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Beyond Om: The Many Styles of Yoga

Yoga is more than "om-ing" and sitting cross-legged. Learn about the different yoga styles and how you can pick one that is right for you.
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WebMD Feature

Bikram, Astanga, Kripalu, Sivananda, Iyengar ... while these may sound Greek to most people, they are actually different yoga styles, derived from India more than 5,000 years ago. No longer only for the flower children of the '60s, yoga is now mainstream. There are more than 20 million people in North America practicing yoga as exercise for the mind and body, according to the Yoga Education and Research Center.

But with so many yoga styles available, it may seem like a daunting task for the beginner to tell one from the next. Before you can say "om," seasoned yoga experts explain to WebMD the philosophy of yoga, what the different yoga styles involve, and how you can pick a style that is right for your body -- and mind.

The Philosophy

Hatha yoga is the yoga style that is mainly practiced in the U.S., and within it, are many variations, including Bikram and Iyengar. Although these variations differ, each type -- no matter the branch or name -- is based on the same underlying principle.

"The philosophy of yoga is that it focuses on the combination of body, mind, and spirit," says Elise Browning Miller, MA, a certified Iyengar yoga teacher in Mt. View, Calif., who has been teaching since 1976. "It's connecting with your self on a deeper basis."

Yoga is about quieting the fluctuations of the mind, explains Miller.

For instance, "If you are doing yoga, but you're thinking about work or grocery shopping, it's not yoga -- its exercise," Miller tells WebMD. "With yoga, you need to bring your focus into the present."

It provides a sense of peacefulness and well-being while energizing you at the same time.

"Physically doing the asanas (the yoga poses) is translated as that which is steady and with ease," says Miller. "So there is a stability within the poses and within your mind. Yoga can make you very fit, it conditions your muscles, it energizes you, it helps you breathe, gives you more tone and balance, and more of a feeling of goodness about yourself."

The Hatha Yoga Styles

The variations of Hatha yoga range from the physically challenging to the meditatively transcending. According to the Yoga Research and Education Center web site, they include:

Iyengar yoga, which is the most widely recognized approach to Hatha yoga, is characterized by precision performance and the aid of various props, such as cushions, benches, wood blocks, straps, and even sand bags.

"Iyengar is more focused on alignment, and even though it's not always moving quickly, it's very intense and adapted for beginners," says Miller.

Astanga yoga involves synchronizing the breath with a fast-paced series of postures -- a process producing intense internal heat and a profuse, purifying sweat that detoxifies muscles and organs. The result is improved circulation, a light and strong body, and a calm mind.

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