How To Choose A Style Of Yoga

Thanks to globalization, yoga has taken the world by storm. Its countless benefits are being scientifically enumerated and explained in the framework of modern biology at an almost daily pace. While testimony of the ways it has changed lives flow from the ancient past to your next door neighbor. For this reason, starting yoga can be a very intimidating undertaking. First is the barrier of language—many concepts and actions in yoga still are described with Sanskrit or another language from India which may appear foreign to many. Then is the philosophy and practice of yoga itself—which is a unique practice in the world. One thing is certain, when starting out, it is difficult to decide which style of yoga is appropriate. Here is a no nonsense, thorough walkthrough of the major styles of yoga: their origins, their differences, and the temperaments that may be best suited to them.

Hinduism is the verified, oldest living religion. Unlike many other major religions, Hinduism is an amalgam of teachings and texts, schools and philosophies that complement and contradict each other while, by and large throughout its multimillenial history, tolerating and accepting the diversity of thoughts and practices. Yoga had its origins as one of the earlier, distinct branches of Hinduism.

It was not until the Yoga Sutras were written by Patanjali that Yoga as a school of thought and practice began to be formalized. During this time, the stated goal of Yoga was to achieve moksha. Moksha is a word that may be unfamiliar to Westerners, but it is a concept that is similar to the more commonly known nirvana or enlightenment. The liberation in question is from the cycle of suffering as espoused in the early Yogic philosophies—because of the belief in reincarnation, moksha meant that we would no longer have to suffer through lives as fallible, ignorant beings. The means by which the liberation is enacted is self-knowledge and this was to be attained in the ways described in Yogic texts (including the poses that have come to be associated as the definition of Yoga). The beauty of yoga is that people do not need to have this as their final goal (or even know of its existence) to achieve real, meaningful benefits for their lives.

As soon as the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali were written, various schools began to differentiate themselves formally. This has resulted in the hundreds of schools of yoga that presently exist today. Before we delve into these schools, we should know exactly what a “school” is. A school is a branch of a larger movement or philosophy that shares critical aspects of its base, but in some way diverges from it (this could be as simple as making a school around a particular personality and differentiating based on that individual’s quirks or it could escalate into a full blown reformation as seen in Renaissance Christianity). With this understanding, we can say that Yoga is a school of Hindu thought that has itself produced many more schools.


Ashtanga Yoga

Ashtanga Yoga is the first formalized yoga and it is composed of eight aspects or “limbs” that are expounded in The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. The goal is to progress from one limb to the other as one gains the pertinent experience. For this reason, yoga was a life time’s work for would be yogis. Essentially, all the other schools of yoga emphasized a different limb from Ashtanga and built off of that.

The first limb is called Yama and it is the concept of universal morality. Harking back to the philosophical foundations of yoga, Yama is a breakdown of five traits that Patanjali believes someone has to practice well in order to achieve moksha. These five traits are ahimsa (doing no harm to sentient beings), satya (seeking truth always), asteya (non-covetousness), brahmacharya (restraint with regard to the experience of senses), and aparigraha (using just what is necessary). When the Yamas become a part of one’s daily life, they will have purified their mind sufficiently to advance. The next limb is Niyama which are rules of conduct. There are five such rules that complement the Yama—Sauca(purity in outer appearance and inner sensation), santosa(a feeling of modesty), tapas(the correct and controllled use of our energies), svadhyaa (studying one’s self), and isvarapranidhana (a contemplative act on God). The first two limbs deal with one’s attitude and in modern yoga they are often stripped away and relegated to pithy statements of relaxation. This is fine, so long as the yogi or yogini understands that these statements are coming from a deep intellectual source.

