There’s a bunch of different types of yoga! Why is that? And what are they?
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Sat nam, and Welcome in!
Here’s a good question! Why are there so many different kinds of yoga? The answer lies in the play of forms. Our species is intensely interested in the infinite ways to show up in the world. If one person says, “Look what I’m doing over here!”, another person will try to do it too, and lo and behold, come up with a new variation! Then she will say, “Look at THIS!”, and then before you know it, you’ve got a whole culture of movement. Devotees of a particular “doing,” will begin coming up with new variations, twists, turns, adding in, subtracting out, changing slightly or changing completely!
But it’s all called yoga. What’s yoga? Ha ha ha. Ok, here’s a short answer.
Yoga is a physical, mental and spiritual practice that originated in India thousands of years ago. The word “yoga” comes from the Sanskrit word “yuj” which means to yoke, or unite. The practice aims to unite mind, body and soul, and ultimately unite the m/b/s with God, as the philosophy behind yoga is non-dualism; we, all, are ONE.
Physically, yoga involves postures, or asanas, that increase flexibility, build muscle and core strength, affect the body’s systems, and improve balance. It promotes mental calmness, relieves stress, and readies the body for stillness in meditation. It uses controlled breathing along with poses to affect energy changes in the body and mind.
Yoga is also understood to be a system of ethical and spiritual life principles; there are 8 limbs of yoga, as outlined in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. They are
(More on these in another blog post)
Ok! Now that we have a simple understanding of what Yoga is…very simple, it’s a complicated subject because it’s so very old, let’s look at the seven most popular forms of yoga here in the United States, called, “the West,” (with Asia being “the East”) and how to tell them apart.
Because this is the early 2020s when I'm writing this, you can see as many names for yoga classes as they are teachers, who can name their class whatever they want. Here’s a few names of classes I’m familiar with:
Power/Power flow vinyasa
Happy Back yoga
Candlelight and Wine slow flow yoga
Ashtanga Vinyasa Remix
Follow the Yogi
Healing Yin + Vin
Yoga for runners
Yoga for 12-step recovery
Movement and Meditation yoga
And so on. All classes are 50 minutes, unless specified.
The 7 most widely known forms of yoga, arguably, are as follows, with descriptions, to the best of my knowledge.
Hatha Yoga: This form of yoga is the most commonly practiced and taught form of yoga. There are hundreds if not thousands of poses, variations of which are constantly being taught. Standing, seated and supine postures, balancing, inversions and purification (breathing) techniques are all fair game. When a teacher training just says, “200-hour yoga training,” it’s hatha yoga. All the greatest hits are found here. Since the teacher creates the entire class, it can look slow and easy or fast and athletic. Teacher talks almost non-stop.
Vinyasa yoga: Links breath and movement, featuring a series of poses (which are fixed but can be modified) that flow together. A typical vinyasa class flow might look like this:
Mountain pose (standing in alignment)
Half-way lift up
4 limbed staff pose
Warrior I (see pic below)
—-and “take your vinyasa”—everybody does 2-8 again. You may hear this several times during a class.
10. Warrior II
11. Extended side angle
12. Triangle Pose
13. Wide-legged forward fold
14. Crow pose
15. Some inversions from supine—for instance, headstand, shoulder stand, plow pose
16. Fish pose
17. Seated forward fold, or butterfly pose perhaps,
18. Corpse pose
This is just an example. These classes vary widely. A key factor is each pose is linked to an inhale or an exhale. Postures are held for a breath, or 2-5 breaths; the teacher talks almost non-stop in class providing instruction.
3. Ashtanga yoga: A challenging form of yoga, not for newbies. There are a set of sequences of postures (there are 6 series, with the first 2 being the most commonly practiced) in a specific order and it is very focused on athleticism; building incredible strength, flexibility and endurance. Not as much instruction in these classes. Teacher watches for proper alignment and offers safe modifications. There are 22 postures in the first series, all are hatha postures. Teachers may vary the sequence as desired.
4. Bikram yoga: Or “hot” yoga, is a flow yoga that uses 26 postures and two breathing exercises, performed in a heated room. I’ve seen rooms at 85 degrees, and at 105 degrees, with 40% humidity. Bring a towel. Once you know the flow, you can just go at your own pace.
5. Iyengar yoga: This form of yoga is intensely concerned with proper alignment of the body in each posture and the use of props (blocks, straps, blankets, bolsters, chairs, walls, pillows, constructed tables, inversion aids, etc.) to help achieve correct alignment and support the body. Restorative yoga comes from this practice. Extremely difficult to learn how to teach—certification process is difficult. Each posture is attempting to reach perfection. This is like yoga physical therapy in a way. They use so many props! It can take a few minutes of instruction to just get into a posture. The teacher will want to be able to adjust your body with his/her hands.
