Yoga comes with a lot of terminologies that to a beginner can seem daunting, difficult to follow, and make sense of. The majority of yoga studios in the west and yoga classes offered at Gyms are described using some basic words often from Sanskrit to help you understand what the class entails. This is however only possible if you know what those words mean in terms of the type of practice that will be offered.
When most people think of Yoga, the first things that come to mind are likely to be holding postures that are challenging physically and require significant flexibility, however, the yoga tradition holds so much more than the Asanas (physical postures).
The Asanas in themselves are beneficial but to reap maximal benefit the suggestion by traditional yoga schools is that these should be combined with the other arms of the practice. This is the first distinction between Ashtanga and Vinyasa Yoga.
In this article, we will focus on the differences between Asthanga and Vinyasa Yoga and how you can benefit from both.
Ashtanga Yoga is based on traditional practice and includes eight arms, each arm bringing something different yet important to the health and wellbeing of the practitioner. Traditional teaching in this type of yoga should include more than just the Asanas. The arms are;
Yama – An advised set of moral codes
Niyama – Personal behavior that indicated following of the Yama
Asana – Yoga postures
Pranayama – Breathing exercises
These are the practical aspects of the practice and mastering these can then help the yogi achieve the deeper implications of the practice which are too complex for us to consider today, but are basically working on linking the physical and the mental and transcendence through meditative work. These are:
Pratyahara – Withdrawal of the senses
Dharana – Concentration
Dhyana – Deep meditation
Samadhi – Merging with the Divine (similar to the concept of Nirvana)
Apart from that if you are mainly looking for the physical aspect of yoga, then there are significant differences between Vinyasa and Ashtanga yoga in terms of how Asanas are practiced. In Ashtanga yoga, the practice follows a set sequence of Asanas, which is followed every single time. The entire practice is divided into six sequences and the practitioner develops through these as distinct stages. It is not recommended to embark on a sequence before sufficiently mastering the previous one.
The primary sequence of Ashtanga yoga is focused on standing postures, forward bends, and seated postures. A class going through the full primary sequence will take approximately 90 minutes (sometimes longer). The finishing sequence is the same and ends in Shavasana, Corpse Pose. A powerful restorative posture, which is used in every type of yoga to relax and recover at the end of the practice.
How breathing occurs, and how long to stay in each posture (think Down Dog for 5 breaths or similar), is also prescribed and the practice is relatively rigid. Breathing is extremely important in yoga. Traditional types of practice will however place a much greater emphasis on breathwork, and ensuring the flow through the asanas is correctly linked to the breath.
The image shows Sun Salutation B as a series of poses, this is part of the Ashtanga Yoga Primary Sequence
Vinyasa yoga is flow yoga. It is sometimes termed power yoga, though this might not be a completely fair description as power yoga by definition is very challenging, which a vinyasa does not have to be.
In vinyasa yoga, there are no rigid sequences as we see in Ashtanga, and the teacher has more freedom in how they guide the class through postures. Flow classes will be linked to the breath in a similar way to Ashtanga yoga, and the inhale/ exhale coupling with Asanas is likely to remain fixed as it is for most types of yoga (Think how you are advised to exhale during a cat, then inhale for cow) – this part of the practice is common to all types of yoga that are in any way linked to the original Yogi texts and teachings.
Vinyasa classes will often be set to music, while ashtanga traditionally is practiced in silence and will have a strong focus on Asanas. Depending on the instructor you may do a little pranayama as part of the class.
Which One to Choose?
The rigidity of the Ashtanga practice although it may seem boring or difficult to start can also be comforting – you know exactly what’s coming next once you’re familiar with the Primary Sequence and you know you will be practicing this for a couple of years before mastering every posture. That is powerful as there is no anxiety required ahead of a class, nor is there ambiguity in terms of what you will be doing.
Another benefit is that the sequences taught have been proven to work and be beneficial for health and building strength in the advised order and difficulty steps. This is in contrast to each instructor deciding how they want to teach and in what order (although a lot of vinyasa instructors are highly skilled, a basic teaching certificate may not be as qualifying in terms of producing sequences that work every time).
On the flip side, repetitiveness can get on the nerves of some people who like excitement and trying new postures, the lack of music can feel oppressive and difficult to handle for people whose mind often wanders.
One benefit of ashtanga yoga is the ability to go to classes where you can work at your own pace through a sequence, and receive instruction specific to you. Since each sequence is set, you can work on the primary sequence while the person next to you can work on their advanced sequence leaving the instructor is free to observe the room and come help correct people instead of focusing their attention on demonstrating each move.
This is powerful, as in most classes the chances of receiving proper instruction and fine adjustments to the position are low due to the fact that the instructor has to actually show people each pose and how to transition between them otherwise.
If you are interested in Ashtanga yoga, making sure to go to a studio that may specialize or have some instructors who specialize in the practice is key. It is likely to suit you better if you are the type of person who enjoys routine, and predictability. There is also no reason not to attend the occasional vinyasa class if you feel like it even if Ashtanga is your main type of practice.
If you are looking for a flexible type of yoga to help you with fitness, but you like things to be different each time and there to be music during the practice then Vinyasa might be more suited to your likes. There is again no reason not to work on the Ashtanga sequences at times if you enjoy them as they are a great workout too.
Vinyasa and Ashtanga yoga has many similarities in terms of them both being practices that use Asanas and breath to help you get stronger and more flexible. Vinyasa is a more western style of practice with a little more freedom in terms of movement, sequencing, and use of music in the class while Ashtanga is a more rigid traditional style of practice.