A Beginner's Guide to 8 Major Styles of Yoga

A brief look at different approaches to yoga and which suits your needs best

Skimming the yellow pages or the class schedule at your gym for a good yoga class can be a real exercise in confusion. How can you tell the difference between Anusara and ashtanga? Or hot yoga and hatha? Below is a cheat sheet to the many different styles of yoga being taught today. May it help you find your way to a class you love.

1. Anusara

Developed by American yogi John Friend in 1997, anusara yoga is a relative newcomer to the yoga world. Based on the belief that we are all filled with an intrinsic goodness, anusara seeks to use the physical practice of yoga to help students open their hearts, experience grace, and let their inner goodness shine through. Classes, which are specifically sequenced by the teacher to explore one of Friend's Universal Principles of Alignment, are rigorous for the body and the mind.

2. Ashtanga

Ashtanga is based on ancient yoga teachings, but it was popularized and brought to the West by Pattabhi Jois (pronounced "pah-tah-bee joyce") in the 1970s. It's a rigorous style of yoga that follows a specific sequence of postures and is similar to vinyasa yoga, as each style links every movement to a breath. The difference is that ashtanga always performs the exact same poses in the exact same order. This is a hot, sweaty, physically demanding practice.

3. Bikram

Approximately 30 years ago, Bikram Choudhury developed this school of yoga where classes are held in artificially heated rooms. In a Bikram class, you will sweat like you've never sweated before as you work your way through a series of 26 poses (like ashtanga, a Bikram class always follows the same sequence, although a Bikram sequence is different from an ashtanga sequence). Bikram is somewhat controversial, as Choudhury has trademarked his sequence and has prosecuted studios who call themselves Bikram but don't teach the poses exactly the way he says they should. It is also wildly popular, making it one of the easiest types of classes to find.

4. Hatha

Hatha yoga is a generic term that refers to any type of yoga that teaches physical postures. Nearly every type of yoga class taught in the West is hatha yoga. When a class is marketed as hatha, it generally means that you will get a gentle introduction to the most basic yoga postures. You probably won't work up a sweat in a hatha yoga class, but you should end up leaving class feeling longer, looser, and more relaxed.

5. Hot Yoga

Basically the same thing as Bikram. Generally, the only difference between Bikram and hot yoga is that the hot yoga studio deviates from Bikram's sequence in some small way, and so they must call themselves by another name. The room will be heated, and you will sweat buckets.

6. Iyengar

Iyengar yoga was developed and popularized by B.K.S. Iyengar (pronounced "eye-yen-gar"). Iyengar is a very meticulous style of yoga, with utmost attention paid to finding the proper alignment in a pose. In order to help each student find the proper alignment, an Iyengar studio will stock a wide array of yoga props — blocks, blankets, straps, chairs, bolsters, and a rope wall are all common. There isn't a lot of jumping around in Iyengar classes, so you won't get your heart rate up, but you'll be amazed to discover how physically and mentally challenging it is to stay put. Iyengar teachers must undergo a comprehensive training – if you have an injury or chronic condition, Iyengar is probably your best choice to insure you get the knowledgeable instruction you need.

7. Restorative

Restorative yoga is a delicious way to way to relax and soothe frayed nerves. Restorative classes use bolsters, blankets, and blocks to prop students in passive poses so that the body can experience the benefits of a pose without having to exert any effort. A good restorative class is more rejuvenating than a nap. Studios and gyms often offer them on Friday nights, when just about everyone could use a little profound rest.

8. Vinyasa

Vinyasa (pronounced "vin-yah-sah") is the Sanskrit word for "flow", and vinyasa classes are known for their fluid, movement-intensive practices. Vinyasa teachers choreograph their classes to smoothly transition from pose to pose, and often play music to keep things lively. The intensity of the practice is similar to Ashtanga, but no two vinyasa classes are the same. If you hate routine and love to test your physical limits, vinyasa may be just your ticket. 

For a little more help, try this What Kind of Yogi Are You? Quiz.


Related Articles and Videos: 

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What to Expect from Your First Yoga Class

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Kate Hanley is a freelance writer who specializes in exploring the mind-body connection. She completed her yoga teacher training at OM Yoga in New York City and has studied with yoga experts Rodney Yee and Cyndi Lee and meditation teacher Sharon Salzberg.

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darlinroz's picture
User offline. Last seen 7 years 51 weeks ago. Offline
Joined: 08/28/2008

Don't let Hatha yoga fool you - You do get a good workout from this foundational style. What you put into your practice is what you will get out of it. You don't need any fancy styles to get a good workout - try them all and find out what works best for YOU - not what some "expert" may say. Practice ahimsa - No harm to yourself, no harm to others.
Namaste -

dfields05's picture
User offline. Last seen 7 years 50 weeks ago. Offline
Joined: 07/17/2008

Been needing this listtle guide for quite some time. Will probably never memorize each style, but having a cheat sheet is helpful when it comes time to pick agian.

Catherine424's picture
User offline. Last seen 7 years 40 weeks ago. Offline
Joined: 11/13/2008

Hey that was a great article...Here is another style of Yoga that might interest you: the Kundalini...a really great dynamic style of yoga....Better check it out!

zheroewon's picture
User offline. Last seen 6 years 50 weeks ago. Offline
Joined: 09/07/2009

And what about Kundalini?

Dorothy422's picture
User offline. Last seen 6 years 13 weeks ago. Offline
Joined: 05/16/2010

I was visiting Himalayas last year, I met few rishi (saints) who are performing Yoga and Sadhana practices since more than 20 years and they have very good control over their body, mind and soul.

I regularly spend about two to three hours on weekends to practice various Yoga styles and after doing so I feel totally relaxed and rejuvenated.

Eric's picture
User offline. Last seen 6 years 13 weeks ago. Offline
Joined: 05/16/2010

For beginners, is it necessary to learn these 8 major styles?

SheDoesYoga's picture
User offline. Last seen 2 years 42 weeks ago. Offline
Joined: 10/28/2013

Glad I found this article. Was looking for a little clarification before I decided which route to explore first and that's Vinyasa - more my style.

Anonymous's picture

what about kundalini yoga?

Anonymous's picture

Hatha isn't always gentle. One can increase their heart rate with Iyengar. Different teachers bring different styles and as mentioned above, it is worth the time and effort to ask around, try out different studios and different classes and find out what (perhaps many) classes and instructors work for you. Cheers!

Anonymous's picture

Nice breakdown of the styles of yoga.
I would like to kindly correct the Bikram definition however.

Bikram started teaching the series officially in 1973, which makes it over 40 years old now.

The other thing I think that differentiates the style is that it always starts with pranayama deep breathing to help saturate the tissues with oxygen, and ends with kapalbhalti breathing to cool the body down.
It's a very therapeutic series (studied by more than a few University studies) designed to generate more flexibility, but strengthen both tissues and systems of the body (nervous, cardiovascular, respiratory, digestive, reproductive, and energy meridians).

It's been officially determined that Bikram Choudhury in fact has no trademark on the series, only the use of his name.

While many judge the man, his series is so popular because it works. This should be, in my opinion, the focus of someone considering trying it out.

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