styles of yoga

It is interesting to see many different ways that yoga is being practiced. With instructors trained from various lineages, and multitude of classes to choose from, it can be confusing.

When you see the class listings you ask a friend who has been taking the class: if the instructor is holding poses longer or is creating a pose sequence that moves in a vinyasa flow. You may be wondering if the poses are going to challenge you and make you sweat or if the poses are going to be gentle based on who the instructor is – even though the class is listed as intermediate.

Essentially you are directly enquring about the way in which asanas, postures are taught. You are not enquring if the instructor is teaching yoga philosophy in the classroom so that you, the student can take the practice off the mat and into your daily life. Is it then safe to assume that the majority of yoga practitioners are equating style solely to the way asanas are taught?

Most popular styles of yoga are listed below.

Classical Ashtanga Or Classical Yoga 

  • Original form of Yoga that focuses on both inner (Antaranga) and outer (Bahiranga) practices for the body, mind and spirit.
  • Follows the 8 Fold Path – Yama, Niyama, Asana, Pranayama, Pratyahara, Dhaarna, Dhyana, Samadhi as described in the Yoga Sutras by Pathanjali;  
  • Also referred to as Raja Yoga (used interchangeably as type and style), Classical Yoga or Original Ashtanga (8-Fold) Yoga 

Who

  • Popularized by Swami Vivekananda as Raja yoga, and by Swami Niranjananda Saraswati of Bihar school of Yoga, Munger, India
  • However, Shri Yogendraji (1897-1989) was responsible for simplifying Classical Ashtanga Yoga and bringing yoga to the common householder and pioneering yoga therapy (Chikitsa).
  • He founded The Yoga Institute in 1918 at the residence of Dadabhai Naorji at Versova beach, Mumbai; current location-Santa Cruz, Mumbai since 1948.
  • A sister facility, Yogalife Institute is located in Devon PA, run by Dr. Robert Butera.

Ashtanga

  • Popular method of Hata yoga involving synchronization of the breath (pranayama) with a progressive series of asanas and bandas, yogic locks—a process producing intense internal heat and sweat that detoxifies muscles and organs.
  • Also referred to as Ashtanga Vinyasa yoga and frequently Power or Vigorous yoga.
  • Taught as: Primary Series, Intermediate Series and Advanced Series – in a vinyasa flow style.

Who

  • Taught by Sri K. Pattabhi Jois (1915-2009), in Mysore, India.
  • Pattabhi Jois began yoga at the age of 12, was a student of T.Krishnamacharya, a renowned yoga master.
  • Established an Ashtanga Yoga Institute, Mysore in 1948.

Iyengar

  • Form of Hata Yoga – emphasis on detail, precision and alignment of asana
  • Makes use of props, such as belts, blocks, and blankets, as aids in performing asanas. The props enable students to perform the poses correctly, minimizing the risk of injury, making the postures accessible to both young and old.
  • Based on the traditional Eight Limbs of Yoga by Pathanjali in the Yoga Sutras

Who

  • Founder: B.K.S Iyengar (1918-2014)
  • Established Iyengar Yoga in Pune, India
  • Was invited to the US in 1956, gained popularity after the publication of the book, Light on Yoga

Kripalu

  • Form of Hata Yoga that focuses on standard yoga poses, breath-work, meditation, “development of a quiet mind”, and relaxation
  • Also follow the YogaSutra text for their philosophical study

Who

  • Amrit Desai, a native of Halol, India, met his guru Swami Kripalvananda (1913-1981), after whom the Kripalu style is named.
  • In 1965, Amrit Desai, founded the Yoga Society of Pennsylvania, later in 1972 made it official by naming it Kripalu, after his guru.
  • The current Kripalu ashram is in Stockbridge MA – acquired in 1983.

Viniyoga

  • Viniyoga (not Vinyasa = sequencing) is about adaptation.
  • Viniyoga teachers are highly trained and tend to be experts in anatomy and yoga therapy (chikitsa)

Who

  • Viniyoga is the legacy of the great guru T. Krishnamacharya (1888-1989), Mysore, India), whose prominent students include Pattabhi Jois and B.K.S. Iyengar
  • Krishnamacharya’s son T.K.V. Desikachar carries on the guru’s legacy as the world’s foremost Viniyoga authority.
  • Gary Kraftsow, founder of the American Viniyoga Institute, is the most prominent American proponent of Desikachar’s method.