The third limb is the Asana. This is the limb that most commonly defines what people think about yoga. These are all the postures that people do on their yoga mats. The goal of these postures is to calm the mind and allow oneself to get in touch with their essential being by relaxing their body. This limb is one that is being furiously studied by scientists and study after study verifies the benefits that can be gotten from it. On its own, it makes for a great, low impact form of exercise. Pranayama is the fourth limb of yoga and consists of breath work. The concept of prana is similar to the Chinese idea of qi which is the belief in a general life force that penetrates and supports everything in our world. Pranayama is an art form to access and correctly use that life force. Despite its esoteric foundations, the practice is very effective in controlling heart rate and increasing awareness. The fifth limb is pratyahara—which may be the least talked about of all the other limbs. The last two limbs deal with the body and pratyhara is the transitional limb that leads to the ones that deal with the ground of being. It involves a philosophical and actual flipping of the relativistic position. Instead of seeing the world as a place that triggers our senses, we see ourselves as the thing that has senses occurring to it. This subtle flip begins to put us in control of our reaction to our experiences.

Pratyahara naturally occurs when we begin practicing the sixth limb, dharana. Dharana is what most people erroneously believe meditation to be. Dharana means concentration. The goal of this limb is for us to develop the ability to focus intensely. This is where the first two limbs will be helpful, because they will have cultivated discipline and very little to worry about (because your life would be drama-free if you followed them). Dharana is the tool yoga uses to achieve moksha and every previous branch was designed to make sharpening this tool as efficient as possible. The seventh limb is Dhyana which means meditation. If someone has followed and mastered the previous six limbs, the type of meditation they are able to have is immediate and intense. Many modern yoga classes and schools will pair asana with dhyana so it is little surprise that students complain of countless problems. This is not to say that those schools are wrong, it is just to say that, by picking out specific limbs, they have that many fewer to walk on. At the level of Dhyana, the goal is to obtain knowledge beyond the intellect (for example, the fact that you know you exist) about things in our world. The final limb is Samadhi which can be described as the merging of the conscious and unconscious mind. It is a deep state of mental alertness that may appear as physical torpor from the outside. If Dharana is a drill and Dhyana is the act of drilling, Samadhi is the breakthrough to the other side with the held consciousness of where you came from. These constitute the basis of all yoga schools that follow.

Ashtanga Yoga is the traditional form of yoga. If you have time to spend on learning deeply about a rich philosophical tradition, this is the best form for you to learn. However, it is a tall order to ask and it is such a significant undertaking that it may as well be called a life’s work. Most people in modern life obviously do not have this time commitment, but with this brief understanding of Ashtanga Yoga, you will essentially be able to pick apart any form of yoga you are interested in to understand what it is about. Everyday, new schools with yoga sounding names come into existence. Many times, the name does not describe the actual style of yoga, you, however, are now able to tell that difference. For example, many places that use Ashtanga in the title do not quite follow the traditional model.


Hatha Yoga

This is the form of yoga that most people are comfortable with and may know by name. It would not be a stretch to say that most forms of yoga that have made it to the West are directly or a derivative of Hatha Yoga. The discipline was formalized more than a half millennium after Ashtanga Yoga. The Hathapradipika is the most seminal text in this school. Its focus is on preparation for Asana and Pranayama. This emphasis shines through to this day because in a typical Hatha Yoga class, there will be designated time for breathwork that may be introduced as meditation while the rest of the time is spent doing various asanas.

You can expect to get the most physical grounding out of Hatha. If you want to do yoga primarily for the physical benefits, this is usually the safest course of action. Each class is taught in a different way so it is important to understand how you like to exercise. Some people prefer a faster pace. In this case, it may pay for them to investigate Vinyasa Yoga. This form of yoga is very fluid and is similar to learning a dance routine. It can also be compared to faster tai chi. You may often see Vinyasa and Hatha treated as different schools, but Vinyasa is more like a sub-school of Hatha—the differentiating philosophy generally being the speed at which the action is done and the poses used to be conducive to the movement.

