Beginner's Guide to Popular Yoga Styles

An ancient practice originating in India, yoga is perhaps more popular than ever especially among women seeking a different kind of exercise experience. Starting a new practice can be daunting especially when there are so many types on the market, all sporting names that don’t make a lot of sense to non-yogis, so I have compiled a breakdown of some of the most common styles to help you choose the right one for you, or maybe just start experimenting! The key is to work out what you want to get out of a class, be it to feel relaxed or energised, flexibility or strength, a workout or to calm the mind. And remember, yoga is not just for super-bendy people – it can have both physical and mental benefits for everyone – just breathe and try something new!

Hatha

First up is probably the most common. Even if classes are titled ‘general’ or ‘yoga’ the style itself will usually be hatha yoga. It is quite slow-paced focussing on combining breathing techniques (pranyama) with active poses (asana). Think of it as a moving meditation, making you aware of your body and breath, which is essentially the purpose of all yoga. Don’t be concerned if your class is open to all levels – both simpler and harder options for certain poses are usually offered making this a really inclusive style and a great one to start off with or expand your practice.

Yin

This is one of my favourites for stretching and relaxation. Poses are usually floor-based (sitting/lying rather than standing) and are held for longer periods of time, often around 5-10mins before slowly and carefully moving into the next pose. The idea is to not push yourself but to settle into your pose and your breathing, slowly finding the edge at which it starts to become uncomfortable and hovering around here until your body relaxes into it. Teachers often say they do not want you to stretch to full capacity, while props such as bolsters and blankets are used for support. This is a great evening practice and some classes are run by candlelight – bliss!

Vinyasa

The opposite of yin, vinyasa is much more dynamic and is often called flow yoga. Poses are more fluid, moving from one to another following the pattern of the breath, building a bit of heat in the body and ultimately leaving you quite energised. You will rarely be still during this class so it is quite a good workout, improving your flexibility, strength and stamina. Don’t worry if it gets too much though – variations are always offered and you will never be judged for taking a time-out!

Ashtanga

Ashtanga is quite similar to vinyasa but is practiced in set sequences (primary series being the easiest). I really enjoy this style as you can really feel the improvement in your body by repeating the same poses and there is something quite comforting about knowing what pose is coming next. Strength, flexibility, balance and alignment are all enhanced by this practice.

Iyengar

A slower-paced style that focuses on alignment and technique, Iyengar is more about supporting the body than a workout. Props such as bolsters, blocks and straps are used heavily for good posture, and this added support means it is accessible to all, even if you count yourself physically challenged. There is less flow to Iyengar, with each pose set up individually and plenty of help from the teacher to aid you and your props to the right position.

Bikram

Also known as hot yoga, this is a celebrity-endorsed workout. Not for the faint-hearted, bikram is a sequence of dynamic poses in a temperature of around 40 degrees C. Think gym session in a sauna. You will be sweaty, energised, possibly exhausted, but the promise of detoxing the skin, losing weight and building muscle makes classes popular.

Restorative

Another favourite of mine – can you tell I use yoga to relax? Restorative yoga is all about few postures held for a long time but without effort. Class atmosphere is calming and all about relaxation and comfort. Plenty of blankets and bolsters are used to pack around your body so you maintain position without any muscle tension. This is a great style for rest and recuperation, and is not a workout.

Yoga Nidra

Nidra is a type of meditation also known as yogic sleep, though please don’t nod off. The relaxation can be so deep that it equates to 4 hours of real sleep. Awareness is the focus, with the teacher taking you through a body scan, series of visualisations and switching between different sensations, be it sound or imagined feelings of weight or heat. The effects of stress/tension reduction and better sleep are cumulative – the more you practice the greater the benefits. I’m still not sure how it works, but it really does, and it’s a great practice for when you don’t feel like moving.

Acro-yoga

This is a partner style so much more interactive than some of the other types. Cue lots of teamwork and laughter when you collapse in a pile. Usually two people form a base and a flyer balanced on their legs/ arms so balance, strength and alignment are key, but the results are beautiful. Poses can be static or dynamic flowing from one to another, and there are also elements of Thai massage involved so great for couples or anyone looking for a more cooperative yoga class.

Aerial

Also known as anti-gravity yoga, this is one of the newer styles. Think yoga poses in a hammock. The idea is that being suspended counteracts the usual effects of gravity on our bodies, making inversions easier as they are supported. And it also means you can unleash your inner-child and play around like you are in a circus! As a newer style, variations can depend on different teachers so some classes may be more relaxing or dynamic than others.

Helen Shelvey