It can be confusing to start a yoga practice and not understand what type of class to take or what is best for you, your body, and your goals. There are many different styles of yoga, each with its own unique approach and emphasis. Some styles are significantly more physical, while others are more calming and meditative. Some integrate technical breathwork techniques, or “pranayama” in Sanskrit, while others only ask that students keep the natural rhythm of breath. In this article, we will explore four popular styles of yoga: Ashtanga, Vinyasa, Hatha, and Yin.
Many argue that modern yoga is not inclusive of most body types or is inaccessible to differently-able-bodied folks. This issue is not merely about being more inclusive, it’s about being more inconclusive. Modern yoga teachers such as I do not actually know what is best for others’ bodies and students should take the liberty to explore all the styles of yoga for themselves. It is my hope that this article not only acts as a resource for those searching for information on the different types or styles of yoga, but also as a call for Western studios, teachers, and practitioners to adopt a more inconclusive attitude towards the practice.
Ashtanga Yoga is a rigorous and structured style that follows a specific sequence of postures. It was developed by K. Pattabhi Jois in the 20th century and is based on an ancient text called the Yoga Korunta. In Ashtanga Yoga, practitioners perform the same sequence of postures in the same order every time, with each posture building on the previous one. This creates a powerful and transformative practice that requires discipline and dedication. When most people think of yoga, they typically only think about the physical poses. While the postures, or “asanas” in Sanskrit, are a major component of the practice, the physical dimension is only one small sliver of the whole. In Sanskrit, the word “ashtanga” means eight limbs, and the asanas are only the third on the list. These limbs include personal and social ethics called yamas and niyamas, breathwork, concentration, and meditation among others.
Ashtanga is fueled by yang energy, which is typically described of as masculine energy, but I prefer to use it as a synonym for outwardly directed energy. There a lot of pushing movements in the ashtanga primary series that resist the force of gravity to build strength. Even though the primary series is very vigorous, it includes many forward folding postures which help to calm the nervous system. Each posture is held for five long, deep breaths, which serves to leave students feeling grounded yet enlivened.
One key element of Ashtanga is the connection to a specific style of breathing, known as Ujjayi, in which one breathes in and out the nose with a slight constriction in the back of the throat, as if fogging up a glass window or mirror. This helps to build and retain heat from the inside out. Another key piece to the practice is having a steady, stable gaze, known as the Drishti. Focusing one’s eyes on a specific point allows for more focus and concentration and makes it easier to find balance or proprioceptive awareness. This 3-pronged approach (breath, posture, gaze) originates from Ashtanga but is applied to other styles of yoga as well, such as Hatha and Vinyasa. While bringing one’s attention to all three of these things, it is almost impossible for the mind to drift off. It is a sure-fire way to come back to the present moment.
The physical practice of Ashtanga is by far the most intensive, and the primary series was designed with the bodies of young Indian boys in mind. Therefore, I would classify it as being the least accessible to most Western bodies.
Vinyasa Yoga, also known as “flow” yoga, is a dynamic and fast-paced style that links movement with breath. In Vinyasa Yoga, postures are performed in a continuous flow, with each movement synchronized with an inhale or exhale. This creates a moving meditation that can be both invigorating and calming. Vinyasa Yoga is a popular style for those looking for a more vigorous workout and can be adapted to suit different levels of fitness and experience.
Vinyasa yoga is the most common style of yoga taught in Western studios. It typically involves the matching of breath to movement in quick succession. As mentioned prior, this comes from the transition of chaturanga (exhale) to upward facing dog (inhale) to downward facing dog (exhale). Many teachers allow the first round of a sequence to consist of slightly longer holds, typically three to five breaths per pose, followed by a slightly faster-paced sequence in which each posture is held for maybe one round of breath, followed by an even quicker round in which one pose is an inhale and the following is an exhale. This does much to build heat within the body that is detoxifying and benefits cardiovascular health. There is variation to this formula of course, which is why many people prefer this practice over others like Ashtanga. Because students are not limited to a strict series or sequence of poses, teachers get to be the most creative in their sequencing in this style. The freedom that the teacher has is transferred onto the student, who gets to move in a different way almost every time they step on the mat.
Vinyasa classes are usually labeled level 1, 2, or 3, from least to most advanced. The moments when this practice lacks accessibility is when teachers forget to read the room and teach the most challenging sequence they can think of just because they are teaching a level 2 or 3. Even if most of the students in the class are struggling, I have seen many teachers (and admittedly have fallen into this pattern myself) place too much emphasis on chaturangas to make a class difficult. This can injure students’ wrists and shoulders if they do not have a lot of prior strength and mobility. Western vinyasa yoga is often geared towards building muscle, losing weight, or getting six-pack abs. Sometimes encouraged to move intuitively, with an awareness of sensation rather than a focus on aesthetics, but in my experience, this is not always the case. In other words, it usually matters more what a pose looks like rather than what it feels like. However, every teacher and every class are different, and this is simultaneously the good and the bad of vinyasa.