Integral

  • Integral Yoga vision is  “…a flexible combination of specific methods to develop every aspect of the individual: physical, intellectual, and spiritual. It is a scientific system which integrates the various branches of Yoga in order to bring about a complete and harmonious development of the individual.”

Who

  • Founder – Swami Satchitananda (1914-2002), disciple of Swami Shivananda (1887-1963) of Rishikesh, India
  • Swami Satchidananda gained attention as the opening speaker at the Woodstock music and arts festival in 1969
  • He was the founder of the Integral Yoga Institute and Ashram in Yogaville in VA.
  • In 1986 opened the Light of Truth Universal Shrine (LOTUS) at Yogaville Ashram in Buckingham, VA.

Sivananda

  • Sivananda Yoga, follows the teachings of Swami Sivananda, is a form of Hata yoga in which the training focuses on preserving the health and wellness.
  • Training revolves around frequent relaxation and emphasizes yogic breathing.
  • The system philosophies are summarized in 5 principles.

Five points of Yoga

  • Proper exercise: Asanas
  • Proper breathing: Pranayama
  • Proper relaxation: Shavasana
  • Proper diet: Vegetarian. A yogic diet is encouraged, promoting sattvic, pure diet, limiting rajasic, activating and tamasic, dull foods
  • Positive Philosophy and Meditation: Darshana and Dhyana

Who

  • Swami Vishnudevananda Saraswati (December 31, 1927 — November 9, 1993) was the founder of the International Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Centers
  • A disciple of Swami Sivananda of Rishikesh, India
  • He established the Sivananda Yoga Teachers’ Training Course, one of the first yoga teacher training programs in the West.

Bikram

  • Hata Yoga class – 90 minutes
  • Consist of the same series of 26 postures and 2 breathing exercises
  • Practiced in a room heated to 105°F (≈ 40.6°C) with a humidity of 40%
  • Certain health safety concerns have been documented.

Who

  • Bikram Choudhury synthesized the practices from traditional Hata yoga techniques and popularized it in the early 1970s.

Sahaja

  • Sahaja Yoga is a style of meditation. It is the state of self-realization produced by Kundalini awakening and is accompanied by the experience of thoughtless awareness or mental silence.
  • The belief is that the kundalini is born within us and can be awakened spontaneously.
  • The word ‘Sahaja‘ in Sanskrit: saha meaning ‘with’ and ja meaning ‘born’.
  • In 2000 the term ‘Sahaja Yoga‘ was trademarked in the United States by Vishwa Nirmala Dharma.

Who

  • Nirmala Srivastava (March 21, 1923 – February 23, 2011), also known as Shri Mataji Nirmala Devi, was the founder of Sahaja Yoga.
  • She claimed to have been born in a fully realized state and spent her life working for peace by developing and promoting a simple meditation technique which for self-realization.
  • Shri Mataji never charged for her instruction in Sahaja Yoga.
  • Still taught for free in over 140 countries.

Anusara

  • Form of Hata Yoga, sub-form of Iyengar Yoga
  • Anusara Yoga emphasizes a set of Universal Principles of Alignment which underlie all of the asanas and also connects to philosophical aspects of the practice.

Who

  • Started by American yoga teacher, John Friend in 1997.
  • Friend derived his style from the Iyengar style of yoga and reintroduced elements of Hindu spirituality creating a wholesome approach to yoga.

Wisdom

No one style is wrong or superior to another. While choices are a wonderful, there is wisdom in sticking with one style of yoga that resonates with you in order to go deeper into the practice.

Teacher training programs allude to yoga philosophy and the 8-fold path – some more  – while others may skim the surface. It is left to us to delve deeper and apply the philosophy: first in our own practice and then in our teaching.

When we actually ‘find’ our teacher our evolution is both physical and spiritual. With spiritual evolution, it’s no longer about finding the style that is ‘right’ or ‘better’. It is simply that in finding our guide we’ve also discovered the style that resonates with our ‘true’selves.

The novelty of each class then is in the unfolding of the inner self – which is not solely dependent on the asana flow led by the outer teacher. Slowly, we become willing to observe our practice morph over time while we still occasionally take different classes. Our practice will become our own as we become diciplined in our personal yoga.

