When Lilias Folan first introduced yoga to mainstream America in 1972 on her popular PBS series, yoga was, well … just yoga. Go into any studio or health club today and you’ll see that “plain” yoga seems to have been replaced by exotic-sounding concoctions such as ashtanga, kundalini, Iyengar, bikram. There also are classes in restorative yoga, yoga flow, even Yogalates — a combination of yoga and Pilates.
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Some of these yoga styles are rooted in classic Indian tradition. Others are about as timeless as this week’s issue of People magazine. Still, whether it began 2,000 years ago or the year 2000, these various styles have their pros and cons, especially for older adults who would like to get the many benefits of yoga — including flexibility, reduced stress, improved heart health — but don’t know their ashtanga from their elbows.
And despite the different and exotic names, the similarities in yoga styles are most often greater than the differences.
“No matter what system or style you go to, the asanas [poses] are fundamentally the same,” says Jeff Logan, owner of Body+Soul Yoga in Huntington, N.Y., and a master teacher in Iyengar, one of the most popular yoga styles for older adults. “The differences are in the pacing and the sequencing, the level of difficulty and to what degree other elements, such as chanting or other spiritual aspects, are involved. Those should all be considerations for older people.”
Finding the right style
The American Yoga Association estimates that there are more than 100 types of yoga. In addition to the major styles presented here, some of the other popular ones include kripalu, anusara, jivamukti, integral, ananda and viniyoga.
How do you assess which is right for you? If you’re a beginner, you probably shouldn’t even try. “An older adult who is just starting out should look for a yoga I or introduction to yoga class,” Logan says. “Or a restorative or special-needs class, if they’ve got some limitations, such as an ankle or knee problem.” Any reputable studio will have such classes; and typically the classes given at adult education centers, libraries or health clubs will be for beginners.
Those classes will show you what yoga is. You’ll learn the basic postures and — in the hands of a capable, certified teacher — you’ll do it safely. “The teacher needs to be really attentive and knowledgeable enough to make corrections and suggestions so that you can get the greatest benefits from the practice,” says Dixie Stanforth, a lecturer in exercise science at the University of Texas in Austin and a spokesperson for the American College of Sports Medicine.
Once you’ve learned the basics of yoga, you’ll be ready to find your own yoga style.
Here then is a look at the basic styles — and expert opinions — on types of yoga recommended for people age 50 and older, including general tips on how to choose the style that’s right for you.
Yogafinder.com can help you find a yoga studio in your area, or the Yoga Alliance can help you find a certified yoga teacher.
The style: ashtanga
What it is: An athletic, fast-paced style of yoga, in which you practice a specific set of six poses. All series begin with the sun salutations — a movement that includes challenging core-strength poses. Ashtanga has been described as “type A” yoga, because it tends to attract a lot of competitive, driven individuals (including Madonna and Gwyneth Paltrow, both famous ashtanga devotees).
For older adults? “Ashtanga is a great practice,” says Beryl Bender Birch, author of Boomer Yoga: Energizing the Years Ahead for Men & Women. “But I wouldn’t recommend it to older people just starting. You have to do it five days a week, so that you’re introduced to it a few postures a time and then you move through the series systematically. You can’t just go to an ashtanga class once a week and expect it to help.”
The style: bikram
What it is: Bikram is “hot” yoga, literally and figuratively. This style, developed by Indian yoga superstar Bikram Choudhury, is practiced in rooms heated to over 100 degrees. Not surprisingly, the adherents get good and sweaty as they go through a specific series of 26 poses. Bikram is now practiced worldwide, with more than 300 studios in the United States alone.
For older adults? “I am an advocate of warm yoga classes, because for anyone with mobility issues, having a heated room can be beneficial and reduce risk of injury,” says Stanforth. “That said, 100 degrees, particularly for older individuals who do not thermo-regulate efficiently … meaning you don’t respond as well to the stress of the heat ... is a risky business.”
