Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve probably heard of yoga. However, you may not be aware of just how powerful this ancient practice can be. Recent studies have shown that yoga can alleviate insomnia, depression and anxiety; reduce back pain; and boost your immunity to heart disease. But even more importantly, there are many different types of yoga, making it a truly equal-opportunity activity – even those with restrictions or injuries can reap the benefits. While those who desire a strenuous workout can seek out Ashtanga or power yoga classes, there are also modified versions of the practice that cater to the elderly, the pregnant, or the sick.
Read on to learn about the different varieties of yoga, and discover the style that fits your individual lifestyle, health, and fitness goals.
Changing Perceptions: Yoga as exercise
Skeptics say that yoga classes are not intense enough to burn sufficient calories for weight loss. A recent study, however, suggests that yoga does in fact aid in weight loss.
15,000 middle-aged adults were followed for a 10-year period at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center of Seattle, WA. Some of the participants took yoga classes while others didn’t. At the end of the study, those who hadn’t practiced yoga gained on average18 pounds more than those who had practiced. Participants who were already overwight at the onset of the study showed even more interesting results. Those without a regular yoga practice gained around 13 pounds in a 10-year period. By contast, without trying any other specific diet or exercise plan, the overweight participants who incorporated yoga into their lives lost 5 pounds.
It’s not totally clear how yoga affects weight loss, but it’s probably due to the strong mind-body connection it requires. The beauty of yoga is that it is not only gentle on the body, but it teaches us to enjoy the journey rather than the destination. By learning better ways of breathing, standing, balancing and stretching, our bodies and minds can achieve better health without the risks inherent in many competitive sports and goal-oriented fitness classes.
Your perfect yoga
Finding your ideal form of yoga is kind of like dating: you may need to try out a few types before finding your perfect match. Remember, all yoga will help you improve flexibility, balance, and strength – it’s simply a matter of finding a style that will inspire you to commit to a long-term program. Let’s examine the most common forms of yoga found in gyms and yoga studios around the country:
Hatha yoga: Probably the most popular form of yoga in the U.S., Hatha concentrates on relaxation, vitality and meditation and involves a gentle, slow flow of poses.
Best for: Those who want to gently stretch muscles and learn to use the breath to relax and deal with stress; older or infirm people.
Not for: People who want a more vigorous workout. Hatha tends to be a “beginner-friendly” practice, and does not raise the heart rate anywhere near an aerobic range.
Iyengar yoga: Similar to Hatha, but focuses heavily on proper body alignment during the asanas (poses) and improving balance. This is prop-heavy yoga, using blankets, bolsters, straps and blocks to help maintain poses longer and more accurately.
Best for: People who want more fitness benefits but still desire a relaxing, risk-free workout. Those with specific problems like back pain can easily use the props to modify poses.
Not for: Again, anyone who is seeking a full-on workout might be disappointed with this type of yoga. However, a lot depends on the instructor – some Iyengar classes include an intensive series of standing poses that can provide more vigorous exercise.
Kundalini yoga: Combining the spiritual and physical sides of yoga, Kundalini classes involve a fast-paced routine of poses while stressing proper breathing and meditation. Moving through the asanas (some of which can be quite challenging), you awaken your chakras (the seven centers of consciousness), which allows the mind to open, and tension to disperse.
Best for: Anyone who desires a more spiritual yoga, while still getting a good workout.
Not for: Meditation and chanting is not for everyone, and Kundalini puts a heavy emphasis on the mind-body connection. Those new to yoga that might be scared off by the spiritual side of Kundalini may want to start with a Hatha or Iyengar class instead.
Hot yoga (Bikram or Moksha): Basically, these types of yoga incorporate poses from other forms, but practice in rooms heated to about 105 degrees Fahrenheit. Advocates claim that this heat allows muscles and tissues to be more pliable, and will cause you to sweat, making your workout a toxin-releasing, cleansing experience similar to the sauna. Bikram uses a set routine of poses, while Moksha, a relatively new form of yoga, is a bit more flexible and can be customized by the instructor.
Best for: People who like to sweat. Fans of hot yoga say that the workout is more intensive, both mentally and physically, because of the heat. And people with chronic pain issues, like bad backs or knees, find that the heat relaxes their muscles sufficiently to get a more beneficial workout.
Not for: Anyone with heart problems or high blood pressure should consult their doctor before trying hot yoga, as should pregnant women, the elderly, or young children. Working out in intense heat can cause dehydration or cardiac problems.
Power and Ashtanga yoga: Probably the best bet for those seeking a “real” workout, power yoga focuses on strength and endurance. Each movement flows into the next, and asanas are undertaken in a strong, focused, and rapid manner. Little meditation is involved in most power yoga classes, but the intensity and flow of the routine itself creates a meditative, holistic workout.
Best for: Athletes or fitness fanatics who want to try something new; those who want to approach yoga as a means to lose weight or get into better shape.
Not for: Those seeking a more relaxing, contemplative yoga experience. It depends on the instructor, but many power yoga classes offered at gyms are more aerobic than yogic. If you’re seeking a traditional yoga experience, seek out an actual Ashtanga class at a reputable yoga studio. True Ashtanga offers the best of both worlds – it still upholds the values of yoga, but offers the kind of aerobic, strengthening workout attractive to us Westerners.
Specialty yogas: This includes prenatal and postnatal classes, yoga for the elderly or infirm, or yoga for mental health, just to name a few. Every day, we are finding new applications for yoga, helping people recover from or manage a whole host of ailments. Usually these classes are a combination of several forms of yoga, or an adaptation of a widely used style like Hatha or Iyengar.
Best for: Anyone who has a specific need or restriction. Often times, experienced yoga practitioners will turn to specialty yogas to get them through trying times in their lives. It’s not uncommon to see advanced yogis in a prenatal class, practicing right alongside beginners.
Not for: There really are no restrictions for these types of yoga, since the whole purpose is to tailor the practice to the student.
Yoga for One, But Not One Yoga for All
Learning about all the different types of yoga can be overwhelming – and this is only a partial list! Luckily, yoga’s popularity has created endless opportunities to try different styles of practices. Many studios offer a free trial class; take advantage of this and try out as many instructors and styles as you can.
Remember that no one yoga is perfect for everyone. In fact, that’s why new styles and adaptations are popping up all the time. The beauty of yoga is that a good practice is all about the individual – connecting with your own mind, your own body, and your own spirit. It may take some trial and error, but once you find the right yoga, you’ll have discovered a lifelong friend that can support you through the best and worst of times.