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types/paths to yoga

Teachers from various lineages have contributed to the evolution of yoga that is practiced in the West over the past hundred years. Here is an attempt to outline the paths to help you make your choice. The word ‘yoga’ was explained in the post ‘what is yoga’ . Now, lets define the words type and style before relating it to ‘yoga’.

Types versus Styles

Frequently, the words type and style are used interchangeably. This gets confusing for students who are sincerely trying to choose one in an effort to deepen their practice. Defining these words will help to clarify the meaning and intent of using them accurately.

Type indicates a category of people or things having a common set of characteristics or practices. According to Swami Adishwaranandayoga darshana, yoga philosophy prescribes four main paths to attain the knowledge of the Self through yoga, spiritual  union. Here,the words paths and types are used alternatively. For example, Rāja Yoga is a type of yoga, or a path that outlines the practices a student of yoga can follow.

Style implies a manner of doing something; designated with a particular name, description, or indicating title to a person or thing symbolizing exemplary practices. For example, Iyengar Yoga is a style of yoga, named after B.K.S. Iyengar. Although his basic teachings align to Rāja Yoga, here the practices have been taught a certain way by Mr. Iyengar and hence the style is named after him. (styles – another post)

the four main paths to yoga, spiritual union

Karma yoga            

Spiritual Union through action/selfless service

  • कर्म योग, the “discipline of action/service”is achieving ‘union’ by perfecting action through selfless service.
  • Karma is derived from Sanskrit kri, meaning ‘to do’. In its most basic sense karma simply means action, and yoga means union.
  • In Yoga philosophy the word karma means both action and the effects of action; i.e. the law of cause and effect. Karma yoga is described as a way of thinking and acting in accordance with one’s duty (dharma) without egotistical desires, likes or dislikes and without being attached to the fruits of one’s deeds .

Jnana/Gnyana yoga            

Spiritual Union through realized knowledge

  • ज्ञान योग is union through the path of ‘realized’ knowledge.
  • Knowledge used to achieve material desires is lower knowledge or ignorance, Avidya.
  • The knowledge that helps to overcome egotiscal desires to realize who we really are is true knowledge.
  • The veil of maya delusion, prevents us from knowing our real nature and the nature of the world around us.  Jnana yoga is the process of lifting this veil.

Bhakthi yoga          

Spiritual Union through devotion/surrender

  • भक्ति योग is spiritual union through the path of love, unquestioning faith and surrender (of ego).
  • Bhakthi is love for love’s sake without expectations or fear. It is the easiest way for the layman to realize spiritual union as it doesn’t involve extensive yogic practices.
  • The term Bhakthi comes from the root ‘Bhaj’, which means ‘to be attached to God’.

Rāja yoga

Spiritual Union through the Royal Path of self-control and meditation

  • राज योग Rāja yoga was first described as an Eightfold or Eight-limbed (aṣṭānga, ashtanga) path in the text Yoga Sūtras of Patañjali.
  • Also known as Classical (Paarampariya पारम्परीय) Yoga or Classical Aṣṭānga yoga. 
  • The term Rāja Yoga is a term introduced in the 15th-century text Hata Yoga Pradipika and popularized by Swami Vivekananda in order to distinguish it from the school of Hata Yoga expounded by Yogi Swatmarama
  • It is a complete path with clear guidelines, and encourages learning by way of discipline, experimentation and reflection.
  • As we pursue Rāja Yoga thoroughly, we will discover that it is inclusive of the above paths within its Eight- Fold Path.

Frequently asked question – what is the difference between Hata Yoga and the four main types?

Hata yoga  – Yoga of physical movement/force

  • Note: The popular word “hatha” is actually  pronounced as “haṭa” or “hua“in Samskritham.
  • हठयोग haṭayoga, or haṭa vidya (हठविद्या), is a system of yoga described by Yogi Swatmarama, a sage of 15th century India, compiler of the Haṭa Yoga Pradipika.
  • Sanskrit term haṭa हठ, refers to the use of persistence or force; haṭayoga is translated by the Monier-Williams dictionary as “a kind of forced yoga or abstract meditation (forcing the mind to withdraw from external objects)
  • This is based on asana, pranayama and shatkarma, cleansing practices – is a preparatory stage of physical purification for higher meditation. This must be followed by practices listed in Rāja Yoga.

