Lately, Ashtanga yoga seems to be popping up around every corner, or at least at the fringes of every yoga studio’s regular class schedule. Maybe the buzz has piqued your interest, and you’re wondering if you should give it a try. For some reason, there seem to be a great number of yogic wallflowers hovering about the sidelines, flirting with the idea of discovering Ashtanga yoga, but afraid to jump in and participate. My theory on this puzzling phenomenon is that the unfamiliar is almost always intimidating. Since I happen to be passionately in love with both Vinyasa and Ashtanga yoga, I thought a little casual introduction might help hesitant yogis find a bridge between the two styles and encourage some healthy exploration.
Okay, first, what the heck is the difference between Vinyasa and Ashtanga? Simply put, Ashtanga yoga is a traditional series of postures done in the same order every time. Also very simply put, Vinyasa is like freestyle Ashtanga. The yoga you do when you walk into a “flow” class is Vinyasa. It can be characterized by flowing movements, coordinated with deep focused breathing, and it’s often accompanied by music. Ninety percent or more of the poses you do in a flow class are the same ones you’ll find in an Ashtanga class. The major difference is the creative license that the Vinyasa teacher takes in building the sequences and varying the pace between poses.
So what should you expect in an Ashtanga class? Well, let’s call it structure. You know exactly what to expect from every Ashtanga class. Here’s a link to the: Ashtanga Asana Sequence. Sound repetitive? Yep. It is. Sound boring? Ah, now that’s where you’d be wrong. Maybe the reason the Ashtanga yoga has come to be intimidating to yogis who haven’t tried it is because it is known as a very intense and powerful practice. Let me clarify here. If you are physically capable of taking a Vinyasa flow class, you are physically capable of taking an Ashtanga class. You may, however, find the Ashtanga class to be more intense because it has a way of bringing you deeper within yourself. With no music in the background, you hear your own breath and the instructions of your teacher more clearly. There are fewer distractions, and a more singularly focused energy flows through the room. You’ll also notice some traditional accoutrements such as a chanting the Vande Gurunam at the beginning of class and some Sanskrit counting- neither of which are you required to know.
Essentially, those are the most noticeable differences between an Ashtanga class and a Vinyasa class. There are some other differences beneath the surface that tend to create a personal gravitational pull toward either Vinyasa or Ashtanga yoga styles. Generally speaking (and in my humble opinion), those who practice yoga for the sheer fun of it, or for an occasional stress reliever may find everything they’re looking for in a Vinyasa yoga class. Practitioners who seek a transformative experience or who wish to integrate yoga into their lifestyle often find Ashtanga to be a more satisfying practice. Why? Well, in the interest of keeping it simple, Vinyasa is about breathing and flowing. It is often referred to as a moving meditation. Ashtanga yoga means eight-limb yoga. Only one of those limbs is asana (the physical postures). The other seven limbs are about living life in a kind, pure manner, breathing, focusing, meditating, and essentially attaining a persistent state of bliss. Again- way simplified, but you can probably imagine how a person who seeks to learn how to bring yoga into their life off the mat might find more fulfillment through Ashtanga.
My teacher, John Salisbury, says Ashtanga is like school, and Vinyasa is like recess. I love this analogy! Practiced in combination, you achieve balance. So if you want to know which style of yoga is better, or which style you should be practicing, you are really the only one who knows the answer. What are you looking to gain from your practice? Your answer may vary from day to day. In that case, do what both styles teach you- do what feels good.
I practice and teach both Vinyasa yoga and Ashtanga yoga in Phoenix and Tempe, Arizona. I’d be honored to see you in my class. Please visit my schedule to find a class that works for you. I update often, and am expecting to add a few classes this fall, so please check back often!