As a full-time yoga instructor, one of the most common questions Jenn Usher gets asked is what the different types of yoga are and what they entail. In today’s blog post, she talks us through four of the most popular styles of yoga practiced worldwide, creating a guide for both new and experienced yogis.
There is no question that yoga has absolutely exploded in the last few decades. From once being a very niche and mysterious undertaking that only a handful of Westerners pursued, it is now at the forefront of the fitness industry, with multiple yoga studios and Lululemon shops on every high street. This expansion in popularity means that naturally there has been an expansion in the types of yoga being practised. When yoga was first brought to the West by Sri K Pattabhi Jois in the 1970s, it was his vigorous Ashtanga Vinyasa system that he was sharing. But nowadays, we have a huge range of yoga practices available to us, and, while they all share some similarities, they are also diverse and unique. It can be confusing to look at a studio timetable and try to decipher what kind of class you want if you don’t really know what the different kinds are. As a teacher, it’s actually one of the questions I get most often from students new to the practice, so I thought I’d try to clarify some of the distinctions.
I’ll begin with the Ashtanga Vinyasa method, which is what I usually describe as the most traditional practice. The physical practice of Ashtanga was created in India in the early twentieth century by a man called Krishnamacharya, who then taught it to his young student Pattabhi Jois. Ashtanga is a series of sun salutations A and B, standing postures, seated postures, and finishing postures. The postures are always done in the same set sequence so there is no room for deviation or invention in an Ashtanga practice. The sequence is learned progressively. The postures in the sequence become gradually more and more advanced, and, as a student, you would not be taught the next posture until you can do the one that precedes it comfortably. The postures are divided into “series”: first you learn the Primary Series, then Intermediate Series, then Advanced A and Advanced B; or in other words First Series, Second Series, Third Series and Fourth Series. After Fourth Series, there are Fifth and Sixth Series, but these are practised by almost no one in the world because they are so advanced, complex and mysterious. As far as I know, there are only two women in the world – Kino Macgregor and Philippa Asher – and a handful of men who are learning Fifth Series. Sixth Series is, I’m convinced, a myth!
A regular, led, drop-in Ashtanga class could be run in a number of ways. If it was a beginners level class, then most likely you would be taught only Sun Salutations A and B and a few standing postures. Even this is very challenging; when beginners come to an Ashtanga class, they are usually surprised by how physically demanding it is. Be warned: Ashtanga is certainly not “just stretching”! It is an intensely dynamic practice that builds huge amounts of strength and stamina. A more advanced level Ashtanga class would probably guide you through roughly half of the Primary Series; an advanced Ashtanga class would lead you through a full Primary Series. It can take years of consistent Ashtanga practice to learn every posture in the Primary Series. To give you an idea of the long-term commitment an authentic Ashtanga practice requires, I practised nearly every day for about eighteen months before I “completed” (although I will continue to practise Primary my whole life) the Primary Series and was moved onto Intermediate. I have now been practising Intermediate for almost two years and am only halfway through that series. So, getting through a series is not going to happen lightly! The systematic nature of the practice means there are no shortcuts and you can not simply skip the postures that you do not like or do not come easily to you. You might be “stuck” on a posture for a good few months, or longer, before you are given the next one by your teacher. This is why Ashtanga really needs to be practised regularly, and in a one to one setting; which brings me on to the next style of yoga class.
Mysore-style is a method of practising Ashtanga Yoga. In a Mysore class, the students are not led through the series all together. Instead, each student does their own practice individually, without verbal cues from the teacher. This of course means that the aim is to eventually memorise the sequence and be able to do it independently. The teacher in a Mysore class is there to help students individually, which means you will get an amazing amount of one to one time and teaching that is catered to your own body and needs. In one Mysore class, you might have someone who has been practising Ashtanga for twenty years and is doing Advanced Series, next to someone who has just stepped onto a yoga mat for the first time ever. This might seem intimidating but actually it isn’t – I have always found a Mysore environment to be completely supportive and encouraging. Everyone is there to help you develop as a practitioner, and even the most advanced practitioners can remember what it was like to be a beginner.
Of course, the Ashtanga method is not necessarily for everyone, and there are plenty of other options if the rigidity of an Ashtanga practice isn’t for you. Probably the most popular type of yoga class nowadays in the West comes under the term “Vinyasa” Yoga. The word Vinyasa is a Sanskrit word which simply means movement and breath coordination – so every kind of yoga utilises vinyasa as that is one of the main principles of the physical practice. However, in a Western context, the term Vinyasa Yoga has come to represent a more fluid, creative expression of yoga. In a Vinyasa class, the teacher has free reign to come up with their own sequences, rather than sticking to the set guidelines of the Ashtanga sequence. Basically, Vinyasa Yoga has its roots in Ashtanga, a lot of the postures will cross over, but Vinyasa is a less traditional, more Westernised interpretation. You will often hear the word “flow” in a Vinyasa class, as the postures are linked more seamlessly to create almost a dance-like effect. There will often be music playing (which would never happen in a traditional Ashtanga class). Many people are drawn to this more relaxed and expressive form of yoga, and you can develop a very strong, meaningful practice with Vinyasa Yoga.
Yin & Restorative
Sometimes all you want from a yoga class is to feel relaxed, to be in a comfortable space and gently open up your body, but without the vigour that comes with an Ashtanga or Vinyasa practice. This is where a Yin or Restorative class would be ideal. In these classes, you use no muscular strength to hold postures. Instead, you support your body, often with props, to come into a posture that will slowly stretch your muscles and connective tissues with no exertion. Postures in these classes will be held for up to eight minutes so although there is no sweat involved, it can be extremely challenging to stay focused and to remain committed to your breath. If a dynamic practice like Ashtanga is the Yang, then Yin Yoga is all about honouring a softer, lower, more downwards energy.
There are many many other branches of yoga – Forrest, Bikram, Jivamukti, Kundalini – but I hope I have shed some light on a few of the most common practices. Ultimately, every yoga practice will share the same fundamental principles. Focus on breath. Linking movement to breath. Inwards concentration and meditation. Self-study and effort on the mat which begins to infiltrate into daily life. Cultivating attitudes of patience, tolerance, kindness and commitment; to yourself and to others. It’s great to try out lots of different types of yoga practices, especially when you are first beginning a practice. You’ll have fun and experiment and work out what you like and what you don’t. And then, if you are lucky, you will stumble across a practice that suddenly resonates with you in a way that is more than just fun. You’ll find yourself sticking to one method and immersing yourself in it, and that is when you will feel the true power of yoga.
Meadowlark offers a variety of different types of yoga classes, from our Morning Mysore programme to Power Vinyasa classes, to Yin and Yoga Nidra sessions. Find our full timetable here.