Once upon a time, when it came to physical practice, there was just Hatha Yoga from which all other modern-day styles emerged. Those who are new to yoga can get very confused by the many types that are offered today, most of which have emerged only in the last 30 years. Yoga means “Union”, union of body, mind and Spirit, and Union with YOU and the Divine aspect of Self. Of the 8 branches of yoga, the physical “asana” practice is only about 20% of traditional practice, and was designed to increase Prana, purify the body and to help one sit for longer periods of time in Meditation. Yoga was never meant to be a form of athletic exercise.
Nonetheless, once yoga was introduced to the western world and especially to the U.S., a variety of forms were developed, many of them very strenuous and devoid of the main uniting principles and objectives of yoga. Nowadays, with so many styles to choose from it can be dazzling and even intimidating to find a form that suits you.
If you are a beginner, are older, or do not have a necessarily flexible “pretzel” body, it is best to try a gentle Hatha or Iyengar yoga class. This may be where you STAY, as you can advance in Hatha yoga just as well as in other styles and reap the benefits of a stronger, peaceful, more balanced, and flexible Being. Below is a short version of various styles of yoga. At AmaTierra we practice mostly Hatha yoga, as I have found it to do the most good for the most bodies. Some of our teachers are trained in other styles, so if you are used to a Vinyasa Flow, Yin Yoga or Iyengar class, there may be elements of these styles in our classes and while teachers will attune to the level of the class, it will always be taught gently.
It is an unfortunate reality that as yoga has evolved in the last 10-15 years I have seen increasingly more injuries coming from yoga classes, especially from Power Yoga, Hot Yoga, Ashtanga and the faster versions of Vinyasa Flow. One of the main tenets of yoga is to help you get in touch with YOUR body, to know your limits, and FEEL what is good and not good for YOU. However, people, especially those of us raised in North America and Europe tend to push ourselves so as to not appear wimpy, or to reach some challenge goal. As one who has been practicing for 50 years and teaching for over 20 years, I personally do not believe this mentality has any place in Yoga, and would caution people to be wary of attending classes that are too advanced or where instructors push students to “push their edges” or reach some kind of plateau.
Despite teachers’ arguments that if taught correctly, the more vigorous styles of yoga are completely safe, it seems to be human nature to want to “be the best” which often results in injured joints, strained muscles, pulled tendons, and some injuries that can require surgery. If you get injured doing yoga because you are using it as athletic exercise and going beyond your limits I believe you are not honoring or being responsible to your body. So, whatever type of yoga you choose to do, please please please listen to your body; come out of a pose early if you feel shaky or strained, rest when you need to, and choose classes and instructors who emphasize listening to your own body. If working up a sweat, burning fat, breathing hard or building muscle mass is your goal, seek out a personal trainer, a Zumba class or a gym. Be careful of yoga classes that have you moving quickly or jumping from one pose to the next, no matter how flexible and strong you may be. It may feel good for your ego that you can master these types of classes, but your body will likely suffer in the end.
A Description of Various Yoga Styles:
Ashtanga is a vigorous, gymnastic style which traditionally incorporates a set series of movements, (there are six in all) learned one at a time. A style which links movement to breath, it was popularized in the West in 1975 when its Indian creator K. Pattabhi Jois, brought it to California. Ashtanga is considered an advanced form of yoga and the grandfather of the Vinyasa style.
Hot Yoga or Bikram Yoga
Started by Bikram Choudhur in the 1970s, is practiced in a room that is at least 104 degrees, and is supposed to allow you to stretch further because your muscles are warm. People who love this kind of yoga believe that sweating through the 26 static postures (always the same routine) helps flush out toxins. Critics say overstretching is common in Hot Yoga classes, as is fainting and nausea, and they caution against dehydration. Some “hot yoga” classes only put their heat to 90 degrees and is not limited to the 26 poses. If you try Hot Yoga, be careful to drink water throughout the class and if you experience nausea, lightheadedness or dizziness do not continue.
The basis for all modern-day yoga practice, was the path derived from Sanskrit texts and outlined in both the Hatha Yoga Pradpika (meaning: to “flame forth” or Light the Way) by a yogi named Svatmarama in the 15th century, with later additions by Gheranda-Samhita (1650). “His system is a preparatory stage for physical purification that the body practices for higher meditation or Yoga. It is based on asanas (postures) and pranayama (breathing techniques).” The texts also include information about shatkarma (purification), asana, pranayama (subtle energy control),chakras (centers of energy), kundalini (instinct), bandhas (muscle force), kriyas (techniques; manifestations of kundalini), shakti (sacred force), nadis (channels), and mudras (symbolic gestures) among other topics.
Hatha Yoga is usually taught at a slow, mindful pace with a focus on breathing and Pranayama techniques and gives students a solid base to learn Yoga.
This style of yoga was developed in India by BKS Iyengar, and focuses on alignment and precision. Poses are held for a bit longer than regular Hatha Yoga and there is great attention to detail. Props such as blocks, straps and folded blankets are often used, making it easier for people to adapt to poses that might otherwise be difficult for some. It is an excellent way to learn correct alignment and safe practice especially if you have any injuries or physical limitations, and you will be in good hands as Iyengar teachers are required to learn a great deal of anatomy. Some students report difficulty in completely relaxing during poses in an Iyengar class as teachers give many instructions, but those who love more details will thrive.
Restorative & Yin Yoga
These styles of yoga are practiced slowly with the goal of releasing muscles, tendons, and connective tissue, however in Yin Yoga poses are held for a long time in order to allow for thorough stretching. Plan to do relatively few poses during a Yin or Restorative class. Restorative yoga focuses more on calming the nervous system than Yin Yoga, and is more or less a slow-motion type practice.
Vinyasa Flow Yoga
In its pure translation Vinyasa refers to any style of yoga in which movement is linked to breath. Vinyasa grew out of the Ashtanga yoga practice. This is probably the most variable type of yoga; classes can be fast-paced, sweaty, and set to music, or “slow-flow” and more meditative. Whatever the pace, plan to move with each inhale and exhale. There is not much time for tuning into your “inner” as you are listening for the next instruction which comes quickly. Vinyasa and Power Yoga are the classes that, if you choose to attend, it is important to be mindful of how your body is reacting to the pace and the movements in order to ensure safety.
Basically turns Vinyasa Flow into a Fitness-based practice attributed mostly to two Ashtanga yoga practitioners, Beryl Bender Birch and Baron Baptiste. This form, which came to be known as “gym yoga”, appeals to very physically fit people who do not necessarily want the more esoteric aspects of yoga and are looking for strength, muscle tone and gym-type benefits. In a Power Yoga class you will sweat and work hard. If you are drawn to this type of exercise, you may consider balancing it out with a Yin or Hatha class to get the Yogic benefits as well. Interestingly, before Power Yoga became what it is today, one of my teachers taught a version which was somewhat strenuous but emphasized empowering yourself to navigate a stressful world. Attention was given to Pranayama in this class and it was more or less just an advanced Hatha yoga class.
Jill Ruttenberg, reg. herbalist AHG, Certified Hatha Yoga Instructor, 1999
AmaTierra Retreat & Wellness Center
Turrubares, Costa Rica
Jill Ruttenberg, RH, Co-Owner & Wellness Director of AmaTierra Retreat & Wellness Center in Costa Rica, is a professional nutritionist, certified practitioner of Traditional Chinese Medicine, and clinical herbalist registered with the American Herbalist Guild. She is also an experienced massage therapist, energy healer and Hatha yoga instructor. The Wellness Center at AmaTierra is Jill’s living dream, the fruition of decades of training, practice and experience in natural medicine and the healing arts.