5 Most Effective Yoga Poses and Asanas
Approximately 16 million people in the United States practice yoga, reaping health benefits that range from reduced stress and cholesterol levels to increased strength and flexibility. But there are many different kinds of practices. Some more physically demanding, others more meditative or spiritual. Hence, It can be tough to know which will best meet your needs and abilities?
“To say there is a variety of methods and interpretations is an understatement,” says Judith Hanson Lasater. Judith Hanson Lasater is a physical therapist, and yoga instructor in the San Francisco Bay area and author of 30 Essential Yoga Poses (Rodmell Press). Even experienced practitioners may not always have a clear grasp of the nuances and varied benefits of each type of yoga. That’s why we put together this guide to five of the most popular practices. The execution of each varies, but the underlying goal is the same, says Carol Krucoff. Carol Krucoff is also a yoga therapist at Duke Integrative medicine in Durham, N.C., and author of Healing Yoga for Neck and Shoulder Pain (New Harbinger): to connect our minds and bodies through conscious movements and breathing, and to recognize where we hold tension and learn how to release it. Of course, a lot also depends on your instructor-so even after you’ve decided which type (or types) appeal to you most, you may need to look around for the perfect fit. Ultimately, it will be well worth the effort. “By finding the styles and teachers that meet both your physical and mental needs, you develop a physical practice that also brings a sense of purpose and passion into your life,” says Kim Shand, a certified yoga instructor, based in New Jersey, and founder of Rethink Yoga (rethinkyoga.com). So prepare to be enlightened, and to get more out of your yoga practice.
Often promoted as a modern-day form of classical Indian yoga, Ashtanga vinyasa-also just known as ashtanga-is a relatively vigorous practice comprising a fast-paced series of sequential postures. It begins with Sun Salutations (Surya Namaskara), followed by one of six main series of poses: primary moves for beginners; intermediate poses; or one of four variations of advanced moves. Ashtanga also incorporates a breathing style called Ujjayi, which characterized by an ocean sound that resonates from the throat-an audible sighing out of breath in sync with specific movements. Often called “flow yoga,” Ashtanga focuses on continuous movements, leaving less time for instruction and adjustments, says Lasater. Most “power” yoga classes and hybrids (e.g., yoga booty ballet and “Koga”-a mix of kickboxing and yoga) also derived from Ashtanga.
Best for– Skilled exercise enthusiasts seeking a calorie-blasting, body-sculpting workout.
Skip it if: You have physical limitations, prefer to stretch gently, or if you like to be adjusted in your postures.
Bikram classes usually run for 90 minutes and include a slow series of 26 poses and two breathing exercises. “All Bikram studios are designed to meet strict guidelines. So they all look essentially the same, and each teacher is trained to the same basic script,” Shand says. With upward of 1,600 studios around the world, Bikram is arguably the most popular form of hot yoga (others include Forrest yoga, which incorporates Native American spirituality, and TriBalance yoga, which is performed in even hotter but less humid conditions). It is practiced in a room heated to 105° F with a humidity of 40 percent in order to mimic the climate of India, yoga’s birthplace. Its creator, Bikram Choudhury-who brought Bikram to the United States in the 1970s-says that performing poses in such high heat helps to loosen and stretch the muscles and open the joints without injury, as well as to aid in body detoxification through excessive sweating (make sure you bring a towel!). The heavy perspiration also may reduce stress and tension, and help with weight management. Just keep in mind that you might become dehydrated, dizzy or nauseous from the heat. So check with your doctor to make sure the soaring temperatures will be safe for you. Listen to your body: If you need to take a water break, lie down or leave the class, just do so don’t be bashful.
Best for: Those who like consistency and predictability-and some serious sweat-in their practice.
Skip it if: You can’t stand the heat or want more variation or a little philosophy sprinkled in with your asanas
Often called “the yoga of awareness,” kundalini regarded as an advanced form of yoga and meditation focused on developing a higher consciousness and spiritual strength. It was introduced in the U.S. in 1968, when Yogi Bhajan, an Indian kundalini master, visited Los Angeles and decided that he must stay and teach the ’60s generation, whose destiny it was to usher in a new era. According to yogic philosophy, kundalini is a spiritual energy located at the base of the spine, often depicted as a coiled or sleeping serpent. Kundalini yoga is a way to prepare the body for and aid in the awakening of that energy, and to work it through the seven chakras of your body. The movements and breathing are very rhythmic, and some teachers use visualizations-of energy, thoughts, light-to help students clear their minds and sink deeper into each pose. “The physical postures and sequencing may be rigorous,” says Shand, “but most classes focus more on the spiritual components.” Classes often start with chanting or the repetition of mantras (for example, sat nam, or “I am truth”), and end with meditation. “There is often a strong emphasis on breathing techniques,” adds Nayaswami Gyandev, Ph.D., E-RYT 500, a registered yoga teacher and director of Ananda Yoga in Nevada City, Calif. Intense deep breathing and the intake of extra oxygen often help practitioners to reach an “altered” meditative state.
Best for: Those seeking emotional release and religious development as well as physical strength.
SkIp It If: You’re looking solely for a workout, or if you’re not into spirituality, chanting or deep breathing.
Developed over a period of 50 years by B.K.S. Iyengar, this practice emphasizes stability and good health. In Iyengar, poses are held longer than in other types of yoga, with more attention paid to both muscular and skeletal alignment. It’s a slow going practice, with regular stops to position blocks and blankets and also to check on the accuracy of postures. “Iyengar yoga focuses heavily on proper execution,” says Lasater. The idea is that precision will help build power, stamina, balance, and flexibility. Practitioners often use props, such as belts, chairs, blocks, blankets or even the wall, which help them to perform poses correctly and minimize the risk of injury. Iyengar is one of the most therapeutic types of yoga exercise, with many programs targeted to ease specific ailments such as backaches, headaches, high blood pressure, insomnia or symptoms of menopause.
Best for: Patient seekers of calm, steady strength and healing.
Miss It If: You like to keep moving, or your mind wanders quickly.
In Sanskrit, Vini yoga is a term meaning adaptation. Popularized in the U.S. by yoga exercises instructor Gary Kraftsow and the American Viniyoga Institute, founded in 1999, the traditional practice is a one-teacher-per student model in which the instructor works to develop a personalized program according to the student’s health, age and physical condition. In the modern context, Vini yoga adapted for group settings. “A Vini yoga teacher must ask, How is the posture serving the practitioner or the group?’ So the emphasis is on the function of poses rather than the form,” says Stephani Sutherland, Ph.D., science communications coordinator with the American Viniyoga Institute in Oakland, Calif. In fact, poses are often modified to accommodate the student’s needs. Viniyoga also uses pranayama (seated breathing practices), chanting, mantras and yoga to influence the mind as well as the body. “There is an emphasis on coordinating bodily movement with breath,” says Gyandev. “Professionals will often go in and out of an asana multiple times in harmony with their breathing in order to reinforce certain beneficial effects of the present.”
Best for: Newbies, older practitioners, or people with injuries who want a practice specific to their needs and limitations.
Neglect It If: Prefer to blend in with the crowd or are only interested in working out.