Approximately 16 million people in the United states practice yoga, reaping health benefits that range from reduced stress and cholesterol levels to increased strength and flexibility. But because there are so many different kinds of practices—some more physically demanding, others more meditative or spiritual—it can be tough to know which will best meet your needs and abilities. “To say there is a variety of methods and interpretations is an understatement,” says Judith Hanson Lasater, Ph.D., a physical therapist and yoga instructor in the San Francisco bay area and author of 30 Essential Yoga Poses (Rodmell Press). Truth be told, even experienced practitioners may not always have a clear grasp of the nuances and varied benefits of each type of yoga. That’s why we put together this guide to five of the most popular practices. The execution of each varies, but the underlying goal is the same, says Carol Krucoff, a yoga therapist at Duke Integrative medicine in Durham, N.C., and author of Healing Yoga for Neck and Shoulder Pain (New Harbinger): to connect our minds and bodies through conscious movements and breathing, and to recognize where we hold tension and learn how to release it. Of course, a lot also depends on your instructor—so even after you’ve decided which type (or types) appeal to you most, you may need to look around for the perfect fit. Ultimately, it will be well worth the effort. “By finding the styles and teachers that meet both your physical and mental needs, you develop a physical practice that also brings a sense of purpose and passion into your life,” says Kim Shand, a certified yoga instructor based in New Jersey, and founder of Rethink Yoga (rethinkyoga.com). So prepare to be enlightened, and to get more out of your yoga practice.
Often promoted as a modern-day form of classical indian yoga, ashtanga vinyasa—also known simply as ashtanga—is a relatively vigorous practice comprising a fast-paced series of sequential postures. It begins with Sun Salutations (Surya Namaskara), followed by one of six main series of poses: primary moves for beginners; intermediate poses; or one of four variations of advanced moves. Ashtanga also incorporates a breathing style called ujjayi, which is characterized by an ocean sound that resonates from the throat—an audible sighing out of the breath in sync with specific movements. Often called “flow yoga,” ashtanga focuses on continuous movements, leaving less time for instruction and adjustments, says Lasater. Most “power” yoga classes and hybrids (e.g., yoga booty ballet and “koga”—a mix of kickboxing and yoga) are also derived from ashtanga.
Best for: Skilled exercise enthusiasts seeking a calorie-blasting, body-sculpting workout.
Skip it if: You have physical limitations, prefer to stretch gently, or if you like to be adjusted in your postures.
Bikram classes usually run for 90 minutes and include a slow series of 26 poses and two breathing exercises. “All Bikram studios are designed to meet strict guidelines so they all look essentially the same, and each teacher is trained to the same basic script,” Shand says. With upward of 1,600 studios around the world, Bikram is arguably the most popular form of hot yoga (others include Forrest yoga, which incorporates Native American spirituality, and TriBalance yoga, which is performed in even hotter but less humid conditions). It is practiced in a room heated to 105° F with a humidity of 40 percent in order to mimic the climate of India, yoga’s birthplace. Its creator, Bikram Choudhury—who brought Bikram to the United States in the 1970s—says that performing poses in such high heat helps to loosen and stretch the muscles and open the joints without injury, as well as to aid in body detoxification through excessive sweating (make sure you bring a towel!). The heavy perspiration also may reduce stress and tension, and help with weight management. Just keep in mind that you might become dehydrated, dizzy or nauseous from the heat, so check with your doctor to make sure the soaring temperatures will be safe for you, and listen to your body: If you need to take a water break, lie down or leave the class, just do so—don’t be bashful.
Best for: Those who like consistency and predictability—and some serious sweat—in their practice.
Skip it if: You can’t stand the heat or want more variation or a little philosophy sprinkled in with your asanas.