With so many different yoga styles on the market, you’re practically guaranteed to find one you enjoy. The trouble is, having so many options to choose from can leave you wondering where to start your search.
According to Ashley Sondergaard, a registered yoga teacher, and host of the Yoga Magic Podcast, the key question to ask yourself when searching for a yoga style is: What do I want out of my yoga practice? Maybe you’re looking to reduce stress, strengthen muscles, increase flexibility or tap into your spirituality. Whatever benefits you’re hoping for, chances are there’s a yoga style for you.
Once you’ve ID’d your goals, you need to find the yoga styles that match. Don’t be afraid to try many different styles — and even teachers — to land on the best class for you.
If you’re looking for a good workout, try rigorous yoga practices like vinyasa, ashtanga, hot yoga or Bikram. Also, chances are any style with “power yoga” in the name is a good bet. All of these styles incorporate tons of movement, which gets your heart rate up. You’ll also perform poses that strengthen your muscles.
Vinyasa, for example, is a faster-paced yoga style. It’s performed as a flow, which means synchronizing breath with movement: “You do one breath, one pose,” Sondergaard says.
Meanwhile, ashtanga is a style of vinyasa that involves practicing the same set of poses every class.
One set of ashtanga poses is known as the sun salutation series, a repeating cycle of 10 poses that offer strength benefits. In fact, one study found men and women who performed 24 cycles of sun salutations six days per week significantly increased upper-body strength and endurance after 24 weeks. The women in the study also slashed body fat percentage (from 27.7% to 25.8% on average).
Like ashtanga, Bikram also follows a set series of poses (26 repeated over a 90-minute class). However, Bikram takes place in a hot, humid room — temperatures can be higher than 100ºF.
Like Bikram, hot yoga also takes place in a hot environment. However, hot yoga classes don’t have a set structure, and may involve vinyasa flows or slower-paced styles. Note that hot yoga and Bikram can be especially intense if you’re pregnant, new to yoga, dehydrated or sensitive to heat. Pay close attention to how you feel during the practice and take rest when you need it, Sondergaard says.
Keep in mind: Research suggests yoga alone may not improve fitness. One 2016 study found that practicing high-intensity hatha yoga (a general term that refers to the practice of physical yoga postures) for one hour per week for six weeks wasn’t enough to improve cardiovascular fitness in yoga newbies.
What’s more, a small study found an hour-long hatha session didn’t meet the physical activity recommendations for improving or maintaining cardiovascular fitness (exercising at an intensity of roughly 55–90% of maximum heart rate).
So, you may want to supplement your yoga practice with cardio exercises like walking, jogging or cycling.
If you’re searching for a slow, relaxing yoga practice to balance an intense exercise routine — or a stressful lifestyle — you can’t go wrong with restorative yoga. “Restorative yoga is a magical practice to reap the benefits of yoga without too much effort or exertion,” Sondergaard says.
Restorative yoga emphasizes stress relief and muscle relaxation. You get into traditional poses you might see in other practices, but you do it with help from props like yoga blocks, blankets, and cushions. The props work to support your body, which eases the strain on your muscles and helps you relax. “Once you’re in a pose with the use of these props, you completely surrender,” Sondergaard says. Expect to hold each pose for longer periods of time.
Yin yoga is also a great option for stress reduction. Like restorative yoga, this style involves holding a pose for a longer period (1–5 minutes) and uses props. However, restorative yoga is a more passive practice, whereas yin acts as an active — but still relaxing — stretch: “Yin focuses on lengthening the muscles and connective tissue,” Sondergaard explains.
While all yoga is great for mobility and flexibility, Sondergaard’s personal favorites include vinyasa, hot yoga (assuming you’re not pregnant) and yin yoga. “Vinyasa because of the challenge and depth of poses, hot yoga for the added warmth to the muscles, and yin because of the length of time you hold a pose and focus on lengthening the muscles,” she explains.
So, if your goal is mobility and flexibility, you may want to consider other factors when choosing a yoga style, such as the intensity, pace and secondary benefits of the practice.
If you’re dealing with nagging pain or injury, you may want to start with a gentle practice like restorative yoga or a slow vinyasa flow. Start small, see how you feel, and don’t be afraid to back off if needed, Sondergaard says.
Iyengar, an alignment-focused yoga style, may also be a good option. Unlike faster-paced styles of yoga, like vinyasa, Iyengar involves spending more time perfecting your alignment in the various poses. “You’re going to be very specific about what shapes your body creates [in iyengar],” Sondergaard says. You’ll even make use of various props (yoga blocks, straps, cushions and foam rollers) so you can do the pose safely.
This gentle approach and focus on proper alignment may help ease certain types of chronic pain. In one study, people who practiced Iyengar yoga for 90 minutes twice a week saw significant improvements in chronic low back pain after 24 weeks.
That said, whether or not yoga helps with your pain or injury is highly individual. Be sure to talk to your doctor or physical therapist before giving it a try.
If you’re more interested in the spiritual side of yoga, you may want to try kundalini. “Kundalini is about waking up the energy within your body, and you use breathwork, poses, chanting and meditation to get into an enlightened state,” Sondergaard explains.
However, if you’re new to yoga, you may want to find another style to start your practice. “If you don’t have any experience with yoga, Kundalini won’t resonate as much, or you might be more confused,” Sondergaard says. That said, it may depend on your spiritual beliefs, she adds.
While Kundalini is a powerful spiritual practice, it’s also challenging. If you’re interested in trying it, be sure to find a qualified instructor to guide you.
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