You’ve probably heard that yoga can fix every problem known to humankind—and that’s suspect, isn’t it?
Yes, it certainly is. Anything touted as a miracle cure deserves scrutiny. That’s why more research is being done on the ancient practices of yoga and meditation. So far, the confirmed benefits make it worth looking past the hyperbole and getting over the discomfort of trying something new. It’s especially important not to get caught up in the story that “yoga is for women.” Yoga is for everyone.
Athletes and pro sports teams use it and attribute it to their success—from the NFL to the mountains. Some use it just for stretching before or during winter, like pro skier Brody Leven. “I don’t use yoga as a means of exercise, because I have no problem getting my exercise outside, where it isn’t hard to push myself. If I’m going to pay to sit in a room of sweaty people, I want to get something that I don’t easily get on my own. For me, that’s a solid stretch. Although I do yoga with notable irregularity, I always try to fit in a few classes to loosen up before the North American winter begins,” says Brody.
Others use yoga to relieve stress from their jobs, heal back pain, and fight off the depression that comes from changing seasons. Whatever your reasons, you need to break through some knowledge barriers to get started.
A yoga studio is an alien world—potentially filled with ancient languages, challenging shapes, and statues of four-armed elephant deities. But, those things don’t mean what you think they mean. This guide cuts through some common misconceptions and offers enough basic knowledge to find a yoga class that works for you.
While many claims about yoga’s benefits aren’t proven by science yet, many are being confirmed by reliable research. Here are some of the benefits you can expect from yoga.
Reduced Stress & Anxiety
This article from Harvard Medical School explains how yoga helps us regulate our physical responses to stress. With reduced stress, we can do things like fight depression and increase tolerance for pain and challenging situations.
Strength & Flexibility
You might be able to run up a mountain, but how long can you hold a lunge, stand on one leg, or hold your hands above your head? Yoga challenges you in simple ways you wouldn’t imagine could make you sweat and tremble.
As you strengthen muscles and understand how they can work together in new ways, flexibility comes as a natural benefit.
Increased Body Awareness & Balance
Do you know what your psoas major muscle is? They’re pretty vital. You use them to walk, run, ski, snowboard, climb, and anything else that requires upright movement. As you practice, you’ll learn about new muscles and how it feels to use familiar ones in new ways.
This builds new awareness of how to use your whole body at once, leading to better balance in your activities off the mat—like charging down mountains and hucking cliffs.
There are as many misconceptions about yoga as there are styles to choose from. Here are three of the biggest ones that keep guys from going to their first class.
Flexibility helps you twist yourself into neat- looking pretzels, but doing that usually isn’t good for your body. Being inflexible can actually be a benefit if you don’t push yourself too hard. Over time, your body will open up and flexibility comes as a natural byproduct of the practice, but it’s not the main goal.
Yoga is just Physical
Yoga classes focus on one part of yoga, asana. Meditation, philosophy, and breathing techniques make up some of the other practices on the yogic wheel. There are eight limbs of yoga in the traditional model and many different philosophies to choose from.
Yoga is a Religion
Yoga comes with metaphysical roots that can easily be mistaken for religion. But, it’s not a religion in itself. There is certainly ritual in yoga, but rituals are an important part of being human—like making your thermos of coffee for dawn patrol.
Some yoga teachers use the word god or divine, but they’re just talking about the underlying patterns of nature, not a bearded dude in the sky.
From alignment-focused practices to workout hybrids, choosing a style of yoga can be overwhelming. It’s important to know what you’re looking for first. Do you have chronic back pain or really want to open up your hamstrings? Go with Restorative, Iyengar, or Anusara. Looking to build strength and resilience? Try Ashtanga or Power yoga.
If only it were that simple.
You’ll develop strength in an Anusara class just like you can find relief for chronic pain in a Power yoga class. Every style of yoga offers a wide array of benefits, but they do have distinguishing characteristics. Here are some of the main styles you’ll find—along with reasons you might want to explore them.
Technically, all physical yoga is Hatha yoga. But, you’ll see classes labeled specifically as Hatha yoga. Hatha yoga classes typically give you instruction in breath techniques, include some physical alignment, and move at a medium-to-slow pace.
Depending on the teacher, you may learn about meditation, mantra, and other subtle practices. This is a safe place to start if you want to see what more traditional forms of yoga entail.
Music: Sometimes • Sweat: Sometimes • Chanting Om: Yes
Hyper-focused on physical alignment and breathwork, Iyengar yoga uses props to help you open up tight hamstrings and relieve chronic pain. This style comes from B.K.S Iyengar, author of Light on Yoga—one of the definitive books on asana.
You’ll spend enough time in each pose to understand how to line up your body and to engage the power of your breath. If you want to learn about alignment and like the idea of every class being a different challenge, Iynegar is a great place to start.
Music: No • Sweat: Sometimes • Chanting Om: Yes
One of the widely practiced forms of traditional Hatha yoga, Ashtanga consists of a set series of postures each time. Developed by Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, this lineage of yoga teaches the power of the breath, explores the bandhas and physical alignment, and includes yogic philosophy.
