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.
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.
Bikram yoga is a system of 26 postures that are performed in a standard sequence in a room heated to 100-110 degrees Fahrenheit. This approach is fairly vigorous and requires a certain level of fitness on the part of students.
"Bikram is done in a room with a high temperature," says Miller. "There is less focus on alignment, and more on sweating and getting a good workout."
Viniyoga focuses on practicing a posture according to one's individual needs and capacity. Regulated breathing is an important aspect of Viniyoga, and the breath is carefully coordinated with the postural movements.
Kripalu yoga is a three-stage yoga. In the first stage, postural alignment and coordination of breath and movement are emphasized, and the postures are held for a short duration only. In the second stage, meditation is included into the practice and postures are held for prolonged periods. In the final stage, the practice of postures becomes a spontaneous "meditation in motion."
Integral yoga made a debut at the Woodstock festival in 1969, where yoga expert Swami Satchidananda taught thousands to chant, "om." This style aims to integrate the various aspects of the body and mind through a combination of postures, breathing techniques, deep relaxation, and meditation, and function is more important than form. In this style of yoga, breathing and meditation are emphasized as much as the postures.
Sivananda yoga includes a series of twelve postures, breathing exercises, relaxation, and mantra chanting.
Ananda yoga is a gentle style that is designed to prepare the student for meditation, involving consciously directing the body's energy to different organs and limbs.
5 Tips to the Right Yoga Style
With so many choices available, just showing up at your local YMCA for a yoga class might not cut it. What should you look for when choosing a style? Experts give WebMD five tips to transcending the confusion, starting with finding the right instructor.
1. "Look for an instructor that is professional and that has a clear understanding of yoga in general so he or she can be helpful," says Tony Sanchez, a yoga instructor in San Francisco and president of the U.S. Yoga Association. "The instructor should be able to comprehend the different levels of the yoga postures and read a person's needs so he can teach the exercises accordingly."
2. "Educate yourself," says Miller. "Do some reading and learn more about the different styles available near you."
3. Then it's time to try yoga.
"Try a class and see if you like it," says Sanchez. "Do you like the instructor? Does the instructor know what he is doing? Is he knowledgeable?"
4. When you try a class, ask yourself if it is suitable for you.
"Iyengar is an easier yoga because it concentrates on more detail, with fewer exercises but more attention to alignment," says Sanchez. "While Bikram and Astanga yoga are more extreme. These can challenge a person beyond his or her ability, and this is where there is more risk for injury."
So know your limits, explains Sanchez.
"You should be able to understand how far you should push yourself safely," says Sanchez. "The instructor should be paying attention that the students are doing the positions with proper alignment and posture. And the students should decide if they are pushing themselves too hard or not enough."
5. When you find a style that is right for you body and mind, Miller recommends wearing comfortable clothing and avoiding eating before class.
Yoga for Everyone
"Yoga is good for everyone," says Sanchez. "If you are strong, you may want to build flexibility. If you are looking to build muscle, you may want to choose the exercises that work on strength."
There are so many different yoga styles available, explains Sanchez, that everyone can find a style that is beneficial for them and start working toward healthier minds and bodies.