You’ve decided to take up yoga. Your work colleague, other half, sibling, favourite musician, favourite surfer, favourite sports player and Oprah are all blabbering on about how its changed their lives. So you go online and look to book into a class…but which one?! How many different ways can a person possibly stretch and meditate?! And is it better to be revitalised or grounded?!
It’s tricky. And that’s why here I’ll be looking to a) give some information on the different schools of yoga, and b) simplify things so you can get on with doing something positive for your body and mind. I’ve also included guides to pronunciation of each yoga style. Some words I’ll reference that you mightn’t have come across before are;
Asana - the physical practice of yoga that we spend most of our time in western studios working on (yoga being the overarching mental, physical and philosophical practice)
Pranayama - the practice of mindful breathing exercises
Sanskrit - the language of ancient and medieval India
Props - any object used in a class to provide extra physical support or assistance for a student (eg: straps, blocks, bolsters etc)
1. Hatha (HA-THA)
One of the most ancient forms of yoga referenced, and one that could be said to incorporate all other schools of yoga. Translateable as meaning either ‘forceful’ or ‘wilful’ or a combination of “ha”, meaning sun, and “tha”, meaning moon; a fitting translation for a school of yoga focused on the idea of balance.
In modern yoga studios, a hatha class will generally focus on mindful breathing, long asana holds, meditation and a slow, gentle practice. Generally the class that is recommended for beginners, this is still a practice that will equally benefit the more seasoned yogi amongst us.
Summary: Hatha is the Ikea of yoga.
2. Ashtanga (ASH-TANGA)
A school of yoga developed by Sri T. Krishnamcharya in the early 20th century, popularised by K. Pattabhi Jois and subsequently his grandson Sharath Jois. Ashtanga translates from Sanskrit as “Eight-limbed”. Asana practice is only one of the eight facets of this school, along with pranayama, yama (rules of moral code), niyama (rules of personal behaviour), pratyahara (withdrawal of the senses), dharana (concentration), dhyana (meditation), and samadhi (complete integration).
Ashtanga is comprised of a set routine, drawn from one of six different series depending on how advanced the practitioner is. Postures are moved through in a predetermined order with a set number of breaths.
In studios, Ashtanga is taught in one of two ways; ‘lead’ (with the teacher guiding and counting you through the practice) or ‘Mysore’ (pronounced ‘my-sore’ - where the student moves through the postures at their own speed and breath with the teacher only providing adjustments). As students progress, they may move from practicing ‘primary’ to ‘intermediate’ and then on to the four advanced series. It is a school of yoga generally viewed as being more physically demanding than many others.
Summary: Ashtanga is for hyperactive control freaks.
3. Yin (REALLY?!)
A more modern style of yoga formulated in the 1970s by Paulie Zink, yin yoga is a discipline involving comparatively long holds of postures. Taking its name from Taoist philosophy, yin is focused on passivity, stillness and gentleness. On the opposite end of the spectrum to the likes of vinyasa yoga, postures are held from anywhere between 45 second to 5 minutes or more.
Don’t be fooled, though! Although in yin, use of props is encouraged and postures don’t tend to be held as deeply (at least initially), the ability to hold a pose for such a length of time and maintain stillness of mind and body can be incredibly challenging (and rewarding!).
Summary: Yin is for human slugs and people who are literally asleep.
4. Vinyasa (VIN-YAH-SA)
Taking its name from ashtanga yoga (the phrase ‘vinyasa’ referring to the flow of postures used to transition between poses), vinyasa is a modern offshoot of ashtanga involving many of the same postures from the six series. Unlike ashtanga yoga, however, postures are generally not held for any great length of time and more emphasis is placed on the flow from posture to posture. As well as this, there is no pre-determined sequence of postures that are moved through.
In most yoga studios, vinyasa yoga is taught accompanied by fast-paced, modern music (I’ve never sounded so middle aged…), making it a very mentally accessible style for newcomers (though standards can vary greatly, so be sure to check in advance!). Given that emphasis is placed on movement, however, it can also be a demanding cardio workout.
Summary: Vinyasa is sort of like the Mumford & Sons of the yoga world.
5. Iyengar (EYE-YEN-GAR)
A school of yoga developed by another student of Sri T. Krishnamcharya, Iyengar is named after its founder B.K.S Iyengar who formulated the practice in the 1960s. Iyengar yoga is a style predominately focused on the combination of breath and asana practice, with great emphasis placed on correct alignment. Although perhaps lacking in a sense of flow that is present in other styles of yoga, Iyengar is a great option for understanding all the most subtle intricacies involved in physical postures.
