Perhaps I'm biased since it's the one form of fitness I've always loved unconditionally, but it really bums me out when people dismiss yoga for being "too easy." (Have you tried Bikram?) Or say that it isn't good cardio. (Let's revisit that after we go to the heart-pounding Vinyasa class at my local studio—after the panting subsides.) One of the reasons that yoga and I have had such a consistent relationship is that there are so many options to choose from, depending on my mood or goals. The fact that it keeps my mind clear and my body strong is just a bonus.
I get bored really easily, hence why running and I are on the outs must of the time, and why I think that the cardio section of the gym is just one of the saddest places ever. I need to be distracted from the fact that I can barely breathe and my muscles are screaming "when!", and the mind-numbing monotony of those machines is certainly not the way to do that. But I can get on board with the common backbone of all varieties of physical yoga (because what we know as "yoga" in the West is just a small facet of what it actually encompasses): physical and mental balance, flexibility and strength, the mind-body connection, and a focus on the present moment. Meanwhile, being able to select from a wide range of physical varieties keeps it interesting. But, whether you’re brand new to the yoga world or are a die-hard Ashtanga fan, the menu of class options can be a bit confusing and overwhelming. To help us make sense of some of the most common types of yoga, we turned to a certified yoga instructor to fill us in and help us determine how to pick the right style to satisfy our every mood or need.
So, read on to check out nine different styles of yoga and find your best match.
Meet the Expert
Catherine Howe is a certified yoga instructor and owner of Sensory Yoga Wellness.
Try it if: You’re new to yoga and want to get a feel for a basic flow.
“This particular type of practice is what most people think yoga is: body, mind, breath,” explains Howe. In other words, Hatha is basically an umbrella term for all kinds of physical yoga, or the "trunk" of the tree if more specific styles like Bikram and Vinyasa are the branches. That means you can get a pretty mixed bag when selecting a Hatha class, but they typically tend to be a very straightforward combination of poses along with breathing basics and aren't usually the most challenging option. “Typically, there is a beautiful flow to the class, making it extremely inviting for beginners due to its gentle nature and ease of pace,” says Howe, who adds that Hatha yoga is beneficial for those who tend to ignore messages from their bodies and push themselves, because the practice is specifically designed to be deliberately slow and gentle.
“The most beneficial time for Hatha is Brahma Muhurta, which is 3:40am, although this time’s not feasible [for many people], and therefore, the word “sunrise” is used,” notes Howe, who says that practicing first thing in the morning has a wonderful impact on your day.
“Hatha is a full-body workout, and therefore a side benefit to that can be weight loss,” says Howe. When considering caloric expenditure for any activity—yoga included—sex, weight, and body composition, all come into play along with the intensity, so your specific numbers may vary. According to Harvard Medical School, someone weighing 155 pounds can burn about 150 calories in a 30-minute class.
Try it if: You want to make yoga your primary workout.
While Vinyasa, which means “flow,” has many similarities to Hatha, the pace or transition between poses is faster. Howe says that in Vinyasa, any pose, for example a Sun Salutation, would follow the instructions, “one movement, one breath.” In this way, the movements are very deliberately synced with the breath, and they transition quickly. “The same Sun Salutation in a Hatha class would be slowed down maybe 2-4 breathes per movement,” notes Howe.
Vinyasa increases your heart rate, adding more of a cardio component to the total-body workout, and potentially boosting the number of calories you’ll burn. Though Vinyasa can be geared towards any ability level with the right instruction, Howe has some advice for first timers: “Don’t be afraid to let the instructor know if it is your first time,” she says. “And, there’s nothing wrong with sitting on your mat either, taking things in visually and maybe trying one or two of the flows.”
When trying to pick a yoga class, explore different styles of yoga and also different classes within the same style. Classes of certain styles, like Hatha, can vary significantly based on the instructor, so sample lots of options if you have yet to find a good fit.
Try it if: You're a creature of habit who doesn't mind a challenge.
Ashtanga, which means “eight limbs,” is a very energetic style of yoga, which is why it’s sometimes referred to as “Power” yoga. “All aspects of yoga come into play with this style—not only Asanas (poses), but the other limbs, too: Yamas (our attitude to the outside world), Niyamas (attitude towards self), Pranayama (breathwork), Pratyahara (withdrawal of the senses), and Dharana (concentration/focus).”
Ashtanga is similar to Vinyasa in that it links breath to movement and cycles through different poses, but the difference is that it's composed of six specific pose sequences. You flow through them quickly and deliberately, only moving on to the next sequence after you're able to master the former—and they're no picnic.
Howe says you create a lot of internal heat (tapas) during Ashtanga. “With that comes the feeling of purification of mind and body. Purpose and focus are key in Ashtanga,” explains Howe. Due to the intensity, caloric expenditure is higher than most types of yoga. Plus, you’ll build muscular strength, power, and cardiovascular endurance. Be prepared to sweat a lot, too.
Even though Ashtanga is intense, beginners can still give it a go. “Ashtanga involves a specific sequence done in a very precise order—perfect for beginners, as they know what to expect each time. “True Ashtanga asks that you practice six days a week—it’s a commitment,” shares Howe. However, you can certainly set your own schedule and do what works for you.
Try it if: You believe no workout is complete unless you're dripping in sweat.
