New to yoga? How to find a class that’s right for you

“What’s the difference between your Hatha Yoga class and the other yoga classes on your schedule?”

“I’m new to yoga. All of your classes have different names. Which of one should I come to?”

In the 13 years I’ve been teaching yoga in the Toronto area, I’ve been asked these and similar questions many times, most recently a couple of days ago by a first-time student at a local studio.

They’re very good questions. And they aren’t just the result of the new yogis being unfamiliar with “yoga language.”

The real culprit is the ambiguity with which yoga classes tend to be named.

The name game

A quick look at some local yoga studio schedules reveals a baffling mishmash of yoga class names or “styles.”

In addition to Hatha Yoga, the studio I was teaching at that day lists Ashtanga Yoga, Yin Yoga, Vinyasa Yoga and Power Yoga among the available classes. There’s even what appears to be the lovechild of the latter two – Power Vinyasa Yoga!

Other common and confusing names: Flow Yoga, Core Yoga, Hatha Flow Yoga, Hatha Core and the list goes on.

No wonder new students are mystified!

So let’s focus on helping you, a new yoga student, figure out which class is right for you. Given that there are so many styles of yoga, not to mention so many colourful class names out there, how are you going to do that?

You could take a look at the studio’s web site. Often there will be a page describing the types of classes offered (which may or may not be complete, accurate and up-to-date).

A better answer is to call the studio and ask for details on the classes you’re interested in. This makes sense, since almost every studio has its own slight variations on the different types of yoga. On top of that, teachers trained by different yoga schools or traditions may also have their own interpretations.

So calling the studio and asking – and preferably speaking with the teacher who will be teaching that class – is probably a good move. If you’re comfortable, you could also choose to share any injuries or health conditions you have and ask whether the class would be a suitable match.

But it also helps to arm yourself with some background knowledge of what the main yoga “styles” are.

This way, you can not only ask informed questions but also cut through the confusion that is unfortunately pretty common when it comes to class naming.

First, recognize that all of the classes on your studio’s schedule are “Hatha Yoga” – and I do mean all of them!

Hatha Yoga is not a separate “style” of yoga, despite how the term is often used. It’s actually an umbrella term that embraces or covers all of the other types of yoga offered at any given studio.

Hatha Yoga” simply means the yoga of the physical body, sometimes translated from the original Sanskrit as “the yoga of force” or “forceful yoga.”

That doesn’t mean that it’s particularly aggressive, just that it involves poses (asana in Sanskrit) and other physical techniques or practices that have therapeutic effects on the body. Meditation, breath work and even hand mudras are included under this “umbrella” term.

So all of those other colourful names like Vinyasa Yoga and Flow Yoga are actually just sub-sets or variations of a Hatha Yoga practice.

Now that you understand what Hatha yoga actually is (that is, all types or styles of physical yoga) you can appreciate that studios sometimes use term – not exactly incorrectly – but in an ambiguous way.

Typically, studios use the name Hatha Yoga to indicate what the class is not rather than what it is.

If they use the term at all, most studios use “Hatha Yoga”as a general term to describe a moderately-paced yoga class. Then they use all the other names to describe classes with more specific characteristics.

Confusing? Yes. But on the good side, these names can help you decide if a given version of Hatha Yoga is right for you. Some examples:

  • If a class is called Flow or Vinyasa Yoga it is likely going to be a quicker paced type of Hatha yoga practice, in which the poses flow from one to the other fairly quickly.
  • If it’s called Power Yoga it may involve more advanced poses that require lots of muscular strength and endurance.
  • Ashtanga yoga is a set sequence of vigorous, athletic yoga poses that may not be best at the very start of your practice.
  • A Core Yoga class is likely to be Hatha yoga practice that focuses on the core muscles to build strength and support in that area. Some teachers even integrate aspects of a completely different discipline, Pilates, into their Core yoga classes.
  • Then there’s the hot yoga variations: Moksha Yoga, Bikram Yoga, and so on. These classes involve Hatha yoga sequences that are practiced in a hot room, usually about 40 degrees celsius. Though the poses themselves are relatively straightforward, these classes often move quickly from pose to pose, and depending on your fitness level and tolerance for heat, may or may not be good classes to start with.
  • Yin Yoga (a personal favourite of mine) is a very deep, peaceful type of Hatha practice. The poses are simple and the pace is placid, making it within reach for most beginners. But keep in mind that it can be intense both physically and mentally. If you’re curious, check out my Yin Yoga post.
  • And finally, if a class is called, simply, Hatha Yoga, then it’s likely to have a more general focus. It will probably not be overly fast-paced or oriented to building strength in any one area. It’s more likely to be a balanced yoga practice that incorporates postures that gently and progressively open up typically tight areas such as hips and shoulders, as well as some meditation and breathing practice too.

This balanced, moderate approach means that classes called, simply, “Hatha Yoga” are typically good for those new to yoga.

That’s not always true – I’ve been to some Hatha classes that were quite vigorous – but it does provide you with a good guideline.

As mentioned earlier, asking your studio or teacher for advice always a good idea too. All studio employees should be accustomed to fielding questions such as this, and be happy to help you. Never be afraid or embarrassed to ask.

Why should you be? After all, now that you understand what Hatha Yoga is, you may even be clearer about what those trendy names on your studio’s schedule actually mean (and don’t mean) than they are themselves!

* Photo courtesy of Michael Pravin from Chennai, India (Surya Namaskar) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

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