The Ultimate Guide to Yoga Classes

Pro yogi Katharyn Budig schools you in all things yoga

January 31, 2014
ultimate yoga class guide

Between strange pose names like "utkatasana" and mysterious-sounding classes like "vinyasa" and "iyengar," yoga lingo can start sounding like a foreign language. (Fun fact: it is! A lot of the names of yoga classes and poses are in Sanskrit.) But don't let all those vowels intimidate you! Yoga is a worthwhile practice, and with a little yogi lesson, you'll be ready to start posing and stretching your way to a leaner bod and calmer mind.

Here, Kathryn Budig, author of The Women’s Health Big Book of Yoga and contributing editor to Women’s Health magazine, helps break down the various yoga classes at your disposal. 


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Vinyasa is probably the most influential style of yoga in our Western culture. When you think of yoga, you probably picture people standing on mats, flowing gracefully from one movement to the next in a sequence. Well, that’s vinyasa. “Vinyasa flow is a quicker-paced practice where movement is linked to breath,” says Budig. This means that every move occurs on an inhale or an exhale. Don’t be discouraged if you find the breathing is tricky—it can take practice.

Budig points out that it’s important to pay attention to levels. She recommends a level 1 or beginner class for newbies, regardless of athletic ability: “Upper level classes are going to be for the dedicated practitioner who knows the moves,” she says.  

Vinyasa newbie tips:

  • When an instructor reminds the class to watch the tension in your neck or face, listen to his or her suggestion. If you realize you’re hunching over or are too tense, you can always come out of the pose a little bit (or entirely).
  • Some instructors come around to correct your posture, either verbally or by physically touching your arms, back, or legs. It’s really helpful, but if you know that you can’t stand someone touching you, tell your teacher before class starts.
  • Make sure to bring a mat that won’t slide around, or bring a skidless towel to prevent slipping

YOGA CLASS: BIKRAM (“bee-krahm”)
Have you ever thought of doing yoga in a sauna? Well Bikram Choudhury did in the 1970’s and now Hot Yoga is a super-trendy workout. Performed in 105-degree heat with 40 percent humidity, Bikram is not for those who are sensitive to heat, have high blood pressure, or heart disease. Talk to your doctor before signing up for a Bikram class if you’re pregnant or unsure if it’s right for you.

But Bikram is a great option for people who want to burn more calories, build stamina, and detox the body. The other benefit of the high humidity is that it lubes up your joins, allowing you to stretch deeper. Also, unlike a vinyasa flow, Bikram always repeats the same movement pattern from class to class.

Bikram newbie tips:

  • Bring water! (Did you read the part about 100+ degrees?!)
  • This is not a class for the modest. You’ll be sweating a lot so wearing very little clothing is the best way to keep your core temperature down. A sweat-wicking tank top or sports bra and yoga shorts are appropriate for women, and a fitted, sweat-wicking gym shirt and fitted shorts or swim trunks are appropriate for men.
  • Don’t be surprised if you see a lot of mirrors in Bikram yoga rooms.

YOGA CLASS: ASHTANGA (“ah-sh-tahn-ga”)
Ashtanga is a vigorous, disciplined style of yoga. This practice is based on established sets of strenuous poses that flow quickly with every breath. Once you’ve learned the sequences, it’s great if you want a practice you can do on your own, since every class will always take you through the same sequence of poses. Budig recommends attending a few vinyasa classes before you jump into an ashtanga class. “Vinyasa flow will help you prepare for Ashtanga, since it shares many of the same poses,” she says. You can look up the poses online before class and often studios print out the sequences as well.

Note: A “Mysore” ashtanga class isn’t “led” by an instructor like a typical yoga class—people practice at their own pace and a teacher walks around the room helping students in their own practices.

Ashtanga newbie tips:

  • Be patient and keep showing up. It’ll take time to learn the moves, but that just means you need to keep going to class, not quit.
  • Don’t be surprised if there’s waiting between moves during a mysore class. The teacher gives you the sequence and only adds on poses when you’re ready.

