Just like the amazing variety of healthy foods that are out there at the moment there is also such a variety of yoga! And choosing which yoga class to go to can be abit daunting!
Yoga is a Sanskit word, meaning 'union' or 'yoke together'. This could be union within yourself, awareness of your body and your emotions and also union to the world around us and with other people. The physical practice that we do in yoga centres is actually called Asana and is one branch of the Yogic philosophy. The poses were developed by Rishis (similar to Shaman) who, thousands of years ago, would meditate for long periods of time. Meditation would bring awareness and stillness and solve the universal problems of the body, mind and spirit. To maintain health and suppleness the Rishis would take notice of their environment, how animals behave and also how animals would heal themselves, this became the foundation of the posture practise.
The Asana practise helps with flexibility and lubrication of the joints, cleanses the system through contracting and expanding movements of the body, helps with focus and strength of mind as we work through challenging aspects. It also develops awareness of your body and any changes within it.
The foundation of any Yoga Asana practise is 'Hatha' - Ha meaning sun and Tha meaning moon. This is related to the right and left of the body, hot and cold, male and female attributes in all of us, the yin and yang of our energy. Putting Ha and Tha together, into Hatha, represents the aim of trying to balance the two opposing forces within us and between us and our surroundings.
The Asana postures essentially come from one ancient repertoire but it is the teacher's interpretation, the direction they have chosen to take the philosophy and their particular focus that has created the variety. Also, in the west, we tend to want to label things and be associated with the linage of a certain practise. As yoga is such a generally used word these days, it also helps to name what you do for marketing purposes!
Here are some examples of classes you might come across;
Sivanada; 12 poses chosen by Swami Sivanada and put into a sequence, also including some of the breathing exercises and meditation time. Sivananda was perhaps one of the first styles to be practised when it came over to the west in the 1957.
Ashtanga (Vinyasa); developed by Pattabhi Jois. There are 3 sequences (or series) made up of a set of postures, each progressively harder and more advanced. Most poses are normally held for 5 breaths. This is very dynamic due to the jumping vinyasa between poses to build heat and strength. This type of yoga has been described as a moving meditation. 'Ashtanga' relates to the eight limbs of yoga philosophy and the the 'Vinyasa' is the flow of connecting postures.
Iyengar; BKS Iyengar focused very seriously on alignment with his choice of postures. Using bricks, straps, pillows and blankets to support the body and help the student feel postures they may not be able to get in to otherwise. Any misalignments are actively corrected in a class to prevent any strain or injury to the student. Standing postures are particularly emphasised as Iyengar viewed this as the foundation to moving onto more advanced postures.
Jivamukti; David Life and Sharon Gannon developed Jivamukti yoga in the 1980's. The classes are very physical with the use of the vinyasa and they also use music (which I personally love in a yoga class!) Jivamukti classes also bring in yogic breathing awareness, chanting and philosophy.
Bikram; This style consists of 26 postures and 2 breathing exercises and is practised in a room heated to 105 degrees Fahrenheit. It was originally developed to help people with injuries to rehabilitate and aid in stretching the muscles further due to the heat. I know a few friends who do long distance running who like this to counterbalance it.
Yin yoga; these poses are held for anywhere between 2 to 20 minutes and even though some people may thing it is slow and very passive, it is actually very challenging. Holding postures for this length of time is meant to give time for the connective tissues to start to release, particularly in the hips, pelvis and lower spine.
Anusara; Another style of yoga that incorporates talks about the yogic philosophy as it is being taught, developed by John Friend, an Iyengar student. It does involve vinyasa but not a set sequence of poses in every class.
I did my teacher training with the World Conscious Yoga family in India, who name their teaching Akhanda, meaning whole or indivisable. We were taught to try to balance our classes using not only postures but breathing exercises, relaxation, chanting and also the possibilities of incorporating readings on yogic philosophy. There is no set sequence and classes can be flowing or more relaxing.
So next time you are bombarded with lists of yoga classes, here are a few tips; anything with 'vinyasa' in the name will be dynamic and fast paced, it could also be termed as 'flow' or 'power'. Anything with 'yin' in the name will be restorative and slower, it could also be called just 'restorative'. 'Hot yoga' will be hot! and most probably flowing. If it is just called 'hatha' or 'classical hatha', then it is probably a good balance of poses suitable for all levels.
The newest style to join the yoga family is anti-gravity yoga! I havent tried it yet but have a friend who is in the middle of her teacher training so maybe I can report back to you all in a few months time!...
Whatever style of yoga you try, remember to only go as far as your body feels comfortable and even though it is good to challenge yourself, you should never feel pain. If at any point you feel you have gone beyond, then by coming out of the posture and going back into it again you will be practising yoga on yourself and your body will love you for it!