Different Styles of Yoga Decoded

For the record, Bikram yoga is hot; however, not all hot yoga is Bikram. Tricky, I know. With so many styles of yoga available, it’s hard for newcomers to decipher the differences and select the style that’s best for them; so, I’ve compiled a cursory look at some of the most widely available styles, along with a brief description and a few thoughts derived from my own personal experiences. Please note that while I am aware of throngs of other styles, I only wrote about those with which I have direct, personal experience; feel free to post additional entries if a style of yoga with which you’re familiar is missing. Don’t be bashful about adding your personal spin on things as well. Sing the praises of your favorite discipline, or voice constructive criticism for a practice of which you’re not a fan.

Anusara: Created by John Friend in 1997, this relatively new style of yoga has a sizable following around the world. It’s heart-centered philosophy and meticulous approach to alignment create a well-rounded, pleasant practice. New Age phobes, be forewarned; the warm and fuzzy feel borders on the cliched at times. However, expert teachers know how to temper this risk, including two of my favorites in this discipline, Josephine Selander of Sweden and Julia Novina of Boston. For yogis, like myself, who prefer vigorous, vinyasa-based styles, anusara is a lovely complement.
Ashtanga: I like to refer to ashtanga as the grandma of power yoga, as this style initiated many off-chutes (e.g. power, vinyasa, etc.) that have become increasingly popular in the U.S. In college I was an avid “ashtangi,” who fell in love with its level of challenge and structure. To date, it also remains relatively unchanged from its roots in Southern India. Each class focuses on a particular series, with each subsequent series becoming more difficult than the next. Admittedly, I now find the system a bit rigid, particularly from the standpoint of a teacher. Sure, I can twist and bend and contort just so; however, many postures are not as feasible for the mainstream practitioner. This style was founded by the late Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, who passed away in May 2009. The OmGal.com post referencing the life of the influential teacher features videos and additional information.
Baptiste: I was certified in this system and taught at the Baptiste Power Yoga Institute locations in Boston (now defunct), Cambridge, and Brookline as a master-level teacher– multiple classes a day, six days a week, for several years. It’s an athletic, invigorating, and well organized system, with borrowed elements from Ashtanga, Bikram, Iyengar, and others. Classes are heated to upwards of 90 degrees and follow the same basic structure each time. Baron Baptiste , the founder of this practice, is a former student of Bikram Choudhury.
Bikram: Credited with being the first yogi to brand a style of yoga and franchise studios, Bikram Choudhury is a polarizing figure within the yoga community. Bikram was also the first teacher to insist upon a heated studio (upwards of 100 degrees). The practice consists of the same 27 postures each time. I’m not partial to this practice due to the lack of variety and often militant approach to teaching (some instructors strongly discourage students from drinking water during class), but I also don’t like other popular things like yellow cake or orange juice- which baffles many people- so don’t take my word alone.
Forrest: Founded by the intense Ana Forrest, this practice builds lots of strength, the depths of which are not easily replicated by other styles. Classes can be fraught with arm balances, hips openers, and abdominal work. Ana demands a lot from her teachers, so most are highly knowledgeable and impressively skilled. Classes can vary in terms of sequencing and structure, which keeps things interesting though does not always guarantee consistency.
Hatha: This umbrella term is slightly bastardized in the U.S., as “hatha” actually refers to all asana practices, as opposed to other, less physical disciplines of yoga, not as widely recognized, such as karma (service) yoga, bhakti (devotional) yoga, and others. Conventionally speaking, hatha refers to a more gentle style of practice, comprised of static poses, longer holds, and slower, gentler movements. If you’re new to yoga, working with an injury or medical condition, I would recommend hatha as a good place to begin.
Iyengar: Devised by B.K.S. Iyengar, who recently turned 90 in December 2008- supporting the claim that a regular yoga practice leads to longevity- this discipline places ultimate significance on alignment. Iyengar students and teachers are earnest, meticulous, and often serious. Iyengar and his teachers, including Boston-based yoga pioneer Patricia Walden, the body is the vehicle through which all things are experienced, thus you must research and train your body, in order to influence and enlighten your experience of the world. Poses are held for an extended amount of time and much attention is paid to the smallest refinements. Iyengar’s books are among some of the best yoga resources available.
Jivamukti: Established by Sharon Gannon and David Life in 1984, this style physically resembles a blend of many styles; however, its emphasis on the philosophical aspect of yoga is more pronounced than in many other practices. In class, students often chant, read, and learn about a singular theme. Rows of students face one another as in an ashtanga class, yet music is used, bringing to mind more contemporary styles such as vinyasa. One consistent and crucial theme is Jivamukti’s fierce support of animal rights. Do not trot into class at its NYC studios in your Uggs or fur-trimmed parkas; it’s considered a major faux pas, if not a brazen display of disrespect or worse.
Kripalu: Developed at the Kripalu Center in the Berkshires of western Massachusetts, this style is gentle and accessible to all. My first exposure to yoga as a teenager was through Kripalu yoga, taught by Carol Dubin on Cape Cod. Some of its best features include its rhythmic movement and welcoming atmosphere, especially to newcomers.
Kundalini: This chakra-based practice focuses on energy points along the spine with the eventual goal being to awaken the “snake-like” energy through meditation and yoga. Disclaimer: Unlike the other styles listed here, I have not practiced this style but only researched it over the years.
Power Yoga: Beryl Bender Birch, with whom I took a workshop in 2002, is credited with first coining this term in the 90s; however, Bryan Kest, with whom I studied in 1999, seems to have also arrived at the terminology around the same time. In essence, power yoga is defined as a reinterpretation of ashtanga so that the practice could become more accessible and enticing to Americans. Power yoga initiated a revolution wherein yoga transformed from being practiced in church basements and community halls to studios to gyms and health clubs around the world.
Vinyasa: It’s up for debate whether vinyasa represents the next evolution of power yoga or simply a shift in semantics. The word vinyasa means “to flow,” so that sequences are always linked together and move relatively quickly (i.e. not static). The loose definition allows plenty of room for creative interpretation. In general, it’s a fun style, particularly for experienced yogis who understand the technical aspects of asanas already.
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  • Charlie

