Which Style Of Yoga Is Right For You?
As a male yoga teacher, nothing is more eye-roll-worthy than a meme claiming “real men do yoga”. “How very modern,” we are supposed to think. The underlying irony, of course, is that men have done yoga for thousands of years. In fact, yoga was a brahmin practice that prohibited the participation of women until as recently as the 1930s. If there’s anything new or modern about yoga, it’s that women (as well as men) are practising contemporary variants in their millions.
Being an enlightened gentleman of the 21st century, however, you don’t need Instagram to give you permission to roll out a yoga mat. You already know the benefits of regular practice: lower stress hormones; an ageless appearance; improved flexibility and muscle tone; not to mention mental clarity and a spiritual connection. The problem comes when you try to find the right style of yoga for your body, not to mention your personality.
Peruse the timetable of a successful studio in a metropolitan area and it’s hard to know where to begin. Some of the classes are little more than imperialist theft. Some are a romanticised re-imagining of a time-worn system that has been tweaked for Westerners’ minds and bodies. But look beyond the lurid Lycra pants and you may find something vaguely legit.
So that you find yourself in the right class, we’ve highlighted the seven styles of yoga to suit every man.
01. Bikram yoga
Best for extremists
Unfairly referred to as the McDonald’s of the yoga world, this wildly popular 90-minute workout consists of 26 static postures and two breathing exercises conducted in a studio that’s heated to 40°C. The boiler-room setting makes the body more malleable and has been credited with everything from healing longstanding injuries to dissolving body fat in an alarmingly short period of time. The Bikram series focuses on balancing, spine strengthening, sweating buckets and cultivating a steely determination.
While the postures themselves are not particularly complex, the searing heat can make the simplest of movements feel Herculean, a sadistic twist that’s made doubly painful by bootcamp-style teachers who regurgitate a script (referred to as “the dialogue”) through a head microphone. Softly, softly yoga this most certainly is not. Most teachers will make you suffer for your glory. And you’ll need to wear short shorts.
Bikram’s enduring popularity is rooted in the indisputable fact that this style of yoga works and can be practised by anyone of any age, condition or ability. If you’re going to try hot yoga, don’t bother with the litany of imitators that have flooded the market in the past year or so and find a studio that teaches Bikram’s original sequence, even if it’s by a different name.
02. Ashtanga yoga
Best for weekend warriors
The blueprint for what most people call power yoga, ashtanga vinyasa yoga was popularised by Mr K Pattabhi Jois in Mysore, India, during the last century. There are three prescribed sequences in ashtanga, although most people are unlikely to fully master the primary series without dedicated practice over many years.
Flowing from one posture to the next with no pause (vinyasa) requires unflinching concentration, aerobic stamina, upper-body strength and an ability to use your breath as a hydraulic force that simultaneously detoxes the body. Unwitting Westerners like to think they are practising something ancient in ashtanga yoga, but the system draws heavily on 19th-century gymnastics, body building and military training drills for young men.
Ashtanga means eight limbs, a reference to the eight branches of yoga of which asana (the postures) is just one. The other seven “limbs” include concentration, meditation, breathing exercises and specific codes of conduct, referred to as the yamas and niyamas. A good teacher will weave these aspects of yoga into his or her class.
03. Jivamukti yoga
Best for connectivity seekers
The Jivamukti school of yoga was founded by counterculture hipsters Ms Sharon Gannon and Mr David Life in downtown New York in the 1980s. Classes are packed with heavily inked and lithe-limbed spiritual warriors. Former students of Mr Pattabhi Jois (see ashtanga yoga), Ms Gannon and Mr Life devised a spiritually focused system that fused the essence of the scriptures (shastras) with modern accents such as thumping electronica, political activism and animal rights. Teachers lead a pacy, vinyasa (flowing) class with lots of hands-on adjustments and a healthy dose of philosophy.
Jivamukti can be translated as liberation while living, and the purpose of its vigorous sequencing is not chiselled obliques so much as self-realisation (but, yes, you will get chiselled obliques). As clichéd as it might sound to the outsider, the postures are there to improve the students’ relationship to all sentient beings and help them embrace the interconnectivity of life. Veganism will most likely become a deal breaker at some point in your Jivamukti practice. If you have a carnivorous appetite, it might be best to keep it on the down-low.
Meditation (dhyana), music (nada yoga) and chanting are a central part of any Jiva class, so if you’re uncomfortable ohm’ing in a room full of strangers, then ease yourself into this practice slowly.
