Yoga is often confusing for beginners, given the wide variety of philosophies, branches, and even physical poses. It doesn’t help that yoga resources tend to be misleading or just plain hokey. However, we believe the benefits of yoga are worth sorting through this mess.
The first section of this guide discusses the benefits of yoga, including references to several studies. The next sections discuss basic yoga philosophy, followed by our favorite yoga studios in Chicago.
Studies suggest that a yoga program can neutralize the effects of stress and lead to meaningful health benefits. Specific findings include improvements in mood, blood pressure, immunity, fitness, and other critical functions.
Mental health is perhaps the best benefit of yoga. Several studies have demonstrated substantial improvements in all aspects of cognitive functioning from a one or two month yoga program.
One study at Stockholm University indicates that yoga can meaningfully improve mood, stress, and other mental health indicators. Based on these results, the researchers suggested yoga as a supplement to formal cognitive therapy programs.
Other studies have found similar results:
- Higher scores for life satisfaction and other mood indicators (Scandinavian Journal)
- Improvements in cognitive functioning (UCLA)
- Reductions in depression and anxiety (Psychiatric Rehab Journal)
A recent JIPMER study focused on the cardiovascular benefits of an eight week yoga program. Researchers found significant improvement in nearly 20 biological parameters, such as those seen in the chart below.
A recent study by the University of Oslo indicates that yoga practice has an immediate impact on gene expression in immune cells, which help your body fight viral and bacterial infection. Other studies have shown similar molecular benefits from yoga. For example, a UCLA study found that yoga-based meditation can actually slow cellular aging.
According to Georgia State researchers, participants who completed 16 yoga sessions improved their flexibility by 17 percent and VO2 max by 15 percent. These are meaningful and noticeable changes to baseline fitness.
From a calorie-expenditure perspective, yoga ranks as moderate form of physical activity. According to HealthStatus.com, the activity is about on par with cycling. The chart below is based on the calories burned per hour by a 150 lb. person.
Given these cumulative benefits, one could certainly make the argument that yoga is more important to your overall health than other alternatives. In either case, our advice is to strongly consider yoga as a weekly supplement to your current workout routine.
Yoga originated in ancient India as a spiritual and physical practice focused on achieving unity between the body and the mind. In fact, “yoga” is directly translated as “union”.
The fundamental text for yoga is widely considered to be The Yoga Sutras, written by Patanjali around 500 B.C.E. The text lays out eight key principles (sometimes called “limbs”), each of which is a step toward enlightenment. The first five steps build the foundation for a spiritual life and the last three refer to a reconditioning of the mind.
There seems to be a lot of debate about whether yoga is a lifestyle, a belief system, a religion, or something else. Honestly, we don’t think it really matters. There are so many styles that you’re bound to find a type of yoga that fits your personal view.
Eight Principles of Yoga
1. Yama is a set of moral principles that regulate individual behavior in a social environment. Similar to the Golden Rule, Yama focuses on ethical standards and individual integrity. Yama is broken down into five virtues:
- Nonviolence (Ahimsa) – avoid harm to any living creature
- Truthfulness (Satya) – tell no lies
- Nonstealing (Asteya) – do not steal or take advantage of others
- Nonlust (Brahmacharya) – avoid meaningless sexual encounters
- Nonpossessiveness (Aparigraha) – take only what is necessary
2. Niyama is an inner discipline focused on how to treat ourselves. Similar to Yama, Niyama is broken down into five virtues:
- Purity (Shauca) – keep your body clean and free of toxins
- Contentment (Santosha) – be content for what you have
- Austerity (Tapas) – keep your body fit
- Self Study (Svadhyaya) – be reflective and self-aware
- Divinity (Ishvara-pranidhana) – recognize a force larger than ourselves
3. Asana is the most commonly known aspect of yoga in the West. It refers to the practice of physical postures and meditation, which is the core focus of fitness-based yoga classes (and of the Hatha branch of yoga). On a deeper level, Asanas provide the opportunity to calm the mind and achieve unity with the physical world.
Interestingly, The Yoga Sutras did not mention any specific postures. In fact, some scholars have argued that the Asanas used in modern yoga weren’t developed until the 19th century.
4. Pranayama refers to the control of the breath, specifically the process of inhalation, retention, and exhalation. Although breathing exercises can be practiced as an isolated technique, it often goes hand-in-hand with Asana. The Yoga Sutras emphasized the importance of rhythmic breathing as a method to reduce distractions and enable deep concentration.