6. Yin Yoga: is a slow-paced, meditative style of yoga that targets the ligaments, bones and joints, particularly in the hips, shoulders and low back. Postures are slowly approached, props are used, and are held for a minimum of three minutes each, allowing for a gentle, passive stretch. Increases flexibility, opens up the joints, promotes mental calmness. Focusing on the breath during class promotes mindfulness. This yoga is so good for the body; it helps with circulation, energy blockages, organ function, joint mobility, increased range of motion, reduction in stress and anxiety, and recovery from injury. I love Yin yoga and am certified to teach this form. My Tuesday at 6 pm class, called Stretch, Flex and Restore, can be an hour of Yin Yoga.
7. Kundalini Yoga: The yoga offered by yours truly features different prescribed sets of postures, called “kriyas,” which the teacher does not make up. There are 1000s of kriyas to choose from. Kriyas are sets of postures ranging from one posture, to as many as 25 postures. Most are 4-15 movements, however. Modifications and alternatives may be offered, or not. Some teachers talk a lot, some just a little, some hardly at all.
Props are not encouraged but are allowed, other than a sheepskin to practice on (you can just use a mat and blanket) and a meditation cushion. The movements can be static with controlled breathing, but are often repetitive, and last for 30 seconds, 1 minute, 3 minutes, or longer. Breath work is a part of every class; there are at least 12 breathing techniques involved. Chanting/singing is a part of every class. This yoga is linked with Sikh mantras, because Yogi Bhajan was Sikh, so we chant in Gurmukhi, not Sanskrit. Not much Sanskrit language is used, we use English to name the postures. There are standing, supine and seated postures, but, honestly, most of the popular kriyas feature mostly seated/supine asanas. Most of the postures are taken from Hatha, but some are unique to Kundalini Yoga. Breath of fire is unique to Kundalini Yoga. It’s an ancient breath, but not taught in other yoga classes. It’s considered too advanced/dangerous for the average yoga student.
There is usually a 3- to 11-minute meditation (often includes hand postures called mudras, eye focus, and chanting) included in every class, and during the final pose (corpse pose) there is usually a gong playing. There is community at the end of class, with Yogi tea or other warm beverage offered. This yoga is more about moving energy in the body to achieve a certain readiness for health, prevention of disease, changing of mental perspective, self-realization, and union with God. It’s less interested in perfection in asana, and more interested in one’s own experience of being during the 90-minute classes, which can be intense, or meditative, or something in-between. It's a Naad-yoga, which emphasizes the sacred sound current as teacher of wisdom.
The class is backgrounded with music culled from a vast library of former and current kundalini yogis turned musicians. At least that's how I teach class. Some use popular music, Indian ragas, yoga music, or no music. There is more music than talking.
When you are certified to teach Kundalini Yoga as taught by Yogi Bhajan, by the Kundalini Research Institute (KRI), you promise to wear a white turban, or at least a head covering your hair, and all white clothes. Students do not have to follow these rules, but often would. Nowadays, some teachers have abandoned many of the cult-like, and religion-related, practices. I cover my head when I chant the Mul Mantra, but not when chanting otherwise, unless I’m feeling like it for some reason. I wear regular yoga clothes.
Here are some shots I pulled from the internet that show what Kundalini Yoga (as taught by Yogi Bhajan) typically looked like.
Kundalini Yoga taught in a regular yoga studio; no sheepskin, no gong.
This posture is Sat Kriya, unique to Kundalini Yoga. A powerful, energy-moving practice. Kundalini Yoga was often being done outdoors, which is why they all use sheepskins and not mats.
This was taken up on the mountain in New Mexico, during a summer solstice; Yogi Bhajan is on stage. See the link below for more information about the fun they all had.
Popular class, totally in California.
Every class usually had a teaching to go along with it. They're like mini-workshops.
I think you'd be a little hard pressed to find these scenes in the USA anymore...it's much more common in other countries around the world. Since Yogi Bhajan was found to likely have had a lot of sex with his "secretaries," and swindled his followers out of a lot of money, and arranged marriages and sent the children of those marriages off to crummy boarding schools in India....um, yea. Many studios want nothing to do with Kundalini Yoga anymore.
Kundalini Yoga is old; maybe the oldest. But the form most known today is As Taught By Yogi Bhajan, and he fused asana practices with lifestyle and Ayurvedic principles, knowledge of the ancient science of prana and nadis (qi and meridians in China) with Sikh mantras and their form of non-dualism. It's a created form of yoga, as they all are. This one was born in 1968 in California by an Indian yogic master. Beloved and despised, and dead since 2004, his yoga lives on for one reason: it's amazingly FUN stuff! Also deep. But mostly fun.
If you want some more history on the early days from Guru Singh, one of Yogi Bhajan's first students, who, along with his wife and Brett Larkin, is still teaching and playing music, click here:
So there it is, a little primer on the different types of yoga. What did I miss? What did I get wrong? Let me know with an email or in the comments.
Sat Nam, and thanks for watching!