If you’re thinking about trying yoga, then kudos to you for embarking on a journey that has helped millions of people over thousands of years live their best lives. While many first come to yoga because of its litany of physical benefits and great workout potential, many stay because yoga is an entry point into mindfulness and meditation.
This age-old practice is a wonderfully healthy way to deal with all kinds of modern ailments, like anxiety, depression, and chronic fatigue (more on that later), and has the potential to transform dedicated practitioners into happy, healthy, glowing people.
In the Western world, when we talk about yoga we most often mean the kind that focuses on exercising the body: hatha yoga. But going back to yoga’s origins in Hinduism, the combination of a spiritual, devotional, meditative, and physical practice was intended to help practitioners work toward the ultimate yogic goal: achieving enlightenment.
So although most yoga establishments you’ll run across in your city will be focused on hatha yoga, the term yoga can also encompass other traditional forms practiced throughout the world, like bhakti yoga, which is about spirituality and devotion to the divine and nature within and without.
I love hatha yoga because when my body feels good, my mind follows suit.
Get Moving: Hatha Yoga
Any yoga practice that includes specific movements and series of postures (asanas) is a form of hatha yoga, so unless you’re looking for a non-physical spiritual practice, you’ll want to go for hatha yoga to start. It’s likely that whatever you’ve heard about from friends, articles, or even just passing by that new “hot yoga” studio on your way home from work is hatha-related.
Hatha yoga includes traditional postures, careful movements, breath, and mindfulness work aimed at keeping your mind and body feeling alive, fit, and working together in harmony. Basically, it rocks.
I myself have practiced several schools of hatha yoga for nearly two decades and have felt so much of its power that I am definitely that annoying friend who’s always trying to get people to try it out. So, if your interest has already been piqued enough to want to research popular types of yoga, read on!
Why yoga? Let me count the reasons.
Of course, lots of people come to yoga for the physical benefits, like flexibility, muscle building, increasing balance, and a workout that can be adapted to be challenging yet still low-impact and easy on the joints if needed. And when you invest a bit of time and effort into realizing these goals, yoga will deliver.
But what I’ve felt and witnessed—and what countless others have as well—is that the process of going through the postures (asanas) and the breathing exercises (pranayama) starts to instigate a positive mental transformation as well, and that’s where you can really get hooked.
In fact, Meghan Maris, a highly trained advanced-level yoga instructor (and one of my personal favorite teachers), says she first tried yoga many years ago as a drop-in class at the gym where she used to work out. After talking with the teacher about some back pain she was having, she took a private yoga class and has never turned back.
Maris initially studied at a teacher training program at the Sivananda ashram in the Bahamas and says she was “was so deeply moved that every part of [her] being was awake and vibrant.” After returning for advanced training, Maris eventually spent three years living a completely immersive yogi lifestyle at “the Sivananda ashram located in London, England,” where she even “explored the possibility of becoming a yogic nun (sanyasan or swami).”
From drop-in exercise class to lifelong career, philosophy, and way of life? Yep. Yoga can be that powerful. And it’s got the scientific research to back it up.
Eastern Traditions, Western Science
I love my regular yoga practice and supporting others in theirs partly because more than one controlled scientific study has found that yoga can dramatically benefit people with anxiety (I know I’m not alone in needing this, ladies). Similar studies support the idea that yoga should be understood as a companion treatment for depression and other mental health diagnoses.
In fact, in her comprehensive review of current studies on the benefits of yoga, Tiffany Field, PhD, director of the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami School of Medicine, points to ample evidence that yoga can be an effective treatment for issues ranging from anxiety and depression to chronic pain, insomnia, immune conditions, arthritis, and even heart and blood pressure problems.
There have been multiple promising studies on yoga as a complementary treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), but one of the most impressive studies I’ve read found that as little as eight kundalini yoga classes (a form of hatha yoga that combines poses and breath work) greatly improved symptoms in women with PTSD.
Given the research and all the anecdotal evidence, it’s hard to think of a downside to yoga. Basically, it feels good, makes you look good, and it can cure much of what ails you. Next up: deciding which kind of class to drop in first.
Which type of yoga will match your style?
Okay, so if you’re convinced it’s worth a try, how are you supposed to cut through the noise and figure out what type of yoga class to sign up for?
Hatha yoga in general is a great entry point, but over the years, more than one style of hatha yoga has emerged. Each is related, and you won’t have much trouble moving between styles once you have a foundation in one. In fact, lots of times yoga studios will simply title a class “hatha yoga,” which means you can expect a bit of the instructor’s own preferences in tandem with some mixture of traditional yoga poses and movements.
The different styles of hatha yoga are intended for slightly different purposes. So depending on what you’re looking for in a yoga practice, one of these nine popular types of hatha yoga is sure to fit your vibe.
Do you want a calorie-torching, muscle-building, generally fast-flowing workout? Vinyasa will make you glow with sweat and calm your mind, all in one challenging class. A warning: Unless the class listing uses words like “gentle” or “beginners,” then a vinyasa class will be best for people who already have a little yoga experience. Maris says to look to vinyasa if you want “a fluid class…though no two vinyasa classes will be alike.”