When you decide to attend your first Iyengar yoga class, expect extensive use of props. This can involve anything from blocks, bolsters, straps, mats and everything in between. (Think 50 Shades of Grey but without any sex or the complete waste of paper it’s printed on) The tweaks to your physical practice gleaned from this discipline can be extremely helpful when applied to other styles of yoga class.
Summary: Iyengar is for fetishists and Mums who say “Stop slouching"!”
6. Kundalini (KUN-DAH-LEE-NEE)
Kundalini yoga, as we now know it, is a combination of many traditions which include hatha yoga techniques (such as bandha, pranayama, and asana), Patañjali's kriya yoga (consisting of self-discipline, self-study, and devotion to God), tantric visualisation and meditation techniques of laya yoga, amongst others. All of these techniques are concerned with the ‘awakening of Kundalini’ - a spiritual energy or life force located at the base of the spine. The practice of Kundalini yoga aims to arouse the sleeping ‘Kundalini Shakti’ from its coiled base through the 6 chakras, and penetrate the 7th chakra - crown of the head (This all sounds a bit ‘Ananconda’ - Jennifer Lopez & Ice Cube’s critically acclaimed 1997 masterpiece) . This practice was brought to the west and popularised by Harbhajan Singh Khalsa, or Yogi Bhajan, in the 60s. Although the integrity of the original teachings was disputed by teachers and scholars in India (traditional Kundalini yoga would have demanded renunciation of sensual pleasures and material possessions etc), the style of Kundalini devised by Bhajan became popular in the counterculture of 60s America and quickly spread.
In a Kundalini yoga class you can expect hatha style asana practice, chanting, pranayama and meditation practice. While perhaps demanding more of an open mind in our more secular, sceptical society (eg: “You’re mental!” or “There’s no such thing as ghosts!”), Kundalini practitioners will speak highly of the transcendental journey towards enlightenment that is the goal of the practice.
Summary: Kundalini is for people who want to release their inner trouser snake.
7. Jivamukti (JEE-VAH-MUK-TEE)
Jivamukti is a school of yoga developed by David Life and Sharon Gannon in the mid 1980s. Students originally of Sivinanda yoga, Life and Gannon established their Jivamukti Yoga Society in New York upon their return from study in India. Comprised of two Sanskrit words, jiva - meaning the living soul, and mukti - meaning liberation from the cycle of death and rebirth, Jivamukti in essence translates as “liberation while living”. The discipline is founded on five central tenets - Shastra (scripture), Bhakti (devotion), Ahimsa (non-violence), Nada (music) and Dhyana (meditation). Animal rights, veganism and environmentalism are also core principles of this style of yoga. (Why can’t just one of these schools be based on hot chocolate or…I don’t know…foot rubs?!)
Asana practice in the form of vinyasa yoga is a core element of a standard Jivamukti class, together with Sanskrit chanting, music, exploration of the relevance of yogic scripture on modern life, pranayama and meditation.
Summary: Jivamukti is for Gwyneth Paltrow and people who buy those baggy elephant print trousers when they go on their first long distance holiday.
8. Bikram (BIK-RAM)
Bikram yoga was devised by Bikram Choudhury in the early 1970s. Exploding in popularity in the mid 2000s, this style of yoga was somewhat tarnished as its founder became embroiled in accusations of sexual harassment (literal quote: "Why would I have to harass women? People spend one million dollars for a drop of my sperm!"), sexual assault, false imprisonment, bullying, and fraud (to name but a few!) Choudhury subsequently fled to India when an arrest warrant was issued by an LA judge. At its height, there were 1,650 Bikram studios worldwide. There are now less than 1,000.
Bikram is a style of yoga involving 26 sequenced postures practiced in a room at 35-42C degrees for 90 minutes. It is often claimed that the increased heat encourages sweating so as to aid in the release of toxins* from the body and a deepening of the physical practice. Competition is also encouraged in Bikram yoga, with the Yoga Asana Championships taking placing regionally and nationally in many countries.
Note: I’ve done my best with this list to try and maintain a neutral tone when describing the various schools of yoga so as to avoid encouraging prejudice in the reader. Here, however, I feel it would be remiss of me not to voice my discouragement of the practice of Bikram yoga. This could well form the basis of a future article, however feel free to get in touch if you’d like a more immediate explanation!
* A word I would suggest be stricken from the English language!
Summary: Bikram is for people who enjoy self-flagellating in Speedos.
