My first yoga class was one of the most boring experiences of my life.
It took place in the basement of a church in small-town Ohio. My teacher was a young man who, as far as I could tell, was completely committed to austerity. Over the course of 90 minutes, we practiced maybe…five poses? I didn’t come near to breaking a sweat (in fact, I had to add layers). He did a lot of demonstrations and drew stick figures on a chalkboard to help us understand energy flow and muscular activation. It was very, very serious. Later I learned this was hatha yoga. Hatha is the root of most types of yoga popular in the West, but we practiced it extremely slowly in this particular class.
From this experience, my understanding was that all styles of yoga were dull and rather gloomy, but good for me—like flossing or doing a self-breast exam.
Then I tried vinyasa yoga, and oh my, my life was changed.
The practice—in which poses are strewn together in a gorgeous sequence—was like dancing on my mat, like swimming without water. (In fact, vinyasa means to arrange in a special way.) Sun salutations had me reaching up, down, forward, back, jumping, and folding, but the sequence wasn’t set, like it is in ashtanga yoga. The teacher would choreograph a sequence based on what we were working toward—an arm balance or a hip opener—with each pose building on the other.
I was a professional dancer at the time, and this yoga style fit my physical instinct like a glove. During my first class, I noticed my shin—my shin!—was sweating. When class ended, I felt utterly high. A few years into this practice, I started teaching, and I loved figuring out how to lead students from one pose to the next.
Some time later, I got injured dancing, and vinyasa yoga no longer felt good. I needed to move much more slowly—to breathe through poses, to put more emphasis on alignment, to scale way back. I needed to be more careful with my body—something I didn’t feel like I could do at the pace at which I’d been practicing. I returned to the style of yoga I’d done with my original church-basement instructor, and it suited me much better.
What’s the best kind of yoga for me?
There are myriad forms of yoga, and while they (almost) all come from the same root, they are practiced quite differently. All the different types of yoga offered at studios and available online satisfy different needs, personalities, and physical limitations. Here are a few thoughts from various yoginis on why they love the style of yoga they’re currently practicing:
This is the type of yoga for you if you’re after a deep, detailed emphasis on alignment. Many props are employed during Iyengar classes, and it’s great if you have an injury or want to start very slowly, with a firm grounding in anatomy.
Natalie Levin, RYT-200, has been teaching and practicing for almost 20 years and says:
Iyengar yoga has the most detailed attention to alignment included in the embodiment of every pose. There is no whipping through the poses to see how much you can sweat. It is a deep, powerful attention to the breath and the most subtle movements of the muscles and tendons that requires effort, both mental and physical. I don’t experience this in any other style of yoga.
Iyengar yoga challenges me to slow down enough to actually use the props correctly and when I did, I remember feeling a freedom that I could not experience with my own body unaided. The specificity of the instruction from the rigorously trained Iyengar teachers is awe-inspiring.
Otherwise known as hot yoga, practitioners of this style of yoga move through the same 26 postures in a room that’s heated to over 105 degrees. Bikram is good for people who can withstand heat and like a repetitive workout.
Cynthia Kay, yoga practitioner, says:
I didn’t know anything about Bikram yoga when I started—it was near my house and it seemed like a good way to shed some postpartum weight. I noticed improvement right away in my flexibility, strength, posture, and mood. That motivated me to go back more often. I soon had the series memorized, and I could get into a moving meditation in class. Everyone around me doing exactly the same thing created a great energy. Of course not every class is this great meditative experience—some classes I can’t clear my head and I struggle with the heat and the length of the postures—but when I miss a few a classes and then finally get back to it, it feels like I can move again!
Jessica Lattif, yoga practitioner, shares:
Bikram Yoga seems like the right kind of exercise for me, in that it plays to my (few!) physicals strengths: flexibility and balance. For some reason, I’m a person whose body responds well to sweating a lot, and Bikram gives me that without me having to do exercise that I’m terrible at and hate—like running.
It forces me to be present in the moment by combining yoga postures with intense physical circumstances (heat), which doesn’t leave room for my mind to wander. Overall, I felt joy and relief when I discovered Bikram as an intense form of exercise that I could do well and enjoy. I’ve never been particularly athletic, but being able to keep my breathing steady, hold my balance, and stay present in the classes makes me feel like I have a superpower.
This is an alignment-based style of yoga that uses a conceptual framework of loops and spirals that are already naturally occurring in the body to work toward healthful alignment of the spine and extremities during asana. Unlike some more body-centric types of yoga, Anusara is a heart-based practice, meaning each class focuses on a theme and is geared toward cultivating a particular quality that will enable the practitioner to feel greater peace of mind both during and after the practice.
Lauren Jacobs, RYT-200, says:
I think people with injuries, arthritis, and osteoporosis can benefit from Anusara because it intrinsically utilizes therapeutic principles to align joints, vertebrae, and bone structures. It can also help people with hectic, stressful lives who want a calming practice because it focuses on cultivating beneficial heart qualities. So while it is not ideal for cardio or big-muscle building, it is ideal for muscle lengthening, long-muscle building, alignment, and balance as well as centering and relaxation.
When I walk out of class (whether learning or teaching), I feel physically and emotionally open. My body feels stretched, strengthened, and aligned and my mind feels centered, calm, clear-headed, and one with all that surrounds me. There is a sense that both my body and inner heart are safe, and that the practice helps my body and inner heart be more aligned in the world.
The restorative style of yoga is wonderful if you really need to de-stress and rest your body. You will hold supported poses (usually lying down, but sometimes sitting or kneeling, like in child’s pose) for long periods of time in a darkened room. Props are employed so the body can fully relax. A restorative yoga class is a huge treat on a Sunday.
Sonya Kurapatwa, E-RYT-500, a teacher who has been instructing dance for 28 years and yoga for 10, shares:
Coming from a dance background, I was hesitant at first to dive into yoga. What could a bunch of still poses offer to someone whose interest was in movement and expression? When I was exposed to a flow-based, vinyasa-style practice, I discovered there was a style of yoga-asana that allowed me to move and breathe and express myself in a way that was entirely different from dance, and by far more kind to my body.
But, all things in balance, I also required practices that pulled me out of my urgency to move and taught me the skill of stillness. That interest led me to practice Yin and restorative yoga—two very different styles with very different intentions which are often confused with one another because of the priority they put on stillness. It was stillness that had been missing in my life as a dancer.
Now I understand I require movement and stillness both. I need effort and ease both. Sthira [steadiness] and sukha [ease]! One approach without the harmonizing force of the other only feeds imbalance, so I practice and teach classes in hatha vinyasa and restorative and Yin, and I encourage students to practice a variety of styles in order to create their own interpretation of harmony.
One last thought from Steffany Moonaz, PhD, RYT-500, a yoga teacher who specializes in yoga for arthritis: You don’t actually have to choose. Really! Moonaz says:
Yoga practice is not a one-size-fits-all. And any individual person benefits from a different approach to practice depending on stage of life, energy level, time of day, health, and well-being. There are a variety of yoga practices and variations for each practice that can be used in various combinations for the greatest benefit. To suggest that one approach is always best is to overlook the wealth of yoga’s long and beautiful history.