Yoga is gaining in popularity as an exercise for all types of people of all ages. This is due in part to the fact that there are a wide variety of styles for people who need and want a different type of workout. So how do you decide which is best for you?
First, a primer.
Generally scholars agree that yoga began over 5,000 years, although there is evidence of yoga in the Stone Age as well, stemming from the shamanism of the period. In the West, people view yoga as exercise and focus on performing the asanas (poses), but the roots of yoga go much deeper. At its core and when practiced as it was founded in India, yoga is a deeply spiritual practice that incorporates not only asanas but also pranayama (breath work) and selfless action.
Separated from these spiritual facets of yoga, the poses are still good exercise. Overall, it is a low-intensity workout. There is no major stress on the joints, and good teachers of all styles will pay close attention to students’ alignment, especially in beginner classes. Because classes are also easily adapted to varying levels of fitness and ability, people of all ages, body type, fitness, and health can participate. There are a few distinct styles that may better suit a person’s particular needs, though.
Hatha is a general term that encompasses a yoga style that incorporates much of the other styles. Most yoga in the West could be considered hatha, as it is adapted for a more Western student (more action and less spirituality in class). Poses are put together by the teacher and change from class to class. There is no one set series. These classes are slower-paced and incorporate breath work into the pose. Sun salutations are a popular feature of this type of yoga.
B.K.S. Iyengar is the founder of this style that focuses on proper alignment. Teachers of this style are very grounded in anatomy and insist that each student go into a pose only as far as they can go with correct alignment. The classes are slower-paced, and poses are held longer.
Bikram (or hot yoga)
In this yoga, students perform a set series of 26 poses in a room heated up to 110 degrees. Only teachers trained specifically by schools endorsed by Bikram Choudhury can use the term “Bikram yoga.” Hot yoga is similar to Bikram, with a few exceptions. The room may not be quite as hot (only around 90 degrees), and teachers can be certified in other styles of yoga, going beyond the 26-pose set of Bikram.
Yin is a subtle yoga that engages the thin membrane that covers each muscle (the fascia). Most poses are completed on the floor, and each pose is held for long periods of time, up to ten minutes (or more for very experienced practitioners). To keep the movement in the fascia and not the muscle, there is very little warm up of the muscles. Classes are quiet and contemplative, and teachers urge students to release their tension wherever they are holding it by breathing slowly and deeply.
Restorative yoga is yin’s less stretchy cousin. The goal of this style is to relax, restore, and rejuvenate. Blankets, bolsters, and blocks are used as props to support the student so that they can completely relax. All poses are done on the floor, and many are lying down.
This type of yoga is divided into six series, with each series increasing in complexity and intensity. Ashtangis practice at least three times a week, but many practice daily. Because the series is set, teachers may not offer much verbal instruction, but students in beginning classes can ask for assistance and expect more explanation. Movements are linked to the breath, with each move occurring either on the inhale or the exhale.
Vinyasa was built for Western yogis who want to work out and move in yoga. Sequences flow from one pose to another, linked to the breath, in a class that can vary from fast-paced to slow and meditative. Ashtanga-vinyasa is the flowing style that uses traditional ashtanga poses in flowing movements instead of one move at a time.
Picking a yoga style for you
Beginners in yoga may want to focus on hatha and Iyengar to start. The classes are paced a bit slower, and there is more instruction offered by the teacher. Modifications of each pose are also offered, and for that reason these two classes are perfect for those who feel less bendy or are not confident in their balance or ability.
For people suffering from chronic pain, there are different advantages for each type of yoga. These include:
- Fibromyalgia: Restorative yoga can be very helpful for those with fibromyalgia. Because stress and anxiety can trigger higher levels of pain, the soothing, meditative nature of restorative yoga is helpful to ease and quiet the mind. Hatha, with its slower pace and many modifications, can help slowly increase range of motion, flexibility, and strength.
- Arthritis: Hatha yoga is an excellent choice for those suffering from arthritis. Steady practice of this form of yoga increases range of motion, keeps joints warm, and strengthens muscles that support the joints. Yin yoga can also be helpful as a way to increase flexibility in joints because the tight membrane covering the muscle relaxes and allows muscles to move with more ease. Devotees of Bikram believe that the hot room helps loosen muscles and joints, but a beginner class is key. Anyone under the care of a doctor should consult their doctor before taking Bikram or hot yoga.
- Back pain: Alignment is key when recovering from a back injury or chronic back pain condition, and Iyengar yoga is an excellent place to start. Iyengar-certified teachers are experts in anatomy and can help students learn to stack their bones for support, easing muscle aches cause by overcompensating for an injury. Restorative yoga can also be helpful in relaxing and easing tensely knotted muscles.
It is important to note that although vinyasa and ashtanga yoga have tremendous benefits for a person suffering chronic pain, they should not be the first choice for those starting out in yoga. These classes move quickly and there is less verbal explanation or instruction. It is possible to seriously aggravate an injury with improper alignment in a flowing series, and a new student can be quickly overwhelmed and discouraged. It’s best to start with classes that will offer instruction and correction as needed.
Yoga is a great way to cope with chronic pain, but the key is to find which style is best for you. Take this quiz to find your best style for you and share your results in the comments!
Image by Dave Rosenblum via Flickr