You are unique. Not only is your body unique, but also your preferences and experiences in life. The way in which you move your body and the type of spiritual practice (if any) you choose, may also change over time. So, what style of yoga suits you right now? Maybe this is not the ‘ultimate guide’ to yoga styles, but it’s a pretty comprehensive place to start.
First of all, let’s start by differentiating between ‘styles’ (mainly of modern yoga) and ‘schools’ or ‘branches’ of classic yoga. I’ll call here ‘styles of yoga’ the most popular names by which classes are advertised in a contemporary studio.
There are 4 main branches or classical schools of Yoga. They are:
- Raja yoga: This branch involves meditation and strict adherence to a series of disciplinary steps known as the eight limbs of yoga. (also known as Ashtanga, not to get confused with the ‘style’ Ashtanga we’ll talk about later)
- Karma yoga: This means the yoga of selfless action. It’s a path of service, offered from the heart, with full attention and awareness. It is considered to be one of the most practical and effective means of spiritual development.
- Bhakti yoga: This aims to establish the path of devotion, a positive way to channel emotions and cultivate acceptance and tolerance.
- Jnana yoga: This branch of yoga is about wisdom, the path of the scholar, and developing the intellect through study.
Some people may add:
- Hatha yoga: This is the physical and mental branch that aims to prime the body and mind. Less involved in the mysticism of yoga. It derives from the Raja Yoga strand. This is a more practical yoga with clear steps that include breath control and physical postures.
- Tantra yoga: This is the pathway of ritual, ceremony and a bit more mystic (ie. the theory of chakras finds its origins in that tradition). Can be found in some branches of Buddhism too.
All the above are paths to arrive at the same place: moksha (spiritual liberation) or self-realisation.
As I mentioned at the beginning, we are all individuals, which differences in character, background, etc. The ancient yogis understood that therefore developing different paths to reach moksha. One path may suit one person, whilst another person may walk two or more of those paths.
We could spend more time talking about the above yoga paths, but for the purposes of this article… let’s move on.
Let’s talk ‘styles of yoga’.
Most styles or types you know derive from Hatha Yoga, which derives from RAJA YOGA.
Nowadays we tend to mix and match, so a style derived from the Hatha tradition may have strong tantric influences. Teachers draw a bit from everything and everywhere, including from other disciplines like physical therapy, somatic movement, Buddhism, etc.
A clear example of a successful fusion is how Yin Yoga evolved from Traditional Chinese Medicine concepts and philosophy as much as Hatha yoga.
Some teachers have created their own ‘style’ and ‘branded’ that style as something unique or maybe their students have. Some of those styles are now considered part of ancient lineages (even though were created in the 20th century). I haven’t included many of them in the list below, despite their popularity. (For lack of space and time).
We’ve lost a bit of the clear trajectory of traditional lineages. Or maybe there never was a ‘clear’ trajectory and yoga has always been adaptable to its environment. But I’m not a scholar, so I won’t speculate.
All I can say is that, in my opinion, this explosion of information, of knowledge exchange, can only be a good thing. Right? More options for even more unique individuals to reach self-realisation.
So, we’ve established that Yoga evolves. Unfortunately, that may leave you puzzled and not knowing which yoga should you do.
So, it’s worth knowing that most yoga styles that involve physical movement (asanas), come from Hatha Yoga and have evolved in style to adapt to different students and cultural tendencies.
So, let’s break down some of the main styles you’ll find in a yoga studio:
- Hatha Yoga. As I mentioned, that’s the umbrella under which all the others sprout… but nowadays seems to be synonymous with gentle yoga for some reason, so you’ll find it announced in some studios as such. The poses are held for several breaths and it’s ideal to get the fundamentals.
- Ashtanga. Here I’m NOT referring to the 8 limbs of yoga developed by Patanjali (as mentioned above) but to a strong and athletic type of yoga developed by Patabi Jois. Ashtanga is very dynamic and athletic encompassing six series or levels, with a fixed order of postures. Most people spend years just learning and repeating the first series! If you have plenty of energy to burn and want a demanding workout, with rigid discipline, give Ashtanga a try.
- Vinyasa. (Also called Ashtanga/Vinyasa). This is starting to become also a generic term that may encompass different sub-styles, but it’s mostly equated to a more fluid movement style than Hatha and like in Ashtanga you move from posture to posture with the breath. Unlike Ashtanga you don’t have to follow always the same set sequence. A ‘vinyasa’ is also the name of a type of Sun Salutation from the Ashtanga Style. The sequences can get quite creative and change from class to class.
- Slow Vinyasa, Mindful Vinyasa, or any other similar adjective. Not a different style per se… but as you can deduce, it might be less athletic, probably adapting more to the needs of the students, moving at a slower pace, making more emphasis on alignment and awareness. Don’t be mistaken, it can still be demanding, moving slowly will force your muscles to focus on strength.
- Sivananda. A spiritual yoga system founded by Vishnudevananda; includes the use of asanas, pranayama and meditation. His aim was to create a system for everybody regardless of age, skill, or cultural background to promote health, peace and self-realisation. Many other organisations and ashrams follow this system and they claim it to be the closest to ancient practices. It spread to the West by Vishudevananda himself in an attempt to promote world peace and called it Sivananda in honour of his guru. (If you do some of my classes, you’ve probably heard me refer to the ‘classical sun salutation’, which is the Sivananda style Surya Namaskara)
- Hot yoga. Performed in hot and humid conditions, has its origins in Bikram yoga (see below). Nowadays, since Bikram has been disgraced and most of his studios closed, it can refer to almost any modality of yoga done in a heated room. In general, will be a vigorous practice (although I’ve also seen announced yin yoga in hot rooms). I’m not a fan for many reasons, (maybe for another post if you are interested), but in Europe is super popular for its claims to aid the ‘de-toxifying’ of the body as well as provide an intense workout.
