
What’s it good for? Really actually letting go of any and all tension super gently
Can I go as a beginner? Definitely.
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