Yoga seems to be very fashionable these days, with everyone talking about the kind of yoga that they do.


I have prospective pupils phoning me regularly and asking me what kind of yoga I teach. When I tell them that I teach hatha yoga they go quiet for a while and then tell me that they have done Iyengar yoga or Astanga yoga or Bikram yoga or whatever.

All of these schools of yoga fall under one main category i.e. HATHA YOGA. If you are doing yoga and are working with the body and the breath you are doing hatha yoga. However, there are many different schools of hatha yoga. ‘Ha’ means sun and ‘tha’ means moon which means that you are working to balance the solar and lunar, or yin and yang, energies in the body, mind and spirit. There are five main branches of yoga of which hatha yoga is one branch. The other branches are raja yoga – meditation, bhakti yoga – love for God, karma yoga – the belief in cause and effect, and jnana yoga – knowledge and wisdom.

The history of yoga can be traced back as far as 1500 BC to the Vedas. These are literary texts that lay down the framework of the Hindu religion and are divided into four main groups. The last of these groups is the Upanishads, which lays the foundation for various yoga perspectives such as God (Brahman), self (atman), action (karma), knowledge (jnana), liberation from the cycle of life (moksha) and meditation (raja). The Upanishads consist of almost two hundred texts and span hundreds of years. Another definitive text on yoga is the Yoga Sutras (threads) of Patanjali, who lived more than three hundred years BC.

One of the men who is responsible for introducing yoga to the west was Tirumalai Krishnamacharya who was born in Muchakundapuram in 1888. He was a scholar of religion and law who learned yoga postures (asanas) and controlled breathing (pranayama) from his father. He later met Sri Baba Bhagavan Das, a renowned yogi, who became his teacher.

In 1931 the Maharaja of Mysore invited Krishnamacharya to teach at the Sanskrit College where the ruling family were battling to preserve the indigenous arts of India, which were slowly falling away under British rule. The next few decades saw the Maharaja assisting Krishnamacharya to promote yoga throughout India. After this he was offered a place in the Maharaja’s palace to open a yoga school.

This is where Krishnamacharya developed and taught what is now known as Astanga Vinyasa Yoga. It was during this period that he taught K. Pattabhi Jois, B K S Iyengar and T K V Desikachar (Krishnamacharya’s son) and sent them out to spread the teachings of yoga.



K Pattabhi Jois became the master of Astanga yoga. Astanga yoga takes its name from the eight limbs of yoga: – movement through posture (asana) purifies the physical body, while mastery over the breath (pranayama) through concentration (dharana) quietens the senses (pratyahara) and prepares one for the practise of meditation (dhyana), eventually leading to the unification of the soul with the divine (samadhi). It also incorporates ethical behaviour (yama) and self-discipline (niyama). However, these aspects do not seem to be taught currently by most of the Astanga yoga teachers and the emphasis seems to be on the physical level in the commercial studios. Astanga yoga places equal emphasis on strength, flexibility and stamina and is one of the more challenging schools of yoga. An Astanga yoga class consists of a flowing sequence of movements, which are co-ordinated with the breath. There are six separate sequences of movements. The first sequence is known as the primary sequence. The second sequence is the intermediary one and the last four are extremely advanced and not much practised in the western world. Traditionally this form of yoga is practised six days per week, with the rest days being Saturdays and new moon days. This is not a school of yoga that is recommended for people who have never done yoga before.


Iyengar yoga is named after B K S Iyengar and is his personal method of teaching. This method emphasises precision and alignment and the holding of postures for a long duration so that the students can fully experience them. The holding of the postures can make this form of yoga feel more difficult than the flowing astanga sequences. Students are encouraged to use blocks and straps to assist their bodies into full alignment in the postures. These aids and supports give the student the benefits of a posture when his body is unable to do the full posture by itself. The Iyengar School teaches that posture practise without the involvement of the mind becomes merely exercise and is not yoga. The most outstanding feature of Iyengar yoga is its marvellous precision. It is a demanding school of yoga that expects the students to perform to their maximum ability. It does not include meditation.


