Yoga: A matter of style(s)

Yoga: A matter of style(s)

The yoga market can be a very confusing and overwhelming place to venture into. Innumerable styles and schools are presenting themselves and are trying to get a slice of this multi-billion $ industry. As a novice to yoga, choosing the right (most suitable) style of yoga, may turn into a big hurdle (and possible stumbling block). Though yoga is a matter of practice and experience, I will attempt to give a bit of an overview of some of the most commonly practiced styles of yoga. Because, for much of the expected long-term effects, yoga is a matter of style…

Before looking as some of the most popular and widely practiced yoga styles today, it is necessary to attempt to give a brief overview of the yoga tradition, focusing, for the scope of this article, on the physical aspects of yoga (yoga postures or “asana”).

The most widely acknowledged scriptures of yoga are 1) the Yoga Sutra of Maharishi Patanjali, 2) the Hatha Yoga Pradipika and 3) the Gherand Samhita. The Yoga Sutra of Patanjali is seen as a broad / all-encompassing treatise on yoga, of which asana is mentioned as 1 of 8 aspects. But the Yoga Sutra do not reveal much details about asana practice, leaving mostly the Hatha Yoga Pradipika (and to a slightly lesser degree the Gherand Samhita) as the most relevant scriptures, at the basis of most known (and unknown) yoga styles of this time and age.

As such, the general term “Hatha Yoga” refers to an umbrella of yoga styles that is most closely based on the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, and yet, practically all other styles would at least make reference to or utilise knowledge from the Hatha Yoga Pradipika as well.

Arguably the 2 most prevalent lineages of yoga today are 1) the different lineages started by T. Krishnamacharya and 2) the Shivananda tradition and its offsprings. Of course, there are many other great and long-standing yoga traditions, such as the different Laya yoga schools (also known as kundalini yoga), kriya yoga, and the entire tantra yoga tradition. Besides that, there are countless schools and traditions which focus less on the physical aspects of yoga and more on meditative practices (sometimes referred to as raja yoga). In addition, there are other major systems of yoga, that emphasise a certain kind of path or lifestyle, such as the yoga of knowledge (gyana yoga), devotional yoga (bhakti yoga), or behavioural yoga (karma yoga).

Asana means “posture” (or “seat”) and refers to a great variety of physical postures that the body (some bodies…) can assume. Some scriptures mention that there are 8.4 million variations of asana, but for most intensive purposes, less than 100 are being widely used. Many yoga styles / schools have limited that number further to a “set of postures” which is geared towards delivering the benefits of all possible variations of yoga postures.

Now, let’s first have a look at some of names of yoga schools that you will sooner or later stumble across, so you can get a feel for which style might suit your needs and personality best.

 

Yoga Style Main Characteristics Description
Hatha Yoga Broad range of application, mostly dependent on the teacher and particular school Often referred to as the grandmother of most popular yoga styles. The “Hatha Yoga Pradipika” is regarded as the main treatese of most traditional yoga (asana) styles.
Shivananda Yoga Balanced application of several aspects of yoga, not limited to postures (asanas) One of the major yoga lineages of our time. It has branched into various other popular schools and styles (such as the Bihar School of Yoga). One of the off-shoots of the Shivananda tradition that is very popular in Germany, is Yoga Vidya.
Iyengar Proper physical alignment, as per traditional descriptions The “perfectionist style”: Iyengar focuses on proper (perfect) physical alignment. It can vary in intensity.
Anusara Iyengar with a smile Sometimes dubbed “Iyengar with a sense of humour”. Incorporates concepts such as grace, beauty, and physical alignment, but practiced with a smile.
Ashtanga Yoga  Intense workout, according to a rather strict set of teachings Intense workout, according to a rather strict set of teachings
Originally designed for young soldiers, Ashtanga is a type of vigorous physical workout, possibly a bit less than Power Yoga (see below). It is however seen as a traditional, as it focuses on a strict sequence of traditional postures.
Power Yoga  If Ashtanga is not intense enough… Engage in vigorous physical exercise while still mostly using traditional yoga poses. This style (and other styles of high intensity) is great for those whose main goal is to get into great shape and/or who love intense physical exercise.
Vinyasa If the strict sequence of Ashtanga Yoga is too limiting Similar to Ashtanga, but less strict in terms of the sequence of poses. It’s vigorous exercise, highlighting the flow aspect between poses.
Yin Yoga Extended holding times of relatively simple postures to work on subtleness of the connective tissue Yin yoga is considered a “soft”, static, and cooling style (as opposed to the highly dynamic and heating “yang” styles, such as Ashtanga, Power Yoga, or Vinyasa). Yin yoga styles make extensive use of the force of gravity and allows the practitioner to just sink into the postures deeper and deeper (both physically and mentally). This does however not mean that Yin yoga cannot be challenging…
Restorative Yoga Pampering yourself and your injuries Can be similar to some of the Yin yoga styles, but focuses specifically on injuries (past and present) and very tight areas of the muscular-skeletal system. This practice is highly individualised and makes lots of use of bolsters, pillows, etc. to pad any sensitive body parts.
Yoga Therapy Approaches Going beyond just injuries — a program to regain balance in all aspects of life Some of the lineages of T. Krishnamacharya focus on a highly adaptive yoga-practice that focuses on individual needs and abilities. Whereas Restorative Yoga addresses mostly physical issues (injuries), Yoga Therapy takes a more holistic approach to address any issues that one may be faced with.
Vini Yoga Focus on adaptation and individualisation In Vini Yoga, a different yoga program is designed for each individual (much like in some of the yoga therapy approaches), taking into account that every individual has different needs, abilities, and limitations.
Bikram Yoga Turn up the heat A highly systematised form of “hot yoga” — yoga practiced in a heated room. This certainly comes with a list of contra-indications — exercising in hot temperatures requires a stable circulatory system and overall good state of health to start with.