It’s a physically challenging practice with a number of different series that you can work your way up through over a lifetime. If you like the idea of a set sequence of poses to practice every time, this is a good place to start. Just be careful to not push yourself too hard—it’s easy to do in this practice.
Music: No • Sweat: Yes • Chanting Om: Yes
With roots in Ashtanga, Power yoga classes tend to challenge and push your physical limits. Introduced to the world by teachers like Brian Kest, Beryl Bender Birch, and Baron Baptiste, each power class will have a different approach. Some Power yoga teachers weave yogic philosophy and meditation into the practice and some don’t.
You’re less likely to hear an “Om” at the beginning of a Power class than some other styles, and you’re more likely to break a sweat than to focus on alignment. But, some Power yoga teachers offer great physical alignment and do open and close with om. If you’re focused on building strength and want a physical challenge, Power is a good place to start.
Music: Sometimes • Sweat: Yes • Chanting Om: Sometimes
If you want to learn about chakras and explore the power of meditation, Kundalini is for you. Brought to the west by Yogi Bhajan, it’s a physical practice designed to wake up your full energetic potential.
Mantra is a vital part of Kundalini yoga and Oms will be chanted—along with much more. If the idea of using your voice and exploring the metaphysical side of yoga turns you off, Kundalini is not for you.
Music: Gongs • Sweat: Sometimes • Chanting Om: Yes
Yin & Restorative Yoga
These classes take a slower pace than others and are ideal if you’re looking for meditative a practice or have injuries you’re recovering from. Founded by Paulie Zink and taught largely by Paul Grilley and Sarah Powers, Yin yoga is a slow physical practice that focuses on inward meditation.
Restorative yoga can feel like a similar practice to Yin, but tends to use more props, like bolsters and blankets, to help you heal and recharge. If you’re looking to slow down or recover from a serious injury, these styles of yoga are your best bet.
Music: Sometimes • Sweat: Not likely • Chanting Om: Sometimes
Flow & Vinyasa Yoga
Vinyasa is a word that means, “The linking of body movement with breath,” and is the foundation of all physical practices. Classes labeled as Vinyasa or Flow move faster than others and spend less time teaching students physical alignment.
These classes are usually accompanied by music and they may or may not include a focus on meditation and yogic philosophy. Your typical vinyasa class is best approached with previous yoga experience. Though, you will find a few teachers, like Salt Lake City’s Peter Francyk, taking Vinyasa back to its roots and making it accessible to everyone.
Music: Yes • Sweat: Yes • Chanting Om: Sometimes
These are two distinct types of yoga. Hot yoga classes occur in a heated room and the sequence of poses can change each time. These classrooms are typically heated from 80-100 degrees. Bikram yoga is a very specific sequence of poses that is repeated every class and the room is heated to 105 degrees.
The heat makes it easier for you to stretch, but the increased muscle elasticity also makes it easier to pull or tear muscles when you aren’t aware of your limits. So, be careful. If you love heat and want to sweat, these classes are for you.
Music: Sometimes • Sweat: Yes • Chanting Om: Sometimes
This is a hybrid of yoga that’s a workout designed specifically for men. It mixes yoga postures with high intensity interval training. It’s geared toward “yoga-based fitness” as a way to bring men into the practice of yoga by giving them something they’re comfortable with.
Some of yoga’s greatest benefits come from dealing with discomfort directly. But, if you’re most comfortable working out in a room full of sweaty bros, this is a place to start. Just remember that that there’s much more to yoga than “working out.”
Music: Yes • Sweat: Yes • Chanting Om: No
Anusara yoga teaches you therapeutic physical alignment to find the optimal position for your body in every pose. With roots in Iyengar yoga and founded by John Friend, each class is built on a theme based on yogic philosophy and always has more to offer than the physical alignment.
Every practice is made up of a different sequence of postures—some will have you sweating heavily and others will be slower and calming. If you want to learn about the subtleties of how your body works and dive into the full spectrum of yoga, Anusara is the style of yoga for you.
Music: Sometimes • Sweat: Sometimes • Chanting Om: Yes
Now that you know about some of the yoga styles, how do you pick a class?
Start by asking your yoga friends where they love to go and which teachers they like best. Find out what they like about that particular style of yoga and teacher. If it sounds good to you, try that class—if it’s not too advanced.
If you’ve never done yoga before, you might not be ready for your friend’s favorite class. Chances are, their studio or gym offers beginner and intro classes that are the perfect place to start.
Once you have a few of these classes under your belt, you can start to sample other classes. Don’t think you can jump straight to the Advanced Level 2 class after a few intro sessions, but don’t be scared to see what the first step above beginner looks like.
If you hate your first class, you’re probably in the wrong place. Not every style, studio, and teacher works for everyone. Shop around. Most studios have an intro deal where you can take your first class for free or get a month of discounted membership.
Even if you love the first class you find, it’s helpful to try others whenever you get the chance. Every style, studio, and teacher has something different to offer and you’ll learn something valuable from all of them.
Once you find a place to start, treat it like a commitment. If you quit after the first uncomfortable or awkward class, you’re not going to get what you were looking for. To get the full benefits of yoga you need to practice it consistently over time.
All photos by FearlessEyes Design