More than a century has passed since Swami Vivekananda introduced yoga philosophy at the Chicago World’s Fair. But the asana-centric yoga we practice in the West today is a relatively recent development, introduced in the 1950’s and ’60’s, when a few gurus brought physical yoga from India to the West. In a little more than five decades, yoga has become a big tent, covering dozens of styles and practices.
We live in a cultural melting pot that embraces new flavors and traditions. Sampling different yoga styles has surprised me and stretched me in new ways. I’m not advocating for a ninety-minute mash-up class; and my intent isn’t to minimize the richness of a particular style by picking the best and leaving the rest. But, in one word, I’ve summarized what I consider to be the greatest aspect of each:
Anusara: Inspiration. Using poetic metaphors and anatomical instructions that don’t require a science background to understand, Anusara-trained teachers aim to open us up, physically and metaphorically.
Ashtanga: Breath. Emphasizing breath (ujjayi, in this case) and linking it to movement is what elevates yoga asana from mere exercise to something powerfully transformative.
Bihar: Tantra. The Bihar system (founded in 1964) made esoteric traditional practices accessible to householders. This is true tantra, grounded in Sankhya philosophy, not the sexed-up New Age version we’ve come to know in the West.
Bikram: Heat. Say what you will about Mr. Choudhury, but you have to credit him with introducing us to hot yoga’s malleable, sweaty, tapas-forward possibilities.
Himalayan: Science. The teachings are informed by a vast body of Vedic knowledge, encompassing Ayurveda, jyotish, Sankhya and sacred texts. These comprise one of the oldest scientific systems on the planet, though most people today would call it “philosophy.”
Integral: Ecumenicalism. “Many paths, one truth” was a key tenet of Swami Satchidananda, aka the Woodstock Guru. His teachings resonated with young people seeking peace, harmony and joy, and yogis of “a certain age” fondly remember the warm, inclusive vibes we found in Integral classes.
Iyengar: Precision. BKS Iyengar developed asana methodology that emphasizes precise anatomical alignment, which frees up pranic flow and helps to prevent injury.
Kundalini: Energy. The 3HO style of Kundalini introduced by Yogi Bhajan combines mudras, bandhas, chanting and postures in sets (sequences) that activate pranic flow.
Kripalu: Balance. Kripalu (founded in 1966) successfully westernized the immersion experience of the ashram, emphasizing yoga as part of a balanced, healthy, whole lifestyle.
Osho: Humility. Swami Rajneesh was a controversial figure, but his wry and irreverent comments, along with the active meditation techniques he developed, can help bust stubborn ego patterns or turn overly conventional thinking upside-down.
Restorative: Healing. This offshoot of Iyengar Yoga takes the use of props in a therapeutic direction, emphasizing the body’s parasympathetic response for relaxation and healing.
Sivananda: Tradition. Curious about the roots of modern yoga? You’ll find them in Sivananda Yoga’s well-sequenced classes that incorporate pranayama, relaxation and meditation in addition to asana.
Vinyasa: Fun. Flowing from one pose to the next in rhythm with other yogis can help free your secret dancer or inner child.
Yin: Patience. The long, deep holds of Yin Yoga cultivate persistence and equanimity as they target connective tissues and the subtle channels known as meridians in Chinese medicine (analogous to the nadis of yoga and Ayurveda).
While we may resonate with a single style of yoga, according to personality or loyalty or geography, every style has a divine spark that can inspire or teach. As my teacher would say, we can find unity in diversity. The common thread running through all of yoga’s various styles? Each gives us tools for clearing a pathway to inner peace.
I’ve listed only the yoga styles that I can speak about from personal experience. Have I left out a yoga style you love? What is one word you can use to summarize the styles you love?