Yoga, in all its forms, began in India. That means that, for most of us reading this article, the basis of yoga is a culture that uses a very foreign language and is half a world away. Because of this, there’s a lot of words used when talking about yoga that can be unfamiliar to those who are new to it.
We’re here to help with that. We’re going to break down the common terms, names, and words used by yoga practitioners, so you can be better prepared for your first yoga class. In this post, we’ll be talking about the most common yoga disciplines—what they are, what they do, and whether they’re good for beginners or more advanced yoga enthusiasts.
A Few Important Notes
Before we start covering the disciplines, we need to make a few things clear. First, not only do yoga practices vary by discipline, they vary by class. Hand-in-hand with that is difficulty and intensity; while some yoga styles are more inclined to beginner or advanced classes, it’s not a guarantee. “Hatha,” for example, is a name given to many beginner-friendly yoga classes, but it’s not unheard of to see one aimed at more practiced participants.
So as you look for a class to start with, ask the instructor about the difficulty level, and level of aerobic activity. The last thing you need is to sweat yourself silly or accidentally tie yourself in a knot on the first day.
Also, keep in mind, this is not a comprehensive list. These are just some of the more popular yoga forms used in studios today.
Technically speaking, the term “hatha” derives from ancient Sanskrit and literally translates as “Sun Moon” evoking a symbolism that suggests the importance of balance, similar to the Yin Yang concept within Taoism. It usually refers to the physical aspects of yoga, i.e. the positions (asanas), movements, and breathing techniques (pranayama). Because of this, some practitioners will differentiate yoga as fitness from philosophical and religious practices by calling them “hatha yoga.” In other words, it’s an umbrella term for any yoga practice designed specifically to get you off the couch.
That said, the term is also used to describe yoga that’s either simplistic and accessible or a blending of multiple disciplines. These classes tend to be beginner-friendly, low-intensity, and less focused on “getting it right.”
Another umbrella term, “vinyasa” refers to a kind of method that’s applied to yoga. See, there are typically three ways you can go about using the asanas for physical benefit. Either you can be casual and slow-paced, you can be meticulous about achieving the right position and holding it for extended periods, or you can focus on the effort required to seamlessly transition from one position to the next. The latter practice falls under the purview of vinyasa.
A more specific form of vinyasa (also called “flow”) yoga, “ashtanga” involves choosing from a selection of six routines (of varying difficulty), and following the sequence of positions in the routine. Emphasis is placed on the seamless transition between poses rather than achieving perfect posture, and participants are encouraged to breathe with each pose and each transition.
On the opposite side of the spectrum, “Iyengar” yoga cares more about achieving the perfect pose. Classes take it slow, and tools or props are used to help practitioners reach the right posture. If you see someone using chairs, blocks, or even the wall to help them hold a pose for more than a few moments, it’s probably iyengar.
Last on our list is Bikram yoga. Originally developed by Bikram Choudhury, this style is practiced in sauna-like heat and humidity, replicating the weather of yoga’s origins. Hot yoga follows this method, with one notable difference: Bikram yoga is characterized by a prescribed series of 26 asanas. Hot yoga, on the other hand, allows individual instructors to decide their own routines.
There you have it, your first lesson in common yoga terms. Remember, everyone in yoga loves a newcomer, so don’t be afraid to gear up and hit the mat. You’ll be glad you did.