Kriya Yoga

Kriya Yoga (क्रिया योग) is a comprehensive spiritual path based on the 8-fold path and specific Kriya  pranayama techniques. This ancient system was revived by Mahavatar Babaji through his disciple Lahiri Mahasaya.

Kriya Yoga was brought to the west in 1920 by Paramahamsa Yogananda, author of Autobiography of a Yogi.

The Kriya yoga system consists of a number of levels of pranayama, breathing practices, mantra, chants, and mudra, energy seals intended to rapidly accelerate spiritual evolution and evoke profound tranquility and spiritual union. There are similarities to the pranayama taught in Rāja Yoga. 

A few other paths to yoga.

  1. Kundalini yoga              yoga through energy awareness

कुण्डलिनी योग, Kundalini yoga is a combination of physical, mental and spiritual disciplines focussing on the expansion of sensory awareness to achieve Spiritual Union. Kundalini is untapped energy, prana at the base of the spine that can be drawn up through the body awakening each of the seven chakras, energy centers

Each Kundalini asana series is done with a specific breathing technique that intensifies the effects of the poses with the purpose of freeing energy in the lower body and allowing it to move upwards.

Kundalini energy is often represented as a snake coiled at the bottom of the spine at the first, Muladhara Chakra. Spiritual Union happens when this energy reaches the crown, Sahasrara Chakra at the top of the head.

2. Tanthra yoga          yoga through rituals 

तन्त्र, Tanthra means theory, system, series of the spiritual disciplines based on power (shakti), as the Divine Mother. Tanthra scriptures are usually presented as a dialogue between Shiva and Shakti explaining the divine play of Shakti, feminine energy and Shiva, male energy.

Most misunderstood of all the paths, Tanthra Yoga is about using ritualistic forms of worship to experience what is sacred and to liberate the practitioner from ignorance and rebirth. Although sex is a part of it, it is not the whole of it since this path aims to find the sacredness in the act of procreation.

Tantra Yogis must possess purity, humility, devotion, dedication to the Guru, and truthfulness among other qualities to attain spiritual union.

3. Manthra yoga         yoga through vibration of chants

A मन्त्र manthra is a sound, syllable, word, or group of words that is considered capable of “creating spiritual transformation”.

Simply, a manthra is a sound vibration. The word “manthram” is a Samskritham word consisting of two syllables: “mun” (mind) and “thra” (deliverance). In the strictest sense, a mantra is pure sound vibration that delivers the mind from its material inclinations and illusion. 

Chanting is the process of repeating a manthra. This act of silently (Japa) chanting mantras and merging with the vibration is Manthra Meditation. 

4.    Nāda Yoga        yoga through sound 

नादयोग, Nada yoga  is based on the premise that the entire cosmos including human beings, is made of sound vibrations called nāda. This system promotes that sound and music are something more than sources of pleasure.

Nāda Yoga divides music into internal music, anahahta, and external music, ahatha.

Ahatha music made by external objects is conveyed to the hearing consciousness via the ears. Here, mechanical energy is converted to electrochemical energy and transported to the brain where the sensations of sound is translated to music.

Anahatha music is defined as the unstuck sound, which is heard in the heart chakra, – not by the way of a sensory organ.The anahatha concept implies listening for one’s own sound vibrations. This inner sound is sacred and will open the chakras, energy centers, creating yoga, spiritual union.

And finally ….

There are other misconceptions about yoga, for instance – if yoga is a religion. Mostly, yoga is a system of disciplines/tools to spiritualize daily living. Currently, yoga is being practiced by Christians, Buddhists, Muslims and others.

Hopefully the above information is helpful to make your choice of a ‘yoga path’ less confusing. It is also important to trust yourself, trust your teacher and know that although there are different paths to attain yoga, dedicated practice is imperative.

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Adishvaranada, Swami.2006. The Four Yogas – A Guide to the Spiritual Paths of Action, Devotion, Meditation and Knowledge. Skylight Paths Publishing, VT

Easwaran, Eknath. The Mantram Handbook. Nilgiri Press. Blue Mountain Meditation Center, CA.