Welcome to the first in a series of stories about different styles of yoga. As the athletic (and spiritual, if that's your thing) practice of yoga has become more popular, the types have expanded. There's Vinyasa, Yin, Bikram, Hatha, Kripalu, Partner, Kundalini and many others that you might see on the schedule for your local yoga center. I've tried all of them (almost!) and am here to break it down.
One caveat: I'm an eight-years-in yoga practitioner (I started in California, and have practiced regularly in Connecticut, NYC and Hawaii), but I'm NOT a yoga teacher, and haven't been to teacher training, though my boyfriend, Simon Apter and my roommate both have and I ask them tons of questions all the time. So if you notice a mistake or would like to add info to what I have written here, please do so in the comments. I welcome corrections and discussion.
I'm starting with Vinyasa because it's one of my favorite styles of yoga, and because it's a term that's often used to describe other types of yoga. (I've often heard something like a movie-pitch line for a variety of yoga I've never heard of: "It's flowey, like Vinyasa, but more mellow, with a bit of chanting, but no music.") Types of yoga based on Vinyasa include Jivamukti, Ashtanga, Bikram, Anusara, Forrest and "Power" yoga, which means these styles have Vinyasa at their roots, but they interpret it in a variety of ways.
Vinyasa is all about continuous movement — and most importantly, matching that movement with breathing. Practicing Vinyasa regularly should eventually enable you to match each movement with a breath in — or out. The focus is on movement and grace, so that for many it ends up feeling something like dancing.
This tends to be a sweaty, heart-pumping class, but that's not the same as being really difficult in execution. (Though if your yoga studio offers various levels of Vinyasa, you might not be ready/able to do a level 2 before you've practiced for some time.) Generally, I've found Vinyasa classes tend to run through similar asanas and have a recognizable format. You will have to pay attention, and this will be a tough workout, even if you are already in good shape from running, cycling or another sport. But Vinyasa yoga isn't inherently difficult, inasmuch as the poses are generally pretty straighforward since you are moving relatively quickly through poses. The upside is that you can make it easier on yourself — and later harder on yourself — as you practice in a Vinyasa class, depending on how you choose to modify, or not modify, your poses and how many breaks you take.
Who can do it:
I have found most Vinyasa classes to be appropriate for most levels, including beginners (though taking at least one "Intro to Yoga" class is always recommended for total newbies), and a good teacher will work suggested modifications for more, or less, experienced students as he or she teaches. The beauty of this type of yoga is that it's incredibly adaptable to your experience and energy level.
Because you are moving quickly, it's easy to find yourself in sloppy and even potentially dangerous poses in a Vinyasa class. Especially if you are a relative beginner, but even if you have been practicing for some time, taking only Vinyasa classes can result in less focus on the integrity of a pose. Ideally, for every few Vinyasa classes, taking a slower, more focused class that works on alignment — with a smaller class and a teacher who can see and correct even minor issues — will keep your body reminded about the best way to position yourself. And then you can bring those reminders and corrections to your Vinyasa class to keep you on track and safe.
What to wear and bring:
You are going to get sweaty, and be moving about a fair amount, so wearing a top that is relatively snug (a shirt loose enough to fall down your body when you are semi-upside down gets annoying) and comfortable pants (these can be loose or tight, whatever you prefer) are ideal. Clothes that wick moisture — almost any technical fabric — will be more comfortable that cotton. I always like to keep my hair in a high ponytail or topknot, because Vinyasa classes make me hot. Bring a yoga mat and a towel, and plenty of water — always better to have too much than too little!