The style: hatha
What it is: Just about everything that we in the West tend to think of as yoga — the physical postures, the breathing techniques — comes under the rubric of hatha, which is less of a particular style than it is one of the original six branches of yoga. (The word means the “yoking” or union of mind, body and spirit.) To use a very non-Indian metaphor: Hatha is Ford, and ashtanga and Iyengar are the Taurus and Focus. Yoga Journal advises: If you come across a class describing itself as hatha, chances are that the teacher is offering a blend of two or more of the styles described here — or various other “niche” styles.
For older adults? Hatha usually emphasizes breathing and relaxation and can be especially meditative, so it’s a good choice for those looking for stress relief and relaxation.
More information on hatha yoga (see “Types of Yoga”)
The style: Iyengar
What it is: Precise, slow and with great focus on alignment and proper form, the Iyengar style of yoga — named after B.K.S. Iyengar, who is still alive and downward-dogging at age 90 — is one the most familiar forms of yoga now practiced in the West. Iyengar’s 1966 book, Light on Yoga, was a best seller, and like the Lilias show a few years later, helped introduce many Westerners to the practice. In addition to its precise and methodical approach, Iyengar style of yoga is noted for its use of “props” — blocks, straps, harnesses and incline boards — to help extend your range of motion. While some purists dismiss it as “furniture yoga,” the props allow beginners to better get into positions they might not otherwise achieve.
For older adults? “Great,” says Birch, “because it’s done carefully and has lots of modifications through the props that introduces the beginner slowly to the practice.”
The style: kundalini
What it is: In the documentary Woodstock, recently rereleased for the 40th anniversary of the music festival, there’s a segment showing an impromptu yoga class being given during the landmark 1969 event. A bare-chested, long-haired instructor explains to a circle of young onlookers just what yoga is all about. Essentially, he says, it’s like getting stoned without drugs, and then he proceeds to go through some loud, convulsive breathing exercises that make him sound like a man with a sinus condition. What this Age of Aquarius practitioner was doing was kundalini yoga, and the practice of this style of yoga is still described on the website iyogalife.com as “getting buzzed off yoga.” But it’s not just a cheap thrill: Kundalini — “the yoga of awareness” — is a serious form of practice that, unlike many of the other common styles, includes a devotional element that uses chanting and meditation.
For older adults? If you’re looking at yoga practice as simply a way to improve your flexibility or de-stress after a hard day, kundalini may not be for you. “There’s a strong spiritual element here,” Stanforth says. “Some ... may be put off by that.”
The style: power
What it is: Essentially, it’s a good workout. Beryl Bender Birch helped develop and popularize power yoga, although she is recovering from hip replacement surgery and now practices a slightly less demanding routine. Power yoga classes are a fixture at many studios. The style, which is similar to ashtanga but is not strictly based on a specific sequence, emphasizes poses designed to promote strength as well as flexibility.
For older adults? “In its original form, power yoga was generally not recommended for seniors because of its level of difficulty and pacing,” Logan says. “But if you’re one of these fit seniors looking for a challenge, an entry-level power yoga class might be worth checking out. Just make sure you start slowly; and if you’re unsure about any of the movements, ask the teacher.”
The style: restorative
What it is: Some would say that all yoga is restorative—meaning that it can help relax, soothe and reenergize you. But as American yoga has evolved, the need for a class specifically devoted to “restoration” was recognized. So even though it may not be a style recognized in New Delhi, you are very likely to see restorative classes on the schedule of most yoga studios here. It’s usually a very slow-paced class, in which the asanas are held for a long period of time, often for two to five minutes. Props are used as well; and people are known to fall asleep during class!
For older adults? “Restorative classes are great for older people,” says Birch. “Especially if you’re coming back from injury or illness.”
The style: vinyasa
What it is: Although an extremely common term in the yoga lexicon, vinyasa is not a specific style but rather an approach to any yoga practice. Any instructor who decides to link together a series of asanas, flowing from one to the next, is practicing vinyasa. Ashtanga, power and many others are all vinyasa-type styles of yoga, often called “flow.” Keep in mind, however, that the speed of that flow can vary.
For older adults? “Older adults should look for mild to moderately paced vinyasa,” Logan says. “And they will be described that way in the class description.”
Health and fitness writer John Hanc teaches journalism at the New York Institute of Technology in Old Westbury.
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