    Thanks for posting this. I’m new to yoga and I’m often confused about all the different styles.

    One you left out was Kripalu – do you know anything about this style? Thanks!

  • Om Gal

    Indeed! My very first yoga teacher taught mostly Kripalu-inspired classes. It’s one of the more gentle, restorative styles. She often integrated Feldenkrais movements as well, creating sequences that had a fluid, healing quality. Thank you for inquiring Charlie!

  • Anonymous

    Hi Omgal,

    I think it’s also important to mention, about Baptiste, that the sequence is always pretty much the same, regardless of teacher. I’ve been going there for years and while I find the predictability comforting, I know some who find it boring. Also, what about Perpetual Yoga? Any knowledge there?

    Thanks for sharing as always!

  • Om Gal

    Very wise to mention. Baptiste is pretty much the same sequence across the board, which can leave many students (and teachers) feeling, well, bored. You got me on “perpetual yoga” though. I will need to investigate.

  • juan antonio fernandez

    i am a beeg fan of acro yoga. you know?

  • Anonymous

    So, given all this very helpful rundown, I’d definitely appreciate your advice for this situation: I’m a regular at the Baptiste studio, but am shortly leaving Boston. And, having *never* practiced yoga outside of this studio (though I’ve been at Baptiste for 3 years now), I’m keen to keep up a practice that keeps in as good physical shape as the Baptiste flow. Which one of these styles is my best bet (and I engage in no physical activity outside of this yoga and, for time reasons, I’d prefer to keep it that way!)? Help gratefully appreciated.

  • Om Gal

    Ah yes, Acro Yoga, how could I forget! This style is super new, a hybrid of acrobatics and yoga, wherein partners (ideally two people of roughly the same size) suspend and support each other in yoga poses off the ground, in the air, etc.

    As for the recommendation on styles of yoga that are good substitutions for Baptiste, try power, vinyasa, flow, or even ashtanga classes. Tell me exactly where you’re going, and I might be able to give you a better scoop on teachers and studios.

  • Katy

    Love this list + lol on the cake and oj comment!

  • meghantelpnerblog.com

    This is great! And I recently started practicing kundalini. People kept mentioning it to me and so I thought it was a sign I should give it a go. Kundalini is totally silly- sort of gives me a chance to shake and dance and breathe and sing all my sillies out.

  • Anonymous

    I’m the mover, above, and I’m moving to Ottawa, Canada!

  • Om Gal

    Moving to Ottawa: In light of your question, I checked in with my very good Canuk pal, with whom I’m training for the marathon. We had 9-miles worth of chat time last night, so I was able to get her input (her mom, coincidentally, lives in Ottawa). Her suggestion was to go to the nearest Lululemon store and have them give you the lowdown (she assures me that the crew there will know all the best, local teachers and studios). She works for the brand and insists they will be your best resource, and I think she has a point. One area of town that you will surely need to scope out is Westboro (allegedly the coolest). Also, my pal vaguely recalls her mom raving about a studio w/ “goat” in the name. Swear.

  • Anonymous

    Good idea – thanks for the tip (and thanks, also, for answering reader questions!). Conveniently, I even know where a Lululemon store is in Ottawa (you can tell your friend that I was recently there, and the *only* store in the entire mall with shoppers was the LL store). And, I’m a regular reader, and I can’t see that this changes with my move, so should you ever hear of other great yoga stuff in Ottawa, don’t hesitate to post. Oh, and google reveals that there’s a Mountaingoat Yoga Centre on the outskirts of Ottawa (unfortunately not at all near where I’ll live and work)!