“Unlike vinyasa, which will be much more varied, iyengar classes are incredibly specific and pay acute attention to detail,” says Maris. It’s great for learning proper alignment in the poses, she explains, especially if you’re newer to yoga. In iyengar yoga, there are strict series of postures that you follow—in order, every time. Sequences tend to build on each other, Maris says, so these classes are best booked in a series, rather than drop-in style.
Maris says ashtanga is a strong, physically demanding type of yoga. Like iyengar, it also consists of a few set series of postures, from a beginning to advanced set, that lead into each other. According to Yoga Journal, ashtanga might be right for you if you’re into “building core strength and toning the body.” As long as you don’t mind a bit of repetition, ashtanga can help you move your body with intention and get you out of your head.
You guessed it, any class listed as prenatal will be geared toward safe poses for the mom-to-be (though it’s always good to check with your doctor before beginning a practice). Prenatal yoga can help with everything from easing pregnancy woes to helping prepare mom’s body for an easier labor and recovery. I went to prenatal yoga classes when I was pregnant and too sick to run (“ugh” to pregnant bouncing) and loved it.
The original “hot yoga,” according to Maris, Bikram yoga (named for its founder) consists of a set series of postures practiced in a room that’s heated to somewhere between 95 and 108 degrees. Get ready to sweat, because Bikram is very challenging and is not necessarily suited for beginners.
In my case, the heat of a Bikram class brought me close to fainting once! “Many’ people attest that Bikram yoga [does wonders for] promoting detoxification for the body,” Maris explains. So far, studies show that those who can withstand the high temps and demands of Bikram yoga earn measurable gains in lower-body strength and flexibility.
Also called “gym yoga,” this 1990s invention is a physically demanding form of vinyasa that stems from ashtanga. Years ago, when the majority Westerners thought of yoga as all stretching and bending like a noodle and chanting, power yoga helped us realize how challenging and strengthening yoga can be. The goal here is to get a good workout, so power yoga classes can be varied according to the teacher’s style, but you’ll definitely sweat.
Is your body or mind stressed or sore? Restorative yoga “is highly beneficial for folks who lead high paced, stressful lifestyles,” says Maris. It’s also good for people “who tend to do more physically demanding practices.” If you’re a runner, cross-fitter, etc., restorative yoga will be especially good for you. Classes focus on relaxing, prop-supported poses that you hold and breathe through for up to several minutes. It’s great for beginners who want to take things slow and easy at first.
This yoga practice is a rich blend of physicality and spirituality. Look for kundalini yoga if you aren’t afraid of a little chanting and meditation mixed in with your asanas (poses) and pranayama (breathwork). One of the main goals in kundalini yoga is to awaken the spiritual self, so it’s wonderful if you’re looking to do a little soul-searching while you work out.
Ahhh. Do you feel the need to stretch and relax? Yin yoga is a slow, restorative practice, “oriented to lengthening the connective tissue of the body,” Maris explains. “This means longer holds…and supported postures” while sitting or lying down. Yin is a wonderful way for beginners to get a taste of yoga without feeling physically overtaxed and for experienced yogis who want to set aside time to relax and take it slow.
What to Expect: Answering a Few Yoga Etiquette FAQs
What should I wear to yoga?
Choose stretchy, comfortable clothes that will allow you to bend over or upside-down without flashing the room.
What do I bring to yoga?
Most people like to use their own yoga mat, but studios almost always offer them to borrow or rent if you don’t own one yet. You can bring water or a towel to a more vigorous class, or you can opt to hydrate or dry off after.
Where and how do I set up?
It’s smart to ask the person at the front desk on your first trip to a studio, as each one is a bit different. Some teachers will want you to grab specific props (the studio provides them). Usually you can watch how other people are placing their mats, such as against a wall, in a circle, or in rows, and follow suit.
It’s also nice to leave an arm’s length between you and your neighbors as long as there’s enough room.
What to leave behind?
Strong perfumes, clanky jewelry, electronics, valuables, judgement
Can I talk during yoga?
Most often, quiet-ish chatting before and after class is par for the course. Many teachers also welcome questions during the class. But besides that, talking or joking privately with your neighbor isn’t really in the spirit of things.
- Step on other people’s mats
- Do any pose that outright hurts
- Show up with yucky, dirty feet (you’ll be barefoot)
- Get discouraged if you don’t “get it” at first—Maris says, “With even a little practice, [you’ll] become much more comfortable”
- Keep breathing
- Take a break in child’s pose when you need to
- “Have a sense of humor!” says Maris
- “Stay curious, do a little research, and explore teachers and styles.”
And perhaps most importantly, remember that yoga is about doing something good for yourself—both body and soul. Show up with an open mind, don’t judge yourself too harshly, take a rest when you need to, and, of course, breathe.
It can take years to work up to all the fancy balance and inversion postures you see the pros doing on Instagram, but it only takes one class to feel amazing. Namaste.