Yoga: What Style Is For You?
There is such a bewildering array of yoga on offer these days that choosing an appropriate class can seem daunting. To make the process a little easier, here is a brief guide to the styles most commonly taught here in the North West:
NOTE: Yoga postures involving forward/backward bending, lateral stretches, twists and balances will be similar from class to class and can be said to hail from the teachings of T Krishnamacharya, an influential Vedic scholar who promoted the healing aspect of yoga across India under royal decree in the early 1900s. What differs between styles is sequencing, emphasis, strength and speed. Poses (asanas) may also have the same form, but different names across the varying schools. Yoga is set apart from general exercise in its quest to integrate mind and body for the purpose of spiritual growth. All classes will end with a period of relaxation and quiet reflection.
Technically, the term 'hatha' can be used to describe all kinds of physical yoga practice, but as a style, it tends to denote a slower-paced class that includes seated breath exercises and meditation, as well as basic postures held for short periods. Focus will be on overall health and wellbeing, settling the physiology and calming the mind. Teachers would have training qualifications from traditional Indian lineages such as the Sivananda Yoga Vedanta group or the Bihar school. The British Wheel, one of the UK's better known regulatory bodies, also focuses on the classical hatha approach. Appropriate for all.
A slow to medium-paced class where poses flow one into another, either through sun salutations or via other interconnected postures. Therapeutic applications, health promotion and inner stillness within outer movement will be the main focus. Hatha Flow classes vary greatly from teacher to teacher and are appropriate for all.
A dynamic, gymnastic style established in Mysore, India by celebrated teacher K Pattabhi Jois around 1950. Extremely physically challenging, it involves a prescribed sequence of sun salutations, followed by standing, balancing, seated, twisted and reclining poses. Spiritual awareness is developed by physical discipline and one-pointed mental focus (drishti). Best suited to those who already have good levels of fitness and mobility.
Inspired by Ashtanga, but with more variety in the sequencing. Vinyasa itself means 'flow' and requires fast-paced, fluid movement from pose to pose. Also described as Power, Fitness or Dynamic yoga, this style is good for improving cardio-vascular health, but requires a certain level of mobility and energy to be enjoyed. Classes vary greatly from teacher to teacher. High profile proponents of this method include Shiva Rea and Godfrey Devereux.
A prescribed series of 26 poses, each practiced twice in a row, in a room heated to over 100 degrees Fahrenheit. The style was established in 1970s America by controversial Indian teacher Bikram Chowdhury, whose claims about the medical benefits of his method have been largely unsubstantiated. Caution should be exercised by those who don't have high levels of fitness or mobility, and injuries should be treated with care, as excessive heat can give unrealistic messages about what an appropriate range of movement is. Not suitable for those who are pregnant, or who have heart problems, central nervous systems disorders, diabetes or energy issues.
Gentle Hatha, or more usually dynamic Vinyasa yoga practiced in rooms heated to induce a lot of sweat, purportedly to expedite the release toxins and also to offer greater potential for flexibility. Exercise the same cautions as for Bikram yoga and drink lots of water to avoid dehydration.
A regimented system devised out of the traditional 'hatha' style by BKS Iyengar*, who began his teaching career in Pune, India in 1937. Postures are performed individually with the aid of props such as blocks and straps, allowing all practitioners to gain something from the modified form, whatever their level of ability. Much focus is placed on precision and alignment. Classes will vary in content from session to session and should be suitable for all.
A floor-based practice inspired by the work of BKS Iyengar involving long-holds (10-20 mins) in postures propped with bolsters, blankets and blocks, enabling the practitioner to relax completely and thus restore on a deep level. Suitable for all.
Usually taught on a one-to-one basis, Yoga Therapy uses postures, movements, breath exercise and relaxation techniques expressly to facilitate healing of particular health issues or symptoms. Holistic in approach, a therapeutic yoga consultation will take into account all aspects of the practitioner's experience, including diet, lifestyle and mental-emotional well being. Teachers will have qualifications from training bodies such as Yoga Campus in the UK and Kripalu in the US, and will be connected to the Indian systems of Ayurveda and Svasta Yoga. Therapeutic Yoga in a general class setting will focus on joint health, mental wellbeing and the rehabilitation of presenting injuries. Suitable for those in poor health or with specific medical problems.
Based on the work of contemporary teachers Sarah Powers and Paul Grilley, Yin Yoga combines knowledge of the Chinese meridian system with traditional hatha postures. Encouraging the surrender of all effort, poses (usually performed lying on the floor) are held for up to 10 minutes and are meditative in nature. Focus is on creating flexibility in the fascia, tendons and ligaments, as opposed to just the muscles. Good for emotional support and the promotion of equilibrium. Average levels of flexibility required.
Yoga for Women
A soft, slow, sensuous approach to traditional hatha yoga which takes into account the undulating rhythms of menstruation, a woman's changing position on the timeline of her life and the uniqueness of the female body. Pioneered by teachers such as Angela Farmer and Uma Dinsmore-Tuli. Suitable for all.
Pre Natal and Post Natal
A gentle, sometimes flowing, hatha practice modified for pregnant and post-partum women, thus avoiding deep backbends, deep twists and poses done lying on the belly. A good pregnancy yoga session will include womb-honouring sequences and information about how to care for the pelvic floor, before and after birth.
A trade-marked style embedded in traditional hatha yoga and devised by UK-based Kenyan Dr Mansukh Patel, who launched it in the late 1970s. Particular emphasis is placed on a series of prescribed Energy Block Release Sequences which are aimed at freeing up all levels of experience, from the physical to the metaphysical. Suitable for all.
A combination Sikh and Hindu practice introduced to the US in 1986 by Yogi Bhajan. Classes involve fast, repetitive, 'cleansing' motions sustained for several minutes whilst mantras (sacred sounds) are chanted to music. Suitable for those with average fitness levels.
Often seen on Health Club timetables, Yogalates is a combination of traditional hatha yoga and core-strength-oriented Pilates exercise. It was created by Jonathan Urla in the late 1990s and follows the general gist of a hatha class without the spiritual emphasis. Suitable for all.
A recent system inspired by gymnastic training methods, whereby the practitioner performs postures whilst suspended mid-air in specially designed hammocks, thus blending traditional mat yoga with acrobatics. Robust levels of fitness required.
Another recent, US-led phenomenon that requires three people per sequence, a 'base', a 'flyer' and a 'spotter'. The base lies on the ground and physically supports the flyer, who moves through a series of dynamic balancing postures whilst being overseen by the spotter, whose role is to keep everyone safe. Robust levels of fitness required.
* Interestingly, both BKS Iyengar and K Pattabhi Jois shared same teacher in their early days, the aforementioned Sri Tirumalai Krishnamacharya (1888-1989). Yet their personalized teaching styles are markedly different from one another: A perfect example of the fact that individual interpretation plays a huge part in the way yoga is approached and understood.
Penny Jane Fuller 2015