Bikram yoga was developed by Bikram Choudhury who started the Bikram College in Los Angeles in 1974. It is practised in a room that is heated to 40 degrees C with 70 percent humidity which is said to aid the warming and stretching of the muscles, ligaments and tendons. The class consists of a series of 26 yoga postures and each posture is done twice during the class. These 26 postures are repeated in every class. The first time the posture is held for 60 seconds and the second time the posture is held for 30 seconds. These postures are meant to move fresh oxygenated blood to each organ of the body. The sweating induced by the heat assists with detoxification. There are two breathing exercises in the sequence – one at the beginning and one at the end of each class. There is no emphasis on breathing during the postures. This type of yoga is done in front of mirrors so that the emphasis is truly on the physical body. There is an advanced series consisting of 84 postures which is taught by Bikram Choudhury only and is not currently available to the general public.


The Yoga-Kundalini Upanishad is the 86th among the 108 Upanishads. It is believed that there is a latent force in the average human being and that this force resides curled at the base of the spine. The word Kundalini means coiled up and the coiled serpent is used as a metaphor to describe this energy. In yoga the word force is not applied to this energy. It is referred to as a goddess that is waiting to be unleashed and rise up the spine. Kundali yoga is said to remove the blockages that keep this force at the base of the spine and to allow the energy to rise to the crown of the head to induce a feeling of euphoria. Until 1969 Kundalini yoga was kept very secret and passed down from the Yogi Bhajan to selected students only. After 1969 he allowed it to become more accessible to the general public. Kundalini yoga deals with the body and mind, but is aimed at the spirit. It involves meditation, yoga postures, breath control, muscular contractions (bandhas), energy locks (mudras), chanting (mantras) and purification rituals (kriyas). The practise of Kundalini yoga can stimulate the nervous and immune systems, improve strength and flexibility and balance the glandular system. It also claims to allow one to experience their highest level of consciousness. Swami Sivananda describes the Kundalini as ‘and electric, fiery, occult power, the great pristine force which underlies all organic and inorganic matter.’



Another disseminator of yoga to the west was Sri Swami Sivananda. He was born in September 1887 in India. His passion for service drew him to a medical career and he went where he thought his services would be most needed – Malaysia. Through his work as a doctor he realised that most illness is based in the mind and that people needed ‘right knowledge’ so he returned to Rishikesh in India in 1924 as a sannyasin (one who embraces a life of renunciation of the things of this world). Rishikesh could be called the capital of spirituality in India. He started the Sivanandashram (yoga centre) in 1932 and the Divine Life Society in 1936. In 1948 the yoga-Vedanta Forest academy was organised. This is an organisation for the dissemination of spiritual knowledge and the training of people in yoga and Vedanta. In 1953 he convened the first World Parliament of Religions. He is the author of over 300 books on yoga. Swami Sivananda taught Integral yoga, which is a system for the harmonious development of every aspect of the student. This includes postures, where the body is only taken as far as it will go on any particular day and is not forced past it’s limit, together with breath control, which quietens the mind and assists the body to relax into the yoga postures. The human body softens and stretches with long exhalations. Integral yoga also includes chanting, meditation, love & devotion and wisdom as well as the belief in cause and effect. Integral yoga is a more gentle form of yoga that takes into consideration that every body is different and works within the limitations of that body. It is a form of yoga that works on every aspect of the human being.

So, there you have most of the mainstream schools of yoga available to us in the west. There are a few other forms of yoga that are not as well known. Different forms of yoga appeal to different personality types so take your pick. However, before joining a class, check the credentials of the teacher. Find out if they trained at a reputable institute or under a reputable teacher, and for how long! And find out what teaching experience they have. Don’t just take their word for it – check up on them. Some of the local, experienced teachers have taken what they consider to be the best features of a variety of schools and blended them together in their teaching. This makes for varied, interesting yoga classes. Whichever school you choose, have a good time.