I always tell my vinyasa students that everything we do in class, every posture I offer, is merely a suggestion and they should feel it out for themselves. This runs counter to the strict doctrine of the Ashtanga method. When I take a vinyasa yoga class as a student, I make it a point to communicate to the teacher that I will be modifying as needed, and then I head to the back of a room. Sometimes I spend the whole class doing my own thing entirely, being mindful not to be a distraction to others.
The best vinyasa classes play this balance of structure and freedom, and as such I would say that they fall within the category of moderate accessibility.
If yang is an energetic (and physical) push, yin is a pull. Yin energy, which is where the name “yin yoga” comes from, is all about an internal receptivity. While the popular slogan of Ashtanga is “practice and all is coming,” yin yoga truly embodies this even further by placing an emphasis on observing whatever presents itself with non-judgment. To practice, then, is to accept all that is coming with a soft surrender. Yin is one of my personal favorite styles of yoga. My flexibility and mobility significantly improved after beginning a regular yin practice. This is because it does not stretch the muscle fibers and puts pressure on the connective tissue known as fascia instead. The body is essentially wrapped in a suit of fascial tissue that hugs all the muscles and bones together. By working into this fascia, we can then open the muscles and joints far more deeply than a strictly active approach can.
You might also come across some yin-yang yoga classes that try to mesh the active and passive styles together. One of the studios I teach for offers a “flow and yin” class that combines vinyasa and yin. This class begins like a typical vinyasa class, slowly building heat with the breath and strengthening the muscles with active postures, before winding down with longer held yin postures. One of my favorite ways to integrate yin and vinyasa, especially in the morning when my muscles are tight, is a yin-yang approach. Personally, I find that starting with 15-20 minutes of yin allows me to connect to my breath on a much deeper level and open into my tissues slowly, both of which greatly improve my yang practice later.
Yin yoga is very subtle, as the changes one observes during a given shape can seem almost insignificant. However, it is quite possibly the most potent style there is. No other practice allows for the space to notice the minute details while playing the balance of discipline and surrender needed to stay for the long hold. It is far more meditative than the other active styles, holding postures passively with as little physical effort as possible. Students are encouraged to find as much stillness as possible while holding each shape for up to seven minutes. As such, it is centered around becoming the observer to your thoughts and physical sensations, watching them come and go, sensing the impermanence of everything, observing the dynamism within the stillness. This does not mean that a yin yoga class will be “easy,” though. Many postures are quite uncomfortable and intense at first, but the body slowly opens over time.
Unlike restorative yoga, yin does not usually use many props and does not have the intention of being necessarily relaxing. Through this process we learn one of the most valuable lessons a physical yoga practice can teach us; to discern the difference between pain and discomfort. We never want to be in pain, for this is when the body shuts down and goes into a sympathetic nervous system, or the “fight or flight” response. Being uncomfortable on the other hand is a generative place to be, for it is only when we stretch ourselves that we grow. In yin yoga, we are constantly seeking moments of discomfort, but want to live right on the verge or edge of our maximum stretch to avoid pain. Slowly, you will see that the breath deepens you into the pose without you putting any effort into it. One way you can tell if you are in pain or simply uncomfortable is by your attention to the breath. If you can retain a long, easy exhale without forcing the breath or feeling like your breath is short or quick, then you can give yourself permission to stay and continue observing things as they shift.
Because of the intensity that this subtle yet powerful practice can have, I would rank it as a moderately accessible style of yoga.
Hatha Yoga is often considered the foundation of all yoga styles, and it is one of the most well-known and widely practiced styles of yoga in the world. The word “Hatha” means “force” or “effort” in Sanskrit and refers to the physical practice of yoga postures. Hatha Yoga is a gentle and slow-paced practice that focuses on holding postures for longer periods of time to build strength, flexibility, and balance. It’s focus on static poses makes it an excellent style for beginners, providing a solid foundation for any yoga-based movement practice. During the duration of a typical Hatha class, which typically lasts between 75 and 90 minutes (longer than most vinyasa classes), the focus is on the physical body but participants can expect a meditation to arrive at the beginning or end of a session, as well as various breathing exercises and a final deep relaxation or Savasana.