Best for animal lovers
The epitome of privileged Chelsea crackpottery, Doga – or dog yoga – has little bearing on yogic texts such as the Hatha Yoga Pradipika or Patañjali’s Sutras. It is the latest in a long line of bastardisations that include Disco Yoga, Boxing Yoga, Voga (dance based) and the utterly cringeworthy Broga (men only). And yet its non-existent lineage has done little to curb its popularity among those with too much time and/or money on their hands.
Our canine companions may be capable of a perfectly aligned downward dog but, despite the name, they’re not required to perform any postures during class. Instead, they are used as furry free weights: a dachshund raised above the head in tree pose or, perhaps, a chihuahua tucked under the arm to assist a deeper side bend (larger pooches such as labradors can double up as bolsters). “You are the yogi, they are the dogi,” says founder Ms Mahny Djahanguiri without a trace of irony.
05. Iyengar yoga
Best for flexible friends
The late Mr BKS Iyengar is widely regarded as the grandfather of modern yoga. A stickler for structure, alignment and discipline, he penned a series of seminal textbooks, including Light On Yoga, that are compulsory reading for yogis of any style. His eponymous yoga is highly therapeutic (he taught “medical classes” at his school in Pune, India, right up until his death) and tends to appeal to those who are recovering from muscular and skeletal injuries. Classes rely heavily on the use of props such as blocks, belts and ropes to provide both psychological and physical support for the student. As any good Iyengar yogi will tell you that “alignment is enlightenment”.
Classes may not be dynamic like ashtanga or power yoga, but don’t let the snail’s pace fool you. Iyengar yoga is highly demanding on account of the anal-retentive level of precision that is required to perform postures adequately, and for such long periods of time. Iyengar teachers draw from a library of more than 200 postures (each with an infinite number of permutations) and routinely hold shoulderstands (sarvangasana) or headstands (sirsasana) for 25 breaths or longer, a feat of concentration, willpower, breath and physical strength. Depth and awareness of every single muscle in these long, static postures ultimately guides the practitioner into a state of meditation (or, for the monkey minded, intense boredom).
06. Kundalini yoga
Best for the uber-spiritual
Brought to the West in 1968 by Yogi Bhajan, Kundalini yoga is designed to increase physical vitality and mental clarity in the practitioner. As an added bonus, it also tends to trigger heightened states of consciousness in committed students. Before it was made public, Kundalini yoga was a Tantric practice that was reserved for sages and rulers in India. They routinely used meditation, chanting, breath control and pulsating exercises (kriyas) to awaken the serpent power (kundalini shakti) that they believed lay dormant in the base of the spine.
Awakening said serpent causes it to travel up the body and though all seven chakras, ploughing through emotional and psychosomatic blocks and triggering a state of heightened spiritual awareness in the aspirant (or, if ill prepared, a really messy meltdown). If you’re scoffing at the idea of a reptile snoozing in your pelvic bowl, the more esoteric aspects of Kundalini yoga probably won’t go down too well either.
A typical class will involve chanting “Om Namo Guru Dev Namo” (I call upon the Infinite Creator who created me. I call upon the Divine Giver of wisdom), wearing head-to-toe white and treating each movement with deep reverence before resorting to any combination of jumping, yelling or running. If you like your workouts intense with a heavy helping of spirituality, then a good Kundalini class may be for you.
07. Restorative yoga
Best for athletes on the mend
In stark contrast to powerful “masculine” practices such as ashtanga, restorative yoga requires an element of softness and passivity. This approach to yoga involves holding remedial postures for several minutes at a time, going deep into the connective tissue and allowing the body to open up gradually over time. You may do only a handful of postures in an hour-long class. It is a grounding and slow practice that’s geared towards injured, ill or inflexible bodies.
Restorative sequences employ the use of (many, many) props to help you enter the postures safely and without exacerbating injury. Men who do weight-bearing exercises or explosive endurance athletes who run long distances will benefit hugely from the progressive unravelling of distorted tissue that comes with restorative yoga. Yes, the heat in Bikram may temporarily improve flexibility for 90-odd minutes, but long, static holds such as these will get muscles to elongate progressively and more naturally. Restorative sequences can be mentally and physically taxing for the injured or highly strung, and this is part of what makes it so useful. As a teacher of mine once said, the postures you dislike the most are the ones that are best for you.
NB: restorative yoga is often used interchangeably with Yin yoga (a misnomer since the term “yin” belongs to the Taoist tradition and doesn’t appear anywhere in yoga philosophy). While there are some similarities between the two, the latter isn’t designed to heal broken bodies.
On your mats
Illustrations by Mr Tommy Parker