As stated earlier, all the yoga studios you are likely to encounter are really teaching Hatha Yoga regardless of their name. They will certainly have parts of their philosophy that are different, but their philosophical similarities will be overwhelmingly striking. A modern version of Ashtanga Yoga often goes by the name Raja Yoga. This form of yoga started to form as an independent school shortly after Hatha was formalized. Because it was hundreds of years after the initial founding of Ashtanga Yoga, Raja Yoga sought to incorporate the eight limbs in an updated format. This feature of this school has not been lost and to modern times, Raja Yoga tries to teach you the eight limbs in a package that is appropriate for our times. Bhakti Yoga is a less common form of yoga in the West, but it is very similar to the Abrahamic religions in its stress on devotional actions. This form of yoga heavily emphasizes the first two branches and almost leaves the rest untouched. It is not often appealing to people who want to exercise.


Kundalini Yoga

Kundalini Yoga marks another inflection point in the long history of yoga. It is important to note that some yoga schools may use the term Kundalini Yoga in their title, but not actually be schools that teach authentic Kundalini Yoga. This is because kundalini is a generic sanskrit term in yogic philosophy which refers to a powerful energy at the base of the spine that can be activated and largely assist one’s self on the way to moksha.

Authentic Kundalini Yoga takes a wider focus than Hatha Yoga. It is often described as the most intense of all forms of Yoga. If Hatha Yoga is an emphasis on what keeps us healthy, while Bhakti Yoga is an emphasis on what makes our heart sing, Kundalini Yoga is an emphasis on what makes us enlightened. To this goal, Kundalini Yoga employs Asanas, Pranayamas, and Dhyana within one session. It is also not uncommon to see the use of Laya Yoga. Laya Yoga is a form of Yoga that was largely developed in Tantra (it is another branch of Hindu thought that grew independently of the Yoga described here). It may involve chanting as a group or individually, singing songs, and even dance.

Kundalini Yoga has been kept a secret for hundreds of years. The school that has become most popular in the West was brought by Yogi Bhajan in the 1960’s. This form of yoga is especially unique because Yogi Bhajan was a Sikh. If you want to experience yoga purified through the lens of another culture in India, Kundalini Yoga is a wonderful school for you.


Cult Yoga [Bikram, Iyengar, Hot]

The title Cult Yoga is not to disparage or discourage anyone from investigating or joining these schools. I use this title simply to refer to the blossoming of schools who were founding, often in the latter half of the 20th century, by one particular figure. These schools tend to emphasize the habits, thoughts, and quirks of their founder to such a degree that they tend to be defined by it. These practices are so unique in some cases, that it is not inconceivable that a fourth major branch of yoga may have been started and we will only know with the luxury of temporal distance from the situation.

Iyengar Yoga is a form of Hatha Yoga that was founded by B.K.S. Iyengar. As all Hatha, it focuses on Asanas and Pranayamas. However, Iyengar uses this Hatha base to incorporate more elements from the traditional Ashtanga school. He has formalized hundreds of yoga poses and tens of breathing techniques. This Yoga is made unique by its extensive use of props (including belts) to commit various poses.

Bikram Yoga is another variation of Hatha Yoga that was founded by Bikram Choudhury. If you enjoy consistency, there may be no better Yoga than this one. Bikram Yoga takes exactly ninety minutes in which you will do exactly twenty six asanas incorporating two breathing techniques. Hot Yoga is Bikram yoga with more heat and humidity. No two Bikram instructors are the same because they are encouraged to infuse their character into the universal script. These are the major forms of “cult” yoga, but countless others exist.

When investigating a yoga school, pay attention to what the instructor says he or she is emphasizing and then observe what they actually do. If the emphasis is on asanas (poses) and pranayama (breathwork), you can be sure that this is likely some branch of Hatha Yoga. If you see more chanting and meditation in addition to the Hatha foundation, you are likely dealing with a Kundalini-inspired school. For any of the forms of yoga recently founded by an individual, that individual’s name will often be in the title of the establishment. The best way to decide a class for yourself is to find out which aspects of the eight limbs you enjoy or would like to explore and then seek for a school or instructor that emphasizes those.




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