5. Pratyahara refers to the withdrawal of the senses, which allows individuals to focus attention internally. This limb is often done in connection with Asana and Pranayama.
6. Dharana refers to deep concentration on a single mental point. The ability to concentrate is crucial to the next two limbs.
7. Dhyana refers to an uninterrupted state of meditation. Such state leads to heightened awareness and promotes feelings of unity between all aspects of your life.
8. Samadhi refers to absolute bliss, which is the ultimate goal of the other seven limbs. This is an enlightened state, which is somewhat similar to nirvana in Buddhist cultures.
Yoga has evolved into various branches over its long history. Each branch is ultimately focused on the same goal, but each takes a slightly different approach.
Western cultures tend to have a simplified view of yoga. We generally think of yoga as a physical practice rather than a belief system. Technically, this view only takes into account the Hatha branch, which is one of over five branches.
If you’re looking for an explanation of the physical styles (i.e. what yoga class you should take) please refer to the Yoga Styles section.
The four traditional branches of yoga are widely considered to be Raja, Karma, Jnana, and Bhakti, as they are rooted in ancient texts. The Hatha branch was more recently developed, but is sometimes included in this category.
Raja is the most traditional branch of yoga, as it focuses on the progression through the eight key principles mentioned in The Yoga Sutras, which is the fundamental text of yoga.
Raja is often considered to be a very balanced approach, as in touches on mental, physical, and spiritual aspects of yoga.
HINDU YOGA (KARMA, JNANA, BHAKTI)
The Bhagavad Gita is a 700-verse ancient Hindu scripture that mentions three other foundational branches of yoga. Each is considered a separate path to the “ultimate reality”, or enlightenment.
- Karma Yoga (Action) is the path of service to others. It teaches the importance of selfless acts, without consideration of gain or reward.
- Jnana Yoga (Wisdom) is the path of knowledge, which emphasizes study as a means to inquire into one’s own nature.
- Bhakti Yoga (Devotion) is the path of love, which focuses on a state of pure devotion to God.
Each path is considered equally as credible, but is meant for a different type of temperament.
Hatha is often used as an umbrella term to describe all physical forms of yoga, such as those that are popular in the U.S. Of the eight principles outlined in The Yoga Sutra, it primarily focuses on asanas (physical postures) and pranayamas (breath control). Hatha can be traced to the publication of Hatha Yoga Pradipika in the 15th century.
Other Yoga Branches
Several of the “other” yoga branches have roots in ancient texts, but have been popularized in the last few centuries. Most of these branches incorporate principles from Raja and other traditional yogas, but focus on a specific style of practice.
Guru Yoga is the practice of merging one’s mind with that of a guru, or spiritual guide. Meditations focus on the visualization of enlightened beings, such as Buddha.
Kriya Yoga is focused primarily on Pranayama (breath control) as a meditative path to enlightenment. Kriya evolved into its own form in the 1860s and was popularized in the West in 1946 through the publication of Autobiography of a Yogi.
Kundalini Yoga is sometimes considered a separate branch of yoga, although we’ve included it under the Hatha umbrella given its focus on physical postures.
Siddha Yoga is a spiritual path that was popularized by Swami Muktananda Paramahamsa in the mid-20th century. It focuses on meditation using mantras.
Tantra Yoga has roots across many religions over a long time period. Given its fragmented history, there is no definitive explanation of this branch. However, most agree that it emphasizes the importance of rituals and mantras as a path to self-realization.
By definition, all fitness-focused yoga classes are rooted in the Hatha Yoga, which is the most physical branch. Over 20 styles of Hatha yoga have emerged over time, most of which incorporate a routine of physical postures and breathing exercises. Each style varies in intensity, movements, and setting.
We have sorted the basic yoga styles into five categories: Power, Hot, Restorative, Meditative, and Contemporary.
Power yoga is a generic, westernized term used to describe physically demanding forms of yoga. The classical styles of power yoga include Ashtanga and Vinyasa, as discussed below. However, many health clubs and yoga studios have developed offshoot styles that incorporate upbeat music and other physical exercise.
Given the relatively high intensity, power yogas typically attract fitness enthusiasts seeking to improve flexibility, strength, and stamina.
Ashtanga is a high-intensity style that involves a structured system of synchronized postures. It was popularized in the 1960s following the publication of the Yoga Mala, written by K. Pattabhi Jois. However, the basic concepts originally appeared in the ancient text of Yoga Korunta, which has also been credited as the foundation of the Vinyasa and Iyengar styles of yoga.
