Deciphering Different Styles of Yoga and Meditation
The world of yoga and meditation is vast, to be sure. And with so many different forms of each, it can be difficult to know where to begin. When I started doing yoga, I was introduced to Iyengar yoga, at the gym my freshman year in college. Since then, I’ve perused all styles, and lean towards some more than others. It’s been an experiential journey, no doubt, and has been my constant companion ever since those university years.
Meditation became a part of my life about six years ago, when I was going through a difficult time, and needed some spiritual solace. Since then, I’ve gradually developed an important and essential meditation practice—one that takes place upon rising and after I make myself a coffee. I love it, and can’t imagine my life without it.
Hatha yoga is an umbrella term for the physical yoga postures, also known as asana. So really, all yoga forms listed below could be classified under hatha yoga. If you see a hatha yoga class listed at your local gym or yoga studio, you can expect a class in which the teacher moves you through yoga asana slowly, while holding the postures for three to five breaths, generally speaking. For all of you who are new to the practice of yoga, taking some Hatha classes are an excellent place to begin.
Iyengar yoga was created by B.K.S. Iyengar, a famous late yogi who taught for years in Pune, India. In the Iyengar tradition, we hold poses for several breaths, which makes it a lot like hatha yoga. There’s a major focus on anatomy and alignment with Iyengar yoga, which makes use of several props throughout a class. Blocks, bolsters, blankets, straps, eye pillows—all these props are typically used during an Iyengar yoga class. Iyengar is ideal for all levels of students, especially beginners. The teacher typically leads his or her students through each posture deliberately and slowly. For yoga students who want to gain a deep understanding of each yoga asana, Iyengar’s a great style with which to begin.
Vinyasa may be the most popular form of yoga in the West. It’s really dance-like in nature, as we flow from one posture to the next, linking our inhalations and exhalations with each movement. With a good teacher, doing vinyasa yoga can really put you in a meditative state, as you move, trancelike, from each pose to the next, continuously focusing on the breath. This style of yoga is taught in most yoga studios in the United States, as well as many gyms.
If you love to dance, or simply enjoy creative movement and self-expression, you’ll probably love vinyasa yoga. While I enjoy all forms of yoga, vinyasa is one of my favorites, and one that I like to do in my regular home practice.
Ashtanga yoga is an advanced form of yoga, although the poses can certainly be modified to suit beginners, as we all have to start somewhere. This style of yoga was made famous by Sri K. Patthabi Jois in the recent past, when he introduced the style to Westerners in the beginning of the 20th century. Translated as “eight limbs,” ashtanga also refers to yoga in the philosophical sense, as in the Yoga Sutras by Patanjali.
As a style of yoga today, ashtanga is a workout in every sense of the world. It consists of a set of different series, and it’s necessary to master the first series before you go on to the second, third, fourth, and so on. It’s a lot like the vinyasa style of yoga, which links breath to movement. Both styles also incorporate lots of sun salutations—both A and B variations. However, Ashtanga yoga flows but also holds poses for several breaths. Vinyasa flows and flows, without holding poses. In this sense, ashtanga could be described as a combination between the hatha and vinyasa styles. Ashtanga’s good for yogis who want an intense, systematic kind of workout.
Yin yoga is way different than the styles noted above in that it targets an entirely different area of the body—namely, the fascia and connective tissues, as opposed to the muscles. During a yin yoga class, you hold poses for long periods of time, while focusing on the breath. A typical hold lasts anywhere from two to five minutes. During this time, you come to a comfortable edge in the pose, and then hold it, remaining as still as possible to allow the posture to do its healing work on you.
In the process of holding the pose, while breathing very deeply, you drop into a meditative state that calms the nervous system. This style of yoga is the perfect complement to any form of exercise, as most types of movement don’t target the connective tissues, and fascia. But, we need to work these parts of the body to remain supple, flexible, and lengthened. This style of yoga is ideal for all levels of students. I’ve been practicing yoga for over twenty years, and I take yin yoga classes with elderly students who have less range of movement and strength than myself. I always benefit, coming out of class feeling deeply relaxed and rejuvenated.
Often referred to as the ‘yoga of awareness,’ kundalini yoga is extremely unique, and quite different from the other forms we’ve explored. It’s a mental and spiritual practice every bit as much as it is a physical one. As opposed to the flowing, dance-like movements we do in vinyasa yoga, for example, this style consists of deep and powerful pranayama techniques combined with repetitive movements referred to as kriyas. Created by Yogi Bhajan, this yoga practice is slowly but surely making its way to the mainstream, especially with young spiritual guru Gabby Bernstein as a proponent and teacher of kundalini yoga.
