The COVID-19 pandemic has changed many parts of our physical fitness regimens for better or for worse, but one notable improvement has been access: Workout classes have moved from now-shuttered studios to online platforms like Zoom and YouTube, with many offered for free. This could be a game changer for people wanting to reap the physical and mental health benefits of practices like yoga.
With seemingly infinite options for classes and studios, you may also be left wondering: Which teacher is a good fit for me? And which type of class will make me feel better right now? New research can start to help answer those questions.
In March 2020, Dr. Crystal Park, a professor of psychology at University of Connecticut who runs the Spirituality, Meaning and Health Lab, and her team released a study examining how different types of yoga affected mood and emotional well-being. Whereas previous yoga research looked at how all types of yoga affected participants, Dr. Park examined how mindfulness, body consciousness, self-transcendence, spirituality and social connectedness were ignited—or not—during certain types of yoga classes.
To do this, Dr. Park recruited more than 100 semi-experienced yogis (people who’d taken at least five yoga classes in the last two months) and randomly assigned them to classes in one of three studios in Boston, southeastern Connecticut and San Diego. The students attended all types of one-hour sessions, including Baptiste, Bikram, Iyengar, restorative, vinyasa flow and yin yoga. After the classes, they completed questionnaires about their moods, feelings of social connectedness and body consciousness, and mindfulness. And what she and her team found adds scientific backing to feelings many yogis might already know: Different types of yoga classes can have different impacts on your moods.
Based on the findings, Dr. Park says we can begin to match our needs to certain kinds of yoga classes—although there’s still much more work to be done around parsing out all the individual styles and factors that go into creating a yoga class, especially online.
What’s your mood?
If you’re feeling emotionally depleted, choose a class that includes spiritual dialogue. Although many U.S.-based yoga classes don’t include a spiritual element, yoga was originally designed for spiritual liberation, Dr. Park says; of the eight limbs of traditional yoga, only one includes the posture practice that Westerners typically associate with yoga. Thus, Dr. Park recommends looking for classes that offer “a sense of internal peace and harmony, or a sense of meaning,” especially if you’re emotionally spent. These classes are likely to promote self-transcendence and mindfulness.
If you’re feeling isolated, choose a class with a welcoming teacher and synchronized movement. “Synchronized movement is mesmerizing,” Dr. Park says. “It’s part of the meditation.” Even if you’re practicing online, you can still get some of these effects by seeking out a Zoom-style vinyasa flow class where you can see other people moving with you, and where you sense the teacher is invested in your practice and progress. There’s still more research needed to understand the effects of working out in virtual settings, but attending a class with a familiar group of people may also help you feel more connected.
If you’re feeling low energy, choose a rigorous yoga class. This might sound counterintuitive but “the more challenging the class, the less exhausted people felt,” Dr. Park said of her research. Choose a yoga class in a style like vinyasa, Bikram or Baptiste, which may ask you to tackle poses you’ve never done before.
If you’re feeling chaotic or anxious, choose a class that includes breath work and restorative poses. “[People who took] the restorative classes were more relaxed,” Dr. Park said. “They were calm and grounded.” Breath work—or spending time focusing on your inhales and exhales—was specifically tied to increased well-being, emotional balance and positive emotions in the study. Choose a class that involves restorative exercises like extended savasana, reclined poses, gentle inversions and slower movement.
Dr. Park hopes her work will spur more wide-reaching studies examining the unique elements of yoga, rather than just taking a look at the practice as a whole. And she says there’s more research needed to show these effects in a study that contains more participants and a control group, too.
No matter the style of yoga, Dr. Park and her team saw positive effects for all the yogis after just one hour-long yoga session. (Learn how to get started with yoga in our Expert Advice guide.)
“[Practicing yoga] is a great resource, especially in these times when we’re struggling to get our health needs met and people aren’t able to get to the gym,” Dr. Park says. “We’re stressed and worried, and yoga offers a terrific way to get help—often for free online.”