Ashtanga yoga is focused on the progression through 6 series of poses. The beginner series (Yoga Chikitsa) is a fixed sequence of 75 poses that are linked together through a deep breathing technique. Sessions generally last for 90-120 minutes.
Vinyasa is a high-intensity, traditional style of yoga based on a flexible system of synchronized postures. Vinyasa is synonymous with Yoga Flow. It was developed out of the Ashtanga lineage, but is not restricted to a specific series of postures. For this reason, it is often used as an umbrella term to describe many types of classes.
Vinyasa and Ashtanga incorporate many of the same poses, but Vinyasa leaves more room for creativity, as there is no fixed sequence or series of poses. Each class varies based on the personality and goals of the instructor. Sessions typically last 60 to 120 minutes.
Hot yoga is a generic term used to describe yoga that is performed in a 100+ degree studio. The most popular brand is Bikram Yoga ®, although many studios offer their own generic versions. Hot yoga remains somewhat on the experimental end of the spectrum, as heat is a relatively new addition to yoga. However, it remains one of the most popular styles for beginners.
Bikram yoga is the most popular style of hot yoga. It is a high-intensity class conducted in a room heated to 105 degrees with 40% humidity. Each session sessions consist of a sequence of 26 poses and 2 breathing exercises, repeated twice in one 90-minute session. The intense heat of the room is thought to improve flexibility and promote detoxification.
Restorative Yoga has a slow pace and places great emphasis on form, making it an excellent option for beginners. Most restorative yoga can be traced to the Iyengar style, as described below.
Iyengar Yoga is a low-intensity, traditional style of yoga that is focused on proper bodily alignment, often with the assistance of props such as cushions and blocks. Similar to Ashtanga and Vinyasa styles, Iyengar has its roots in the ancient text of Yoga Korunta. This particular style was named after its founder, B.K.S. Iyengar, author of Light on Yoga (1966) and other influential books.
The Iyengar system consists of roughly 200 classical poses and 14 breathing exercises, although there is no scripted sequence. This style downplays the importance of flow and instead focuses on the achievement of perfect form. Poses are held comparatively longer than power yoga. Beginners typically start with standing poses and slowly incorporate bends, twists, and other techniques over time.
This style combines breathing exercises with basic yoga postures to help pregnant women relieve stress, stay in shape, and adapt to a changing body. It also provides a community setting for new moms to connect with each other.
We use Meditative Yoga a term to describe the styles of yoga that extend beyond a physical focus (i.e. focus on meditation). The primary benefit of these styles is stress reduction, as opposed to physical fitness.
Ananda Yoga is focused on inner awareness and energy control, enhanced by the use of affirmations. It was first publicly taught in California in the 1960s by Swami Kriyananda, the disciple of Paramahansa Yogananda (author of Autobiography of a Yogi).
Ananda classes are unique for the use of 39 Energization Exercises, which aim to enhance inward focus. Additionally, each yoga posture is paired with a silent affirmation.
Integral Yoga is focused on achieving balance between the mind, body, and spirit. It is based on the teachings of Sri Swami Sachidananda, who came to the U.S. from Indian in the 1960s. He founded several institutes, including Yogaville Ashram, which is focused on this style of yoga.
Integral Yoga emphasizes the importance of the mental and spiritual aspects of yoga. Classes typically including breathing exercises, guided relaxation, mantras, and meditation, which complement a set of basic physical poses.
Kripalu yoga is focused on meditation and breathing exercises that encourage inward reflection and psychological growth. It is based on the teachings of Swami Kripalu, who popularized the style in the U.S. in the 1960s. Currently, there are over 40 affiliated studios worldwide. The style is promoted by the Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health, a non-profit organization and retreat location in Massachusetts.
The Kripalu framework is based on three stages of practice. The first stage is focused on posture alignment through yoga poses held for a short period of time. The second stage is focused on inward reflection through meditation yoga poses held for a prolonged period. The third stage is focused on relaxation and “meditation in motion”. Beginner classes typically focus only on the first stage while advanced classes incorporate all three.
Kundalini Yoga is focused on self-awareness and heightened consciousness. It was brought to the U.S. in the 1960s by Yogi Bhajan, who founded the Healthy, Happy, Holy Organization (3HO).
Classes are influenced by the Tantra Yoga branch and incorporate “an orchestrated pattern of movements, sound, pranayama, mudras, concentration and meditation.” This style extends beyond the physical performance of poses, often focusing on broader lifestyle changes and spiritual development.