When I’m feeling particularly off, I typically turn to kundalini yoga to feel better. It leaves me feeling incredibly relaxed and balanced. There’s just something so powerful about this yoga technology, which also means you may want to find an experienced teacher to guide you through the kriyas as you begin exploring and experiencing the practice for yourself.
One of the best things about kundalini yoga is the state of mental well being I feel after a good 30 or 40 minute session. My mind feels so clear and calm, and my entire being at ease. Again, I don’t know exactly how this works, but it does. If you’re looking for a powerful yoga style that has a powerful impact on your mental health, I strongly suggest getting into kundalini. And if you have doubts about this powerful practice, I encourage you to read this study, from Cambridge University Press’ Journal, International Psychogeriatrics. In it, you’ll learn about kundalini’s benefits for cognitive health in seniors. The practice has also been known to stave off depression, making it the perfect yoga practice for those of us who suffer from anxiety and depression, or simply seasonal affective disorder (SAD).
We explored mindfulness meditation in a recent article, so I won’t delve too deep here. But, to put it succinctly, mindfulness is the act of paying attention to what is happening in the present moment, without judgment. While this may sound simple, it’s actually a radical act, considering our minds are constantly being bombarded with distractions. We’re so often lost in thought while going through the motions of our lives, as if on autopilot. To be really present with any and every experience, without judging what’s happening, makes life so much richer. But, we need to train our attention to do this, and that’s where the act of practicing mindfulness meditation on a regular basis comes in.
Mantra meditation is one of my favorites. It’s such an effective way to focus, and then settle the mind. Plus, there are so many mantras to choose from, all which have various meanings and spiritual implications, which, in my mind, makes this form of meditation endlessly interesting. Further, mantra meditation can be enhanced with a set of mala beads, which can help you focus even more, as you move your finger from each bead to the next with each repetition of whatever mantra you’re meditating upon. Mantra meditation has been found to have deeply transcendent effects on the brain, which makes this form of meditation incredibly intriguing.
Some of my most favorite mantras for this form of meditation include: sat chit ananda, om mani padme hum, and simply om. The traditional Buddhist mantra, om mani padme hum is set to music on youtube. It’s a beautiful melody to play on your computer, while closing your eyes and listening. Sometimes, I’ll even write while listening to the mantra in a coffee shop with headphones on. This mantra is near and dear to my heart, as I first heard it in a Buddhist monastery in Hong Kong back in 1998. My friend made a mixtape for me, of all the songs from our travels, this being one of them. It brings back such pleasant memories, of a youthful, innocent time in my life. I encourage you to listen to it, and see how it resonates.
Tonglen meditation is a Buddhist practice, and a radical one at that. It’s radical in the sense that we do an act that’s completely the opposite of what we’re used to. We breathe in the pain of others, while breathing out our own healing intention of love and compassion. I love this form of meditation, as it takes us out of our ego, and puts us deeply in touch with the suffering of others. Typically, we try to escape pain. We avoid it. We run away from it. We do whatever we can not to feel. Doctors give us strong pain meds. We medicate ourselves by drinking too much alcohol (at times), in order to avoid what’s happening, whatever the feeling of discomfort is. With tonglen, we drink in the discomfort of others, to relieve suffering. How cool is that?
If you want to dive head first into a serious meditation retreat and go all out, you may want to look into vipassana meditation. One of my best friends went to a Vipassana center in Texas for their 10-day meditation retreat. She reported that it was super intense, but it really set her on a meditative path—one that’s become a part of her daily life. In essence, Vipassana meditation is about learning the nature of reality, at its heart. Often referred to as insight meditation, we use our powers of concentration to notice sensations in our body in order to get to the heart of reality. The experiential process of doing it is essential to understanding it. Vipassana teaches us to contemplate the nature of our human existence. We might examine the nature of human suffering, the reality that everything is constantly in flux, and the inherent unsatisfactory nature of living.
This is a simple form of meditation in which we sit, and focus on our breath. Zen meditation was born of the ancient Buddhist tradition, and involves sitting upright with a straight spine, typically cross-legged, while bringing your awareness to the breath. In doing so, we become fine-tuned to our powers of mental alertness and conscious presence. One of the primary goals of zen meditation is to reach a deep insight as to how our minds work. In practicing this form of meditation, you’ll no doubt come to understand the nature of the mind, and in turn, learn to quiet it.
So many forms of meditation exist, and I’ve only scratched the surface here. But, I cannot recommend meditation enough. My morning meditation practice has helped me in so many ways. I feel more peaceful and at home with myself. Meditation has helped me become more resilient, and it has actually become one of the most treasured times in my day.
And I can say the same for yoga, which I can hardly remember not doing daily. My yoga practice has been with me through thick and thin. And I know it has kept me healthy and youthful. Both yoga and meditation will enhance your life in ways you can’t even dream of, which is why I encourage you all to make both disciplines a welcome part of your life.