Yoga practices are typically classified as "hot" when they are performed in a studio that's heated to anywhere from 90 to 108 degrees Fahrenheit. The high temps are thought to augment your flexibility, and induce a toxin-flushing sweat and mental cleanse. But be careful—increased flexibility isn’t always a good thing, especially if you’re just starting out on your yoga journey. “When new to yoga, I’d suggest practicing at room temperature. Get to know your body—how it moves, the level of flexibility, the ability to engage muscles,” advises Howe. “Once you have a good idea of that range, moving into the hot room will serve a better, healthier purpose. The hot room can give us a false sense of flexibility, so without knowing your safe range, you increase the risk of injury.”
Try it if: You want to really push your boundaries. (Boot camp fans, this is your jam.)
Bikram is a type of hot yoga with its own set of very specific rules: Classes are 90 minutes long and consist of the same sequence of 26 particular poses every time, the studio is heated to 105 degrees with 40 percent humidity, and the floor is carpeted. “An added benefit here is when going consistently to this type of class, you have the comparison of how each pose is evolving for you, as the class never changes,” says Howe. Discipline is the chief vibe; in fact there's no music, talking, clapping, or hands-on instructor adjustments. It is very tough, but it doesn't boast a cult following for nothing. And, the calorie burn is significant, upwards of two to three times a standard Hatha class.
Try it if: You’re detail-oriented, or if you've already established a yoga practice and are looking to improve your balance and posture.
A relatively recent offshoot of Hatha yoga (Iyengar was created in India in 1979), this practice has earned its nickname of "furniture yoga" for its extreme emphasis on alignment and sustained poses. Howe says that while most styles of yoga focus on how you feel in a pose rather than how you look, Iyengar, with its emphasis on precision, deviates somewhat from this guiding principle. “It’s about alignment—those minor adjustments to align posture,” explains Howe, who adds that it’s often the style of practice that most utilizes props. “Poses are held for a longer period of time, [and] the use of props is a great way to enhance the practice, offering support and stability while building confidence.”
You'll likely stick with fairly basic poses and focus on getting them just right, but don't take that to mean that this class isn't challenging—maintaining that precise form for an extended period of time will make your muscles quake. And, all that quaking will burn calories. “Caloric burn has been noted as close to 200 per class,” shares Howe.
Try it if: You’re interested in exploring the more spiritual side of yoga.
Based on the belief that we all hold a divine energy coiled at the bottom of our spine, Kundalini yoga seeks to release that energy through chanting, breath, and movement. “Kundalini is very spiritual and encourages the journey within,” notes Howe. “It allows you to feel not only the physical practice, but [also] your emotions and become truly aware of how your body is speaking to you.” Practicing being mindful and self-aware are at the heart of Kundalini, which is accomplished through mantras, sound, Kriya, and meditation. “While at first, Kundalini can be a little scary or anxiety provoking due to the awakening of emotion, it can also be the most rewarding as we get to know ourselves, and how we can take back control of the situations we had no control over at that time, releasing trauma, living in truth, and being present,” shares Howe. Though the spiritual and emotional focus of the practice over the physical makes the caloric expenditure of a Kundalini class much lower, there are still plenty of benefits. If you find yourself deeply inspired by the mind-body connection that the physical practice of yoga fosters, you might consider giving Kundalini a try.
Try it if: You need to iron out some kinks during a rest day or de-stress your mind and body.
Restorative yoga is all about focusing on your breath in conjunction with gentle stretching, making it a great option if you're feeling sore, need to find some balance, or just want to decompress from a long day at the office (or all of the above). Howe says ultimately, the aim is to restore the body and mind to “rest and digest” with the parasympathetic nervous system rather than the “fight or flight” sympathetic nervous system that so often dominates our busy, stressful, and overwhelmed lives. Classes often emphasize staying in poses for a longer period of time, so that you can really sink deeply into your stretch and open up physically and mentally. “There’s the addition of blankets, bolsters, and blocks, filling all the gaps and allowing the body permission to surrender and marinate,” shares Howe.
Though the relaxed, low-intensity nature of restorative yoga doesn’t land it high on a list of calorie-torching workouts, the practice has still been found to aid in fat loss, largely due to the fact that such a relaxing practice can lower cortisol (stress hormone) levels. “While calories here are minimal, the emotional impact is far greater. The reduction in stress and increase in relaxation pays off,” notes Howe. “It’s a juicy practice; it feels very indulgent.” Sounds lovely.
Try it if: You’re looking for an uplifting, positive mindset-focused practice.
Anusara yoga, which was founded by American yogi John Friend, is a modern-day Hatha yoga that focuses on experiencing bliss and joy in both your yoga practice and life at large. In fact, one of the major tenets of Anusara yoga is “action,” which refers to applying the concepts and skills from your yoga practice to your daily life.
Anusara means “flowing with grace,” and the style incorporates some of the flow characteristics of Vinyasa yoga, such as coordinating poses with the breath, but at a slower pace. At the heart of Anusara yoga is the concept of alignment, both in terms of physically aligning your body in each pose, and aligning your mind and heart with the divine. The belief is that alignment will bring the natural flow of energy, bliss, and joy. Because alignment is a central concept, as with Iyengar yoga, props like blocks are often used.
Harvard Health Publishing. (2018). “Calories Burned in 30 Minutes for People of Three Different Weights.” https://www.health.harvard.edu/diet-and-weight-loss/calories-burned-in-30-minutes-of-leisure-and-routine-activities
Caffrey, MK. (2013). Restorative Yoga Better Than Stretching for Trimming Subcutaneous Fat in Overweight Women. Evidence-Based Diabetes Management. 19(SP7).