Sivananda Yoga is focused on relaxation and deep breathing. It is based on the teachings of Swami Sivananda, which were popularized in the 1950s by his follower Swami Vishnudevananda. The style is promoted by the International Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Centres, a non-profit network with 19 locations.
Sivananda focuses on physical as well as mental aspects of yoga. Classes revolve around 12 basic postures, accompanied by frequent relaxation and breathing exercises. Additionally, there is emphasis given to proper diet and positive thinking.
AcroYoga is a proprietary style of yoga that originated in 2003. Each pose is done with one or more partners, combining acrobatic movements, massage, and other yoga techniques.
Aerial Yoga combines traditional yoga with acrobatics, gymnastics, and dance movements. This style is done using a suspended fabric trapeze. Proprietary versions include Unnata®, AntiGravity®, and Fly Yoga®, although some studios offer their own generic version.
Anusara Yoga is based largely on the Vinyasa style, but also incorporates a philosophical framework based on intrinsic goodness. This style recently lost popularity following several accusations of corporate and sexual misconduct against founder John Friend.
Jivamukti Yoga is a proprietary style based on Ashtanga, with an added twist of veganism, mantras, and music.
Viniyoga Yoga is a style that involves a teacher working individually with each student, creating a personalized program based on factors such as age, health, etc.
Yin Yoga is focused on stretching the deep connective tissues of the body, such as tendons and ligaments. Most poses are done on the floor and each is held for a period of five minutes or more.
Chicago has over 70 yoga studios, each with a slightly different style. The large majority provide drop-in as well as monthly membership options. Based on our analysis, the median drop-in rate is $17 and the median monthly membership rate is $150.
Chicago yoga studios are generally well-reviewed, with most receiving A or B FitGrades™. Our recommendations are provided below. Please use our Gym Locator tool for a full list.
- CorePower Yoga | Multiple Locations | FitGrade B | $20 class | $139-185 month
CorePower is the most popular chain in Chicago, with over 10 locations across the city. Although some complain of the Westernized, corporate feel, others rave about the energetic and vigorous workouts.
- Chi-Town Shakti | Multiple Locations | FitGrade A | $16 class | $150 month
Chi-Town has locations in Rogers Park, Edgewater, and Andersonville. The majority of the classes are based on restorative and meditative styles. The chain also offers specialty classes such as “Candlelight Yoga”.
- Moksha Yoga Center | Multiple Locations | FitGrade B | $18 class | $160 month
Moksha has locations in Lakeview, Bucktown, and River West. The chain primarily focuses on classical yoga, offering classes that combine traditional physical postures with meditation and breath work.
- Village Yoga Chicago | Multiple Locations | FitGrade A | $16 class | $100-120 month
Village Yoga has locations in West Town and Lincoln Park. The chain offers a wide range of classes, from traditional Hatha yoga to contemporary classes like “Hip-Hop Power Flow” and “Bend N Mend”.
- Bend Yoga & Movement | West Town | FitGrade A | $15 class | $89 month
- Bloom Yoga Studio | Lincoln Square | FitGrade A | $16 class | $99 month
- Eb & Flow Yoga Studio | Wicker Park | FitGrade A | $15 class | $100-150 month
- Ganesha Yoga | Lakeview | FitGrade A | $16 class | $125 month
- Namaskar Yoga | Lakeview | FitGrade A | $16 class | $100-140 month
- Nature Yoga Sanctuary | Ukrainian Village | FitGrade A | $70 for five classes
- Om on the Range | Lakeview | FitGrade A | $15 class | $100-150 month
- Power Yoga Chicago | Lincoln Park | FitGrade A | $18 class | $99-159 month
- P.S. Yoga | Montclare | FitGrade A | Inquire for pricing
- Pure Wellness | Lincoln Park | FitGrade A | $18 class | $75-100 month
- Tejas Yoga | Near South Side | FitGrade A | $17 class | $115-165 month
- The Lab | Near West Side | FitGrade A | $17 class | $78-105 month
- Tula Yoga Studio | Logan Square | FitGrade A | $16 class | $83-99 month
- Urban Lotus Yoga | Humboldt Park | FitGrade A | $10 class
- Yoga Bliss | University Village | FitGrade A | Inquire for pricing
- Yoga Circle | Near North Side | FitGrade A | $18 class
- Yoga Loft Chicago | Near North Side | FitGrade A | $18 class | $125-175 month
- Yoga Shop | Portage Park | FitGrade A | $15 class | $75-140 month
- Yoga Tonic | Near North Side | FitGrade A | $20 class | $110 month
- YogaView | Ukrainian Village | FitGrade A | $16 class | $133-150 month