Although it is gentle, it can certainly still be physically and mentally challenging. In a typical Hatha Yoga class, participants slowly transition between individual poses and synchronize their breathing with controlled movements. A period of tension is always followed by a sequence of relaxation. Through this practice, students achieve increased physical and mental balance. The practice also improves strength and flexibility, help reduce stress, and improve overall well-being. Hatha Yoga is holistic in that it focuses on practicing physical postures (asanas) in conjunction with breathing techniques (pranayama) to develop mental concentration and connect the mind, body, and spirit.
Hatha yoga is the oldest discipline of physical yoga. The earliest known mentions of haṭha yoga as a specific set of techniques are from some seventeen Vajrayana Buddhist texts, mainly tantric works from the 8th century onwards (Mallinson, 2006). The early practices were used mainly to move energy up the central channel of the spinal column channel, called the sushumna, to awaken spiritual Kundalini energy. These tantric exercises and kundalini “kriyas” involve asanas, but also place a large emphasis on specific breathing techniques or pranayama to move energy throughout the body. They are also employed as an agent of detoxification, expelling negative energy and various toxins.
Hatha also involves the use of “bandhas,” or energetic centers through the body that help energy move. The major bandhas are located near the perineum at the base of the pelvis, one at the naval, and another at the throat. These also correspond to three very important chakra energy centers within the system of Hindu body-mind sciences. Modern hatha yoga places less emphasis on sexual, tantric, and kundalini energy, but is still the most holistic approach in its integration of breathwork and bandhas. Other styles, namely Ashtanga, draws on this emphasis of breath and bandhas in a major way, directing students to hold their energetic locks in every posture. Most hatha teachers are not this rigid, though, and direct students to open and close the bandha locks so that energy can be fluid.
The main difference between hatha and other physical practices like vinyasa is its slow pace. Usually, classes focus on each pose at a time, or one kriya at a time. Kriyas tend to be repetitive in nature, so that one is done repeatedly before moving on to the next posture, movement, and/or pranayama. This makes hatha yoga very intentional, as students have plenty of time to keep their attention fixed on their posture, breath, bandhas, and overall energetic state. Most of the postures taken in Ashtanga and Vinyasa classes, such as Boat pose, Wheel pose, and Dancer are derived from the hatha yoga pradipika, the earliest yogic almanac.
Because more of the spiritual or energetic qualities of yoga are emphasized in hatha, and less focus is paid to getting an intense workout, and I would say that it is the most physically accessible out of the bunch.
While the physical dimension may not encompass the whole path of yoga, it is a necessary step along the journey. In order to find Samadhi – the eighth and final limb which many interpret to mean enlightenment – one must be embodied. To be truly awake is to feel on an experiential level the dynamic, fluid motion of things coming and going all around and within you. One of the yamas, Aparigraha, which means non-attachment to physical phenomena, is a paradox that states that one cannot “transcend” the body without being in the body.
As a teacher, I have met many people who have a desire to start a yoga practice but are too intimidated by the appearance of the other students in the room. Furthermore, yoga branding forces practitioners to internalize the images presented as “normal,” leading to feelings of self-judgment and varying degrees of body shaming. This is a systemic issue that certainly won’t find resolve anytime soon. Luckily, students-as-consumers have the democratic power to vote with the dollar, letting studios know what classes they want/don’t want on the list of offerings. Students should feel like they are able to put pressure on studios to not discriminate against varying body types and forms of able-bodiedness.
It is imperative that studios offer classes like chair yoga, something not covered in this article but is of great value to many. Teachers should give variations of poses so that people of varying sizes and physical capacities do not feel left out. Yoga practitioners, especially in the modern West, must not view yoga as a doctrine to be followed without question, and no teacher should be put on a pedestal. We should move towards a discipline of not knowing; questioning everything while remembering that we as humans know virtually nothing. It is for this reason that yoga can be classified as both a science and an art, a move towards greater knowledge while also acting as a reminder to find pause and admire the world’s beauty.
There are many different styles of yoga to choose from, each with its own unique approach and benefits. Maybe you need something gentler like yin, fierier like Ashtanga, or something in between. Whether you prefer a gentle and slow-paced practice like Hatha Yoga or a more vigorous and dynamic style like Vinyasa, there is a style of yoga that will suit your needs and preferences. Ultimately, the most important thing is to find a style that resonates with you and to practice regularly to experience the many benefits that yoga has to offer. Finding the right style of yoga for your body that matches your goals can be truly transformative and liberating. So, sample as many flavors from the yogaverse as suits you. Explore, move, breathe, be still, and don’t forget to have fun!
Mallinson, James (2020). “6: Hathayoga‘s Early History: From Vajrayāna Sexual Restraint to Universal Somatic Soteriology”. In Flood, Gavin (ed.). Hindu Practice (PDF). Oxford: Oxford University Press. pp. 177–199. ISBN 978-0198733508.