YOGA CLASS: IYENGAR (“eye-young-are”)
If you’re looking to learn the right way to execute your postures, take an iyengar class. This class uses a lot of props to help you achieve that textbook yoga pose. “This style focuses on detail and slow movement, so it’s great for the intellectual type,” Budig says. It’s appropriate for any skill level because it’s really just about learning the postures. This practice is for patient people who can work on a pose for several breaths without getting bored. While it might not be a fast-moving class, it’ll certainly give your muscles a work out.


Iyengar newbie tips:

  • Think of a block as a way to raise the floor to you. Can’t put your hands on the floor? Put it on a block. Can’t sink your hips to the floor in a forward split? Sit on a block. And because the block is a rectangle, there are three different heights to help you get to the posture without straining.
  • Straps give you the extra length you need when your hands or feet are too far away. For instance, if you can’t reach your toes when you’re sitting with your legs in front of you, looping the strap over your foot can help you “hold” onto it (even if you can’t get your hands there).  
  • Bolsters (basically, small bean-bag chairs) can help provide extra support for your back, belly, or chest when you’re laying or sitting down.

Gentle yoga is, yes, less strenuous than other types of yoga. It's designed for relaxation or people with more limited movement due to injury or age. This type of class is generally focused more on stretching than strength (so don’t expect a workout) and the teacher will provide modifications to accommodate different abilities in the class. This is the one yoga class where baggy clothing is acceptable.

Gentle-yoga newbie tips:

  • Feel free to introduce yourself to the instructor before the class starts. He or she may be able to give you suggestions you can use through the entire class, especially if you have an injury.
  • Don’t expect to lose weight through gentle yoga, but do expect to leave calmer.
  • Your class should provide you with the props you’ll need, but it’s important to bring them to your mat before the class starts. You don’t want to disrupt the Zen atmosphere by standing up mid-class. If you’re not sure what to take, ask the teacher which props you'll need for the session.

YOGA CLASS: KUNDALINI (“kun-da-lin-ee”)
Kundalini yoga is the most philosophical type of yoga practice. Dubbed “the yoga of awareness,” this practice involves mediation, breath awareness, and mantra chanting. Kundalini teaches you how energy moves through the chakras of the body and prepares the body for the energy through repetitive, quick postures. “It’s all about releasing the energy from the spine leading up to a massive meditation which is the most important part,” Budig says. While it’s not aimed at weight loss or body strength, Budig says it’s an energizing practice that strengthens the mind.

Kundalini Newbie Tips:

  • Meditation takes practice. You might think that sitting and not thinking is easy, but actually slowing down your mind, not fidgeting, and staying calm doesn’t always come naturally. Just remember that consistent effort is what counts.
  • Don’t pack up early just because you’re sitting or lying still at the end. Not only will you disrupt those around you, but you're also missing the whole point of the class if your mind is focused on your schedule.
  • Come in with an open mind. Yoga isn’t just about holding the poses—there’s a deep, beautiful philosophy behind it.
  • You're encouraged to wear white in Kundalini classes.

Excited to try out one or more of the classes above? Great! No matter how you decide to give yoga a go, Budig offers these general rookie tips to help you get through your first sessions without looking like a yoga newbie (a yoogie?):

Yoogie Tip #1: Introduce yourself. Yoga teachers are friendly and love to know who's in their class, because then they can tailor the moves to the ability level in the room. Plus, if you mention any physical limitations up front, your instructor can tell you which postures to avoid and give you modifications.

Yoogie Tip #2: Power down. Make sure your cell phone is off and in your bag. Not on vibrate – OFF! Concentrating is hard enough without unexpected ringtones.

Yoogie Tip #3: Don’t wear baggy clothes. When you’re moving and twisting, you want clothes that will stick to you, not slide forward when you bend over. Baggy clothes will leave you feeling more than a little exposed.

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Yoogie Tip #4: Kick off your kicks. Yoga is a barefoot practice. Don’t worry, most places have cubbies to store your shoes. And if you’re weirded out by walking around the room with naked feet, you can wear clean shoes to the mat—just be sure to take them off once you start class.

Yoogie Tip #5: Be self-aware. If a yoga class is really popular, it can get crowded, so be mindful of personal space. If you can’t spread your arms wide, try holding them straight up so that you don’t smack the yogi next to you.

Yoogie Tip #6: Call ahead. Not all studios provide mats, so if you don't have your own, you should find out if you need one beforehand.