Navigating the world of yoga when you’re a newbie may not feel as straightforward as, say, picking up a running routine. There are countless of foundational postures to remember, not to mention a handful of different types of yoga, each with a distinct focus, intensity, and recommended experience level.
To help clear up any confusion you have as you kick off your yoga journey, Shape tapped two yoga instructors to break down the most common types of yoga, including the key features of each practice and what you can expect in a class. Plus, they share tips to help you decide which type of yoga is best for you and your goals.
According to instructors, these are the seven types of yoga you’re most likely to see on class lists.
Hatha is one of the most traditional styles of yoga, as well as an umbrella under which many other types of yoga (including Vinyasa) fall, says Lindsay Monal, R.Y.T., a yoga teacher at YogaRenew Teacher Training. In Sanskrit, the word “Hatha” means “sun” (ha) and “moon” (ta), and this type of yoga is grounded in the idea of balancing the body. “You’ll do one posture, and then another to counteract it immediately after,” she adds. “This practice is more slow-flowing, focused on holding and finding steadiness in the postures, so you might hold them for about five breaths at a time.”
Rather than gracefully flowing from one pose to the next, you’ll generally return to standing at the top of your mat in between postures, making the practice feel a bit more segmented than others, says Monal. Breathwork will also be emphasised during a Hatha yoga class, and your instructor will help you sync each breath with the movement to calm your mind and body, as Shape previously reported.
Known as the eight-limbed path of yoga, Ashtanga is another traditional form of yoga, says Monal. The fast-paced style involves flowing through a specific sequence of postures, so in every class, you’ll perform the same series of poses in the same order, she adds. “Oftentimes if you go to an Ashtanga class, because the sequence is exactly the same, everyone in the room is doing it at their own pace, and there will be a teacher walking around and giving adjustments,” she explains. For example, you might do a sequence of sun salutations a few times to raise your heart rate, then do a series of warrior postures, balancing poses, or inversions, says Monal.
Due to the speed and lack of cueing, Ashtanga yoga generally isn’t recommended for beginners. “It’s quite an intense form of yoga,” says Monal. “It’s super structured, super strict on alignment points, and they don’t really use a ton of props. It’s more focused on pushing your body to get into the shapes and build the strength and stamina to continue at that level.” Once you get the hang of the series, however, the structure of Ashtanga yoga allows you to see how you’re progressing in your practice over time, she adds.
A mixture of elements from Ashtanga and Hatha yoga, Vinyasa yoga is focused on linking your breath with your movement, says Monal. As in Ashtanga yoga, you’ll perform quick-moving sequences such as sun salutations at the beginning of your practice and do a flow of downward-facing dog, plank, chaturanga, and upward-facing dog in between yoga poses, she says. That’s why you’ll often see Vinyasa classes simply called “flow,” she adds.
”There’s not a point where you’ll be standing, then sitting down, then walking — each pose flows directly into one another,” says Monal. It’s also common to perform a sequence of warrior poses, lunges, and gentle backbends to open and stretch the hips and spine, adds Matt Weston, a regional lead instructor at CorePower Yoga. Just like in Hatha yoga, you’ll receive some breath cues from your instructor, but you’ll hold a posture for just one breath before moving on to the next, says Monal.
Developed by B. K. S. Iyengar, Iyengar yoga is centred on the idea that you’ll reach a meditative state through the perfect alignment of your body, says Monal. While breathwork is involved in some classes, the main focus is on the physical body and finding alignment in the spine, she says. In this style of yoga, you’ll use props — including blocks, belts, bolsters, chairs, blankets, and even walls — to accommodate injuries, tightness, or structural imbalances in your body while learning how to move into a pose properly, says Weston.
Restorative yoga is essentially a subset of Iyengar yoga that involves using props (think: blocks, straps, bolsters) to hold your body in a posture for five to 15 minutes, says Monal. “There isn’t as much of a quality of stretching as much as other forms,” she adds. “The goal instead is to put your body in these specific positions where it’s completely balanced and supported so you can really allow your nervous system to relax and to release the stress you’ve been holding onto.”
The postures in a restorative yoga practice are generally grounded, and you might perform seated forward folds, seated straddle pose, gentle supine twists, and supported backbends, adds Weston. You can also expect to perform savasana (aka corpse pose) to fully decompress at the end of the practice, says Monal. Since you’re holding each posture for a significant amount of time, you might only do four or five postures in a single practice, she adds.
The premise of Yin yoga stems from the yin and yang symbol, a representation of lightness and darkness intermingling in traditional Chinese medicine, says Monal. “The idea is that physical, sweaty, hot practices are that yang, fiery energy, and your body need balance,” she explains. “It also needs more lunar, feminine, restorative energy [the yin]” she explains. In turn, Yin yoga is practised at a slow pace and encourages the use of props to assist you in the postures, says Monal. But unlike restorative yoga, the goal of Yin yoga is to deeply stretch the connective tissue and fascia throughout the body, she adds. In doing so, you’ll maintain mobility and correct postural issues that develop over time (think: a hunched upper back), she adds.
You’ll generally hold the postures — most of which take place on the ground, target the hips, legs, and shoulders, and can feel pretty uncomfortable — for about five minutes. “It’s really about dealing with discomfort and building resilience, being able to breathe through uncomfortable situations on your yoga mat and translating that in your life,” says Monal.
Hot yoga originally stemmed from Bikram yoga, a type of yoga similar to Ashtanga that involved flowing through a sequence of 26 specific poses in 90-plus degree rooms, says Monal. But due to the recent sexual assault controversy surrounding its founder Bikram Choudhury, the hot yoga offered nowadays is typically Vinyasa yoga performed in a toasty room, she adds. This style of yoga requires a lot of endurance, so it’s generally not recommended for new practitioners, says Monal.
The practice does come with some risk, too. “Because you’re in a hot room, your muscles warm up really quickly, and a lot of people overstretch and find themselves injured because they’re not moving as mindfully or cautiously as they might in a normal temperature room,” says Monal. So if you’re signing up for a hot yoga class, remember to properly hydrate beforehand and throughout your session, and don’t push yourself harder than you would in a traditional class.
How to choose the best types of yoga for you
Even if you’re an elite CrossFit athlete, a regular marathoner, or a strength-training pro, you’re still a beginner at yoga — and you should choose a practice that matches your experience level, says Monal. Jump into a more advanced class or type of yoga just because you’re a high-performer in other aspects of fitness, and you’ll miss out on important alignment and breathwork guidance, which may not be explained in non-beginner classes, she adds.
So if you’re a total newbie to yoga, you’re best off choosing a Hatha or beginner-level Vinyasa class, advises Monal. “Hatha yoga is more beginner-friendly and will give you the basics before moving into a Vinyasa class,” she explains. “But if you’re a person who really likes to work out and wants to be challenged right away, I think a Vinyasa yoga class can work for you.”
Otherwise, it’s important to consider why you want to practice, says Weston: Do you want to break a sweat and build strength, or do you want to release built-up tension in your body? Let your personal preferences and goals guide you when choosing a type of yoga to try.
“There are plenty of yoga [forms] out there that resonate with almost everyone, so if the one style is not to your liking, try another style of yoga,” he adds. “Listen to your inner voice when taking a class… If the teacher’s instructions are clear and [you’re] able to customise and honour your physical limitations yet move outside your comfort zone in a safe and beneficial way, then you might have chosen the right yoga practice.”
This story first appeared on www.shape.com
(Credit for the hero and featured image: Jose Vazquez/Unsplash)
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