- Bikram. I’m including this only because you might have heard of it… and because it’s worth mentioning since it inspired most of the Hot yoga studios that now populate the world. Funded by the now disgraced Choudhury Bikram in the 70’s consists of a series of 26 postures and two breathing techniques. It follows always the same sequence and it’s performed in a carpeted room with mirrors heated at around 40 degrees (centigrade). When Bikram decided to copyright his name, forced all the ‘Bikram studios’ around the world to re-brand as ‘hot yoga’. It became a bit of a hot mess if you ask me. If you want more, and some good entertainment, check out the Netflix documentary: Bikram: Yogi, Guru, Predator
- Power Yoga / Rocket Yoga/ Jivamukti. These are modifications of the Ashtanga/Vinyasa system. I’m not going to go into detail for each, but they are all pretty vigorous and with set sequences. They were all developed by western teachers as the popularity of yoga grew in the West. Jivamukti was funded to claim the true aim of yoga, self-realisation, so as well as dynamic asana practices it includes meditation, pranayama and chanting.
- Iyengar yoga. Developed by B.K.S. Iyengar (a contemporary of Pataby Jois) focuses on the structural alignment of the physical body. It differs from other styles of yoga in three ways: precision, sequence and use of props. An Iyengar class will have plenty of blocks of different sizes, foldable chairs, belts and sometimes ropes attached to the walls to help your body work out the pose. Iyengar teachers put a lot of emphasis on ‘proper’ alignment so the classes can be very rigid and might spend quite a lot of time exploring one posture, in contrast with a more ‘flowy’ vinyasa type style. Great to have a very sound base to build from.
- Viniyoga. A style of Hatha yoga that promotes the personalisation of yoga practices to suit each individual. From Sanskrit, the prefixes, vi and ni, denote “adaptation” or “appropriate application.” It involves adapting the methods of yoga to ensure they are exactly what the yogi needs in mind, body and spirit. In Viniyoga, there is no one “correct” form. Instead, the intention is for the yogi to find a way to feel the benefits of a posture, rather than adopting a certain shape.
- Yin Yoga. This is a passive yoga practice that finds its origins in Traditional Chinese medicine. Poses are held for 3 – 5 minutes, sometimes longer, to work into the deeper layers of the body to allow the body to move closer to the bone and affect the connective tissue instead of the muscle. It’s also a much more meditative practice and promotes relaxation.
- Yin/Yang. Not a style, but you might see it announcing some classes or in some descriptions. Myself included, also can be called ‘Vin & Yin” or a variation on that. It will consist of a combination of Vinyasa yoga and Yin yoga in the same class. It makes reference to the fact that in Traditional Chinese Medicine the concepts of Yin and Yang are opposites and complementary, therefore all the dynamic practices that require more muscular effort than in a Yin Yoga practice can be considered ‘Yang’ in nature.
- Restorative Yoga. The intention is to relax as much as possible into the postures, using as little physical effort as possible, which makes it ideal for students who are recovering from illness or injury. Contrary to popular belief, it’s not the same as Yin yoga, although it can get mixed up in some classes. A little-known fact is that Restorative yoga was developed by Mr Iyengar to allow students to practice without any strain or pain, especially those recovering from injuries. Also uses many props, especially bolsters, blocks and cushions.
- Kundalini yoga. Also very popular nowadays, if you’ve even tried a Kundalini class you might be surprised by how different it is from the practices that derive from the Hatha Yoga system. Kundalini Yoga is a combination of movement, breath, meditation, and chanting. Its goal is not only to make the body stronger and more energetic but also to increase your level of self-awareness and consciousness by raising the ‘kundalini’, a dormant energy seated at the base of your spine).
- Kirtan Practice. Doesn’t involve asanas or physical ‘exercises’, mainly involves chanting and may also involve moving rhythmically to the music. I’m including it because it’s becoming increasingly popular in some studios. It is part of the Bhakti yoga path, the yoga of devotion. Kirtan is the Sanskrit term for chanting, one of the traditional Indian yoga practices. In Kirtan, chanting is accompanied by classical Indian instruments, such as the harmonium, while Sanskrit mantras are repeated using call and response, stilling the mind and opening the heart.
And that’s my guide to the different styles of modern yoga. Have you heard and/or would like to know about any other style of yoga that I haven’t covered here? Leave a comment and let me know.
Montse has been working for the last 30 years in the world of theatre and performance as a director, mentor and performer. Her passion for sharing her knowledge and her desire to help others realise their true potential has led her onto the path of yoga teaching.
Her classes are relaxed, friendly and with elements of yin, hatha, vinyasa and humour where everyone feels welcome, regardless of their skill. Montse’s motto is ‘be your own template’, both in life and in yoga.
Your shape is unique and so is your life so don’t follow the ‘should be like this’ crowd and don’t try to fit into anyone else’s path, find your own… on and off the mat.
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