 

This is of course by no means a complete list of yoga styles and schools. Constantly, new styles and modifications of existing styles emerge on the yoga market. Some of these become really popular around the world and some may never even be heard of, beyond the walls of a single yoga studio. What seems important is that one can develop a feel for what style or styles of yoga suit one best and then enjoy the regular practice of yoga and its benefits for years to come.

What is important to note is that most yoga styles / schools incorporate the traditional yoga poses into their program. Though there are certainly differences in the selection of postures, the main difference is with regards to how these postures are practiced and what the main focus is. Some styles put most of their focus on the “proper” alignment (e.g. Iyengar), while others focus on using certain modes of breathing. Yet other styles are more concerned with the overall effect of the practice / posture, while again others regard the postures as a means to vigorously exercising the body (kind of mixing aerobics, cross-training, and traditional yoga postures). The list could go on and on, but best to just try some approaches yourself.

Here are some aspects of the practice through with which the different styles distinguish themselves:

 

Aspect of Practice Differentiation
Duration of holding of postures and transitions Very generally speaking, there are 2 types of systems: Flow and static. The flow systems (Ashtanga, Vinyasa, Power Yoga) focus mostly on the transitions between postures and somewhat less on the postures themselves. In these systems, the attention is on the flow that connects the postures, whereas in the “static” systems, the attention is on the execution of the posture itself. There again, the importance can be placed on the form itself (e.g. proper alignment, which is the center of focus in Iyengar and Anusara) or on other aspects of the posture. In most yin yoga styles, the “correctness” of the postures is secondary. What is most important is that the posture is held for an extended period which, according to “yin theory” will result in effects that penetrate into the subtle connective tissue, rather than just on the level of muscles, ligaments, and bones.
Breath In some systems, breath is considered everything (Vinyasa is one of those systems). Yoga is seen as the integration of mind, body, and breath, and breath is seen as the element which brings the other 2 together. Breath leads the body / the movement and brings all 3 (mind, body, breath) into alignment / integration with each other. In other systems, breath is just flowing normally, naturally, though it is mostly accepted that breath should not be held in order to squeeze oneself into a challenging pose. Holding of breath is however sometimes introduced on purpose, in order to accentuate the effects of either the inhalation or exhalation.
Modes of attention There are 3 common systems of how “attention” is applied: 1) focused attention (concentration), 2) open monitoring (detaching from sensations, emotions, etc., just observing without getting involved) and 3) spontaneous / natural attention (allowing the attention to naturally go to the physical sensations arising from a posture or movement). This is an aspect that comes up more with the static forms of doing asanas and is sometimes considered “advanced” (once one has ventured past the aspects of alignment and breath). But there are also some traditions where the value of attention is central, right from the start of the practice.
Application of force Some yoga styles demands the use of force (yes, the old “no pain no gain” paradigm is prevalent in many yoga styles). One of the meanings of the word “hatha” itself is “force” — advocating the application of force, in order to train body and mind. Other systems, such as yin yoga, rely mostly on the force of gravity and/or props, in order to get into the postures.
Music In many yoga classes, some inspiring music will be played in the background. In some systems, “Mantras” are being chanted (or played via speakers) to enhance the effects of the physical yoga practice. Yet in other systems (usually the more traditional systems), no music is being played, so that the attention can be fully on the process of yoga (and the experiences and sensations that naturally arise during the practice).
Heat Though most yoga classes will be conducted at room temperature, some yoga styles (e.g. Bikram) heat up the room (up to about 40 degrees celsius). The purpose behind this measure is to 1) make the muscles more flexible and 2) trigger a detox effect, through increased perspiration. Some people also use it as a way to lose weight.

 

It really all depends on your personal goals, likes, tendencies, and abilities. If you want to get in great shape, don’t mind the “no pain no gain” philosophy, and have a good physical basis to start from, then Power Yoga might be the right choice for you. If you need to wind down (and cool down), then Yin yoga might do the trick for you. If you want a highly individualized yoga program, which is ideally suited for your needs and abilities, then a form of Vini yoga or yoga therapy might be the right choice.

Just be aware of some of the contra-indications which come with really almost any style of yoga. If you push your body (or mind) too hard and make that a habit (over years), then it could result in injuries and even illness. Yoga is not, by definition, healthy. The repeated experience of pushing beyond the limits of your body, is no different under the umbrella of yoga, then it is when practicing any other type of sport. The negative long-term side-effects of “yoga at the limit” may be devastating and have the opposite effect of what you had envisioned, when you started on your yoga journey. Unfortunately, many serious yogis and yoga teachers ignore that risk and prefer to follow or even compete with their peers instead.

A dear friend of mine, who is also a yoga teacher, once blatantly spoke out about her attempts to practice Ashtanga Yoga: “It (Ashtanga Yoga) was designed for young, fit, skinny-assed guys and not middle-aged, big-butted women like myself”. It gives a very graphic image of how different styles of yoga suit some, but not all of us.

Some people will only practice yoga when they go to the studio, where they can follow the guidance and instruction of a teacher. But I highly recommend to not limit the yoga practice to the yoga studio, but to find a way to make it a (ideally) daily activity at home. Even practicing a simple set of yoga postures for 15-20 minutes each day, should have far-reaching benefits for one’s health, vitality, and overall well-being. One can of course practice yoga like any competitive sport, but even doing some simple postures regularly, will yield many benefits. And finally whatever your chosen style of yoga, there is one simple element that should be common to all practices: Joy.

 

Photo by : © Yurok Aleksandrovich / Fotolia.com

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