9. Forrest (FOREST)
Forrest yoga was devised by Ana Forrest in 1975. Based on a synthesis of hatha, vinyasa, sivinanda and iyengar, the practice aims to connect its students with their feelings and emotions in an effort to work through physical and emotional trauma. Forrest is based on four principles, known as ‘pillars’: Breath, Strength, Integrity and Spirit. Students are encouraged to ‘breathe’ into areas deemed to be energetically stagnant, blocked or physically tight.
Forrest classes take place in a heated room of 25C degrees and generally begin with a pranayama practice, before moving on to more dynamic poses. Although, as mentioned, the asana practiced in Forrest yoga are drawn from other schools, there are also a number unique to this school. Further to this, many poses are adjusted to suit our western physicality and needs (no, a cheese plate is not a ‘need’), as well as being more neutral and protective of areas such as the neck or knees (in contrast to practices such as Ashtanga).
Summary: Forrest is for people who have lungs in their knees.
10. Sivananda (SIEVE-AH-NAN-DA)
Sivananda is a school of yoga brought to the west in the late 1950s by Swami Vishnudevananda, a disciple of Swami Sivananda after whom the practice is named. Vishnudevananda based Sivananda yoga on five basic principles: proper exercise (asana), proper breathing (pranayama), proper relaxation (savasana), proper diet (vegetarian), positive thinking (vedanta) and meditation (dhyana). The practice is limited to only twelve central poses, each selected to ensure a rounded physical practice is completed - inversions, backbends, forward bends, twists, balances, and hamstring stretches. As the practitioner becomes more advanced, variations on these poses are then offered.
As per Ashtanga and Bikram, in a standard Sivananda class the student can expect the class to follow a relatively rigid format; savasana, pranayama, the twelve asanas and savasana once more. The class will also often begin and end with mantras chanted. The idea behind the limited number of asana postures is that the student carefully and methodically works through and engages deeply with each posture, facilitating a stillness of the mind through familiarity and repetition.
Summary: Sivananda is for people who like to eat their Weetabix dry. While chanting.
11. Rocket (ROCKET)
Rocket yoga is a style of practice developed by Larry Schultz in San Francisco in the 1980s. Schultz, previously a dedicated ashtanga student of K. Pattabhi Jois, drew from primary, intermediate and the third and fourth advanced series to form its own unique format. The name ‘Rocket’ was introduced when Bob Weir of The Naked Dead said of the practice that “It gets you there faster!”. Unlike Ashtanga yoga, students are encouraged to make any adjustments to poses that they feel suit their body or desired practice, known as “The Art Of Modification”. Although a style of yoga more popular in American yoga circles, Rocket is beginning to appear on an increasing number of UK and European studio schedules.
As per Ashtanga, from which the practice is drawn, a Rocket class tends to be strenuous. For those who are keen to work towards balances, inversions and hanstands - this is the class for you!
Summary: Sting practices Rocket. Make of that what you will.
12. Pilates (PEE-LAH-TAYS)
Although not a school of yoga, I wanted to include a description of Pilates and the ways in which it differs from yoga. Pilates was formulated by Joseph Pilates, a German immigrant who moved to the UK. Always fascinated by physical wellbeing to the point of personal obsession, Pilates was interred on the Isle of Man during WWI as a German ‘enemy alien’. It was here he began to experiment by placing springs into hospital beds to enable wounded inmates to physically recuperate while still bed-bound. His method became famous amongst dancers in New York, where he established his first studio, for being effective at preventing recurring injuries.
A first time student of Pilates will find a number of noticeable differences to yoga - use of repetition in targeted exercises, no standing postures, use of specific Pilates machines known as ‘aparatus’, less focus on flexibility and a complete absence of spirituality and meditation.
Summary: This guy sounds cool, but who was the first person who came to his class and was all “Yeah sure, strap me to that moving bed!”?
13. Goat (BAAAH)
It’s yoga, but with goats.
Carolyn Cowan, a yoga instructor from London (of course she is), says: “Having to work harder with a creature moving on your back is actually probably really good for your core (It’s probably really not). And, I think the amount of laughter has to be really good for your core, too. I think, overall, I’d look on it as a fabulous adventure.”
I think it’s time you got on Tinder, Carolyn.
Summary: For people who like goats. And injuries.
Hopefully this guide has helped clear up the maze of options open to you as a potential yoga student. Just remember: every yoga teacher will do their best to make newbies feel comfortable, no student in a class has any interest in what anyone else is doing and everybody has had to be the wobbly, confused person at some stage!
Got any tips for newbies? Any hilarious stories from your introduction to yoga? Make sure to ask questions or give feedback in the comments section below!