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A guide to yoga styles

Iyengar, Kundalini, Ashtanga… the tongue-twisting names of classic yoga styles certainly sound exotic. Add to that a proliferation of modern fusions (AntiGravity, Yin, Jivamukti), and the task of deciphering a studio timetable feels as impossible as Sirsa Padasana on a surfboard. Writer and Yoga Teacher, Catherine Turner, shares her valuable insights into the world of yoga, exploring some of the most popular styles, where they originate from and, more importantly, where you can find them.

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Photo credits:  Olivier Stalmans for Harpers Bazaar Vietman

My 20-year-long love affair with yoga has been a body-flexing, mind-expanding learning curve. It has taken me around the world, from draughty church halls and sweaty studios in East London, via Bali, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Goa and the Himalayas; I’ve faced mats with some of the world’s best gurus and experimented with a multitude of styles. But when I found myself scrolling through 30-plus yoga types and some 300 teachers listed on the website of one internationally renowned yoga centre, the choice seemed overwhelming.

So, how did we end up here? Modern yoga first appeared in the 1930s, when physical culture became popular in the West and began to merge with Indian yogic techniques. One legendary yogi of that era, named T Krishnamacharya, is widely credited for making Hatha – the physical aspect of yoga – accessible to us all. His star pupils included Indra Devi (cited as the first Western female yogi – who went on to teach the post-war Hollywood elite, including Greta Garbo and Gloria Swanson), BKS Iyengar and Sri K Pattabhi Jois – whose teachings directly shape today’s styles.

“All physical yoga is Hatha and generally there’s either a flexibility or strength bias to every class,” explains Naomi Annand, IKIGAI’s yoga expert and founder of the popular Yoga on the Lane studio in East London. “Flowing Vinyasa, where postures are linked by the breath, comes from the flexible, energetic Ashtanga style of Sri K Pattabhi Jois. Classes which involve holding postures and doing handstands derive from strengthening Iyengar.”

The emphasis on fitness and flexibility with some relaxation (and maybe a little meditation) in today’s packed classes means it’s often forgotten that traditionally, postures (asanas) would be passed individually from guru to student as just one aspect of a rigorous spiritual training, which also included meditation and chanting – the ultimate goal being self-realisation. However, the fact that yoga has shaken off its asceticism has been good for us urbanites looking to reconnect with the innate stillness we have as humans, regardless of faith, sex or body type.

That we have such a choice of styles is reflective of the individualism of yoga; anyone can do it, we just have to set our intention (see below for some inspiration). There’s no need to be baffled by jargon, swayed by marketing, or slavishly follow celebrity teachers – great yoga is available everywhere.

As Annand points out –

“Yoga is feeling where your body needs to go with every breath. If something pulls you in a direction, try it knowing that you can change your mind, walk away or lie in relaxation pose. Trust that your heart knows what your body needs.”

Photo credits: Alo Yoga

Get Flowing

Vinyasa styles are all about linking postures together with the breath and stem from Pattabhi Jois’s gymnastic, twisty Ashtanga. Aficionados flock to Jois’ original Mysore ashram for challenging month-long stints to learn with his nephew Sharath or his daughter Saraswathi: Sharath Jois.

USA-based Richard Freeman counts Pattabhi Jois as his main teacher and is loved for his less rigorous meditation in motion approach to Ashtanga Vinyasa at his studio The Yoga Workshop in Boulder, Colorado. He set up the studio with his wife in the late 80s.

Rock star-esque yogi couple Sharon Gannon and David Life’s spiritually flowing Jivamukti fusion continues to inspire from their nerve centre in NYC, Jivamukti Yoga – catch them as they tour this summer with their new book.

Insiders and beginners alike pack out the London classes and worldwide retreats of British yogi, Bridget Wood-Kramer, whose take on Anusara (created by John Friend) flow style is fun, challenging, always authentic and soft.

Rest Deeply

Yin yoga is a restorative practice designed to deeply relax – a much needed counterbalance to our 24/7 switched-on lives and full-speed activities such as running, cycling and vigorous yoga styles. Classes involve very few postures held for several minutes and focus on letting go into connective tissue. American Paul Grilley is the teacher’s teacher with an eye for detailed anatomy, physiology and the subtle body.

USA-based Sarah Powers travels the world, bringing her own studies of mindfulness and Buddhist practices to Yin, encouraging a kinder, healthier relationship with ourselves and others.

British yogi Simon Low (one of the co-founders of world renowned London studio Triyoga) is a favourite for his gentle yin teachings – he now lives in Koh Samui and it’s well worth the trip to do his retreats at the beautiful wellness centre Kamalaya.

Photo credits: Artem Bali

Become Aligned

Iyengar’s millimetre-precise-alignment method has made even complicated yoga postures available to all through the use of props such as foam blocks, straps and wall ropes to hang off. Iyengar teacher training is most vigorous of all styles and classes at his original institute in Pune, India are booked at least a year in advance.

Vanda Scarivelli, one of Iyengar’s most devoted students, brought the idea of ‘awakening the spine’ to Iyengar’s highly alignment in her eponymous style which is taught authentically through her American born student Diane Long.

And, for the perfect combination of alignment, authenticity and wisdom, it’s hard to beat the teachings of Donna Farhi. An American yogi now based in New Zealand; yogis travel to the other side of the world to study with her.

Intrepid yogis wanting to keep flexible head to the authentic Mysore studio of back-bending specialist Venkatesh, famous for his four-week course which has spine-bending and mind-opening consequences: Atmavikasayoga.

Enjoy Playing

Sometimes yoga practice needs an injection of something new or daring to push the limits, and there are plenty of playful, experimental styles to try. It’s no surprise to learn AntiGravity founder Christopher Harrison is a gymnast – the idea of performing postures in a suspended silk hammock does require core and upper body strength. But, nothing could be more fun! Especially if you’re hanging upside down, swaying in a gentle sea breeze, which is 100% possible when you’re in the safe hands of experienced teachers at Four Seasons Jimbaran Bay, Bali.

AcroYoga – where yoga meets acrobatics – is the one to challenge your fear/trust issues, as moves are performed with a partner. Co-Founder, Jason Nemer, grew up doing gymnastics and then went on to acrobatics. Inspired by the profound effects of yoga, he combined the two and travels the world as the method’s go-to teacher.

Don’t miss the chance to practice with Bali-based surf yogi Carlos Romero – he discovered AcroYoga on a surf trip and uses his experience to gently encourage confidence in his students. (He also teaches a wildly popular Yin class where he sings and plays guitar during Shavasana).

Photo credits: Alo Yoga

Be Transformed

Gurmukh is the white-turbaned, ageless, positively radiant poster woman of Kundalini yoga. A student of Yogi Bhajan, who brought the intense, spirited system of meditation, chanting, and breath exercises to the USA’s West Coast in the late 60s, she opened the go-to Kundalini studio Golden Bridge. Her women-only retreats are female empowerment in action – a joyful challenge for self-development.

A gentle giant of a yogi, German-born Max Strom is the founder of Inner Axis yoga, which combines deep ocean breathing with yogic and chi gong moves for deep inner transformation. His Breathe to Heal retreats are deeply emotional experiences designed to help beginners and experienced practitioners overcome anxiety, sleeplessness and grief.

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