Which Kind of Yoga Class Is Right for Me?

Photo by George Mikhail

The beauty of yoga is, like brands of shampoo, there are different kinds for each taste preference and desire. Depending on what’s available in your community, options can range from “power yoga,” which often includes a fast-paced flow of sequences (sometimes called vinyasa) with intermittent challenging holds to Kundalini yoga, which focuses more on breath work and mantras.

What are you looking to achieve from your yoga class?

Are you looking for a good workout to enhance your overall fitness routine? Perhaps power, Ashtanga or a vinyasa flow yoga class would be best for you. These classes are faster paced and often more physically demanding. If you like it hot, try Bikram or hot yoga. Make sure to listen to your body in these classes, so as to not overdo it and hurt yourself.

Do you want to increase your connection to your breath while exercising and achieving stress relief?Most yoga practices aim at connecting the body to the breath, but if you’re just starting out, try hatha or restorative class for a slower-paced flow that will help you to get the hang of it. Kripalu yoga aims at achieving stress relief by observing the sensations in your body (I love this type of practice for an early morning class).

Are you coping with a chronic condition or injury that you think yoga can help with? A slow-paced restorative yoga could be good for you, but the most important thing is to talk to your yoga teacher about whatever specific needs you might have.

Are you looking for a place to get in touch with your spirituality and connect with others? Classes that incorporate prayers and mantras might be best for you. For example, Naam combines Kundalini yoga with the principles of Kabalah. It combines movement, pranayam (rhythmic breathing) and mudras (hand positions). I recently had the pleasure of taking a class and was able to chat with Naam instructor Kelley Black who talked about what she sees as the benefits of this type of practice. “Naam yoga provides the just-in-time technology that enables the practitioner to adapt to constant change, embrace ambiguity, as well as recalibrate careers, health, business models and assumptions about what it takes to thrive, not merely survive in the age of information overload.”

Choosing the right yoga class can depend on a lot of things, even your mood. Some days, I like to challenge myself with more strenuous flows, and other days, I like to breathe and just roll around on the floor a bit. But whatever choice I make, I always go home feeling like a new person.

You’ve decided to finally start doing yoga — but after Googling classes in your area, your head is spinning. Should you try Ashtanga or Iyengar? And what’s the difference between hot yoga and Vinyasa? The array of options can be enough to scare newbies off the mat for good.

But here’s why you shouldn’t be scared: Like cross training, incorporating a variety of types of yoga into your regular practice can help keep you balanced, says Nikki Vilella, senior teacher at Kula Yoga Project and co-owner of Kula Williamsburg. “Try a few different studios, teachers and styles. Then, stick with the one that resonates with you for a good amount of time and be dedicated to the practice,” says Vilella. “The first day you don’t like a class shouldn’t be a reason to bolt and try something new.”

Yoga isn’t necessarily a ‘one-size-fits-all’ practice, either. Different types of yoga might be best for different people. “A 20-year-old and a 70-year-old probably don’t need the same things,” Vilella says. “Someone who is hyper-mobile and flexible doesn’t need the same thing as someone who’s muscular and stiff.”

So with all the choices out there, where do you start? Don’t lose your Ujjayi breath (that’s yogi speak for calming inhales and exhales). We’ve got your definitive list — plus, tips for identifying the style you might like best.

1. Hatha

It’s all about the basics in these slower moving classes that require you to hold each pose for a few breaths. In many studios, hatha classes are considered a gentler form of yoga. However, the Sanskrit term “hatha” actually refers to any yoga that teaches physical postures. “It’s a practice of the body, a physical practice that balances these two energies. So, in reality, it is all hatha yoga,” Vilella says.

2. Vinyasa

Get your flow on in this dynamic practice that links movement and breath together in a dance-like way. In most classes, you won’t linger long in each pose and the pace can be quick, so be prepared for your heart rate to rise. Teachers will often pump music, matching the beats to the sequences of the poses.

3. Iyengar

Here you’ll get nit-picky about precision and detail, as well as your body’s alignment in each pose. Props, from yoga blocks and blankets to straps or a ropes wall, will become your new best friend, helping you to work within a range of motion that is safe and effective. Unlike in Vinyasa, each posture is held for a period of time. If you’re new to Iyengar, even if you’ve practiced other types of yoga, it’s good to start with a level one class to familiarize yourself with the technique.

4. Ashtanga

If you’re looking for a challenging yet orderly approach to yoga, try Ashtanga. Consisting of six series of specifically sequenced yoga poses, you’ll flow and breathe through each pose to build internal heat. The catch is that you’ll perform the same poses in the exact same order in each class. Some studios will have a teacher calling out the poses, while Mysore style classes (a subset of Ashtanga) require you to perform the series on your own. (But don’t worry – there will always be a teacher in the room to offer assistance if you need it.)

5. Bikram

Prepare to sweat: Bikram consists of a specific series of 26 poses and two breathing exercises practiced in a room heated to approximately 105 degrees and 40 percent humidity. All Bikram studios practice the same 90-minute sequence so you’ll know exactly what to do once you unroll your mat. Remember, the vigorous practice combined with the heat can make the class feel strenuous. If you’re new to Bikram, take it easy: Rest when you need to and be sure to hydrate beforehand.

6. Hot Yoga

Hot yoga is similar to Bikram in that it’s practiced in a heated room. But teachers aren’t constrained by the 26-pose Bikram sequence. While the heat will make you feel like you can move deeper into some poses compared to a non-heated class, it can be easy to overstretch, so don’t push beyond your capacity.

7. Kundalini

Celebrity devotees including actor Russell Brand and author Gabrielle Bernstein have given Kundalini a cult-like following. Yet, this physically and mentally challenging practice looks very different from your typical yoga class. You’ll perform kriyas —repetitive physical exercises coupled with intense breath work — while also chanting, singing and meditating. The goal? To break through your internal barriers, releasing the untapped energy residing within you and bringing you a higher level of self-awareness.

8. Yin Yoga

If you want to calm and balance your body and mind, this is where you’ll find your zen. The opposite of a faster moving practice like Ashtanga, Yin yoga poses are held for several minutes at a time. This meditative practice is designed to target your deeper connective tissues and fascia, restoring length and elasticity. You’ll use props so your body can release into the posture instead of actively flexing or engaging the muscles. Like meditation, it may make you feel antsy at first, but stick with it for a few classes and its restorative powers might have you hooked.

9. Restorative

While it may feel like you’re not doing much in a Restorative yoga class…that’s the point. The mellow, slow-moving practice with longer holds gives your body a chance tap into your parasympathetic nervous system, allowing you to experience deeper relaxation. You’ll also use a variety of props including blankets, bolsters and yoga blocks to fully support your body in each pose.

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