Power yoga is a term coined in the '90s that refers to an aerobic, cardio, nonstop, intense yoga class designed to elevate your heart rate, build muscle, and get you sweating. It's contemporary yoga-for-the-gym, but it's also an interpretation of an ancient yoga practice that predates notions of fitness to focus on the attainment of wisdom and discipline.
What It Is
Yoga is a tao of physical postures and spiritual practices designed to advance a soul toward serene balance and enlightenment. That doesn't sell a lot of spandex. In a commercial age, you can still go for spiritual gold with your power yoga practice, however challenging, by understanding its roots as well as its conditioning rewards.
Power yoga is based on Ashtanga, the rigorous, nonstop series of asanas connected by fast-paced sun salutations popularized by K. Pattabhi Jois. It's Vinyasa flow yoga -- a style where you coordinate your breath with continuous poses to merge into the rhythm of the class. In this powerful uninterrupted session, you may be breathing hard, but your goal is to flow from one pose to the next through the whole sequence. Power yoga is strong, sweaty work, often performed in a heated studio to warm muscles faster and help cleanse toxins from the body through perspiration.
Expect to stretch your limits as you improve stamina, strength, and flexibility. You boost heart rate, oxygen uptake, and metabolism, but you're working on correct posture and breathing as you flow through the poses. The focus isn't on fitness -- it is not a true aerobics class -- but better fitness is an inescapable side effect.
How It Works
Beryl Bender Birch, Baron Baptiste, Bryan Kest, and others popularized the term and the practice of power yoga. Their classes, and the many studio classes that teach power yoga, appeal to high-octane Western practitioners and follow similar, but not identical, sequences. Each teacher develops sequences based on their own interpretation of poses and flow.
A class might open with several repetitions of sun salutations. Throughout the class, sun salutations will connect sections of asanas that emphasize standing poses, forward bends, backbends, seated poses and twists, and inversions. Other power yoga styles flow through Vinyasa sequences (downward-facing dog, plank, chaturanga, cobra/upward-facing dog and down dog again).
Whatever the style, you don't stop. But you can modify tough poses if you're not up to the pace or ready for the full version of a pose. You will sweat so you need your sticky mat -- a towel laid over the mat to soak up sweat may be helpful. Your trusty water bottle, and another small towel for mopping your face, should see you through the most tropical studio setting and vigorous workout.
What's the Difference
In some cities, there's a new flavor of yoga every block. Devotees swear by their favorite yoga disciplines and there are distinctions in content and style that color every practice.
- Power yoga classes are derived from Ashtanga but don't necessarily follow the strict sequences and levels that are hallmarks of Pattabhi Jois' teachings.
- Power incorporates Vinyasa flow but ranges beyond Vinyasa for poses and "flows" those poses according to the teacher's preference.
- In a sense, all yoga is hatha yoga, but a class labeled "Hatha" will be slower and more subdued than a vigorous power class.
- Iyengar is concerned with perfection of form, and sanctions using props to help students achieve the correction posture and balance, even as beginners.
- Hot yoga is a set series of asanas repeated in a humid, hot room -- usually about 105 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Yin yoga is soothing and healing, not invigorating and heart-charging.
Expect your power class to be an intense experience for both mind and body.
Power Yoga is not frenetic action; it is focused movement and the intensity of focus on challenging moves is what demands a lot of energy. Some studios move faster than others, but minute attention to form and to breathing will keep you grounded no matter the pace. Baron Baptiste details a start-to-finish power yoga class you could tackle at home, from child's pose to savasana. If that seems daunting, try just a taste of a full class, a 15+-minute version you could adapt for quick morning or evening sessions at home, when time is limited. Be prepared to contract your core constantly to raise the level of intensity. And do check out the formal classes that include guidance from a qualified instructor and the complete sequence of poses that will take an hour to 90 minutes to work through.
- Bryan Kest, longtime power yoga teacher, makes no apologies for the demanding level of his classes: "Yoga class is training for life. Life is challenging, and how you respond to your challenges has the biggest effect on your health--it's called stress. So I create a challenging environment to practice respecting your boundaries."
- Beryl Bender Birch, an original power yoga creator, remembers her motivation for developing her challenging style: "Yoga can be athletic. The asana practice can be a workout. You're supposed to sweat when you practice.... I was captivated by the athleticism and the power of the practice."
- Baron Baptiste, founder of Baptiste Power Vinyasa Yoga says for good results, keep your approach practical. "Commitment and focus are the primary keys…Find a yoga class in your area that you resonate with and attend 3-4 times per week."
Take the Plunge
If you are a total yoga newbie, you may feel more comfortable learning some basic postures before jumping into a power yoga class. Sun salutations use many of the poses you'll find in power yoga; ujjayi or victorious breathing is a pranayama you will likely encounter. Child's pose and savasana are basic and easy to master. Find those poses online or in a beginner yoga class and get your feet wet. But don't worry about leveling up. A power yoga studio will steer even a rank beginner to an entry-level or mixed-level class, and a good instructor will demonstrate how to resort to child's pose if you get winded or just need a break. A steady practice of at least three or four sessions a week -- some in-studio and others at home -- should deliver competence and benefits in short order. A willingness to work at the edge of your comfort zone will both challenge you to improve and help you to avoid injury.
If you like your yoga electrifying, power yoga could be the jolt you need. Train your body and improve your mental focus all in one session. You get light cardio, classic yoga, and a practice that leads to greater self-knowledge. Home in on power classes as your sole practice or mix it up with some dynamite power sessions, some Iyengar for alignment and yoga nidra for deep relaxation. This ain't your grandma's yoga -- but don't be surprised if granny is rocking her moves on the mat next to you. Just a little inspiration to up your game.