There are many different types of yoga to choose from nowadays. The main differences tend to be based on the difficulty and the main focus of the practice. And so between ashtanga vs vinyasa, both are dynamic forms of yoga, and yet, they have several differences.
Ashtanga yoga and vinyasa, or vinyasa flow, are two popular types of yoga. Ashtanga was made popular by Sri K Patthabi Jois, who taught from 1948 until 2007. Vinyasa Yoga came along much later. One big difference is that Vinyasa doesn’t follow a fixed set of postures and allows room for creativity.
I know people who love the repetition in Ashtanga and don’t like the fact that you don’t know what to expect in a Vinyasa yoga class. And I also know people who love not knowing what comes next in a Vinyasa class and get bored of the repetition in Ashtanga yoga.
So as you can see, it really is a personal preference. Both are physically demanding and both will help you build strength and increase your flexibility. And also both will help you feel better after class.
Definitely check out my detailed guide for Ashtanga yoga beginners if you are new to Ashtanga yoga and looking for more information.
In my opinion, you can find 9 key differences between Ashtanga vs Vinyasa yoga. Continue reading to check them all out.
1. Ashtanga follows a set sequence of poses
Ashtanga yoga follows a set sequence of poses. This means that every Ashtanga yoga class you go to, anywhere in the world, will be the same. It will follow the same pattern, the same sequence, the same breath count.
The main sequence practiced, especially in a guided class setting, is the primary series. This is made up of 4 distinct parts:
- Sun Salutations
- Standing Postures
- Seated Postures
- Closing Sequence
Day in day out, we practice the same thing. Many people find this repetition boring. And for those people, Vinyasa is perhaps a better fit. The reason is that a Vinyasa class can be tailored and adapted and may come across as more fun.
A typical Vinyasa class may follow a rough sequence like Ashtanga yoga. For example, it may also start with sun salutations, however, it may offer variations of these. And so it may help to think of Vinyasa, or Vinyasa Flow as it is also referred to, as a freestyle Ashtanga yoga.
2. There can be music in Vinyasa
Each Vinyasa class is tailored to the needs and the mood of both the teacher and also the students present. Some Vinyasa teachers like to play music in their classes, which may be in the form of a mantra or Indian or even Western music.
The options really are endless. I have been to a Vinyasa class, and the teacher had chosen a playlist of mantras that fit the sequence of poses so well that halfway through the class I almost felt like I had entered a trance.
And it was great to experience, as it was very different from my main practice, which is Ashtanga yoga.
In Ashtanga yoga, there is no music, no outside distractions. The only ‘music’ is the rhythm of our breath, and the breath of our fellow practitioners, if we are lucky enough to practice with others.
It really is a personal preference if you like to listen to music while you practice or not, and also what the main goal of your practice is.
According to a recent article by Wanderlust titled What Happens to the Brain on Music and Yoga (Hint: It’s Good):
“Listening to music and practicing yoga are activities that despite their differences and origins are inherently similar: They make us feel good and enhance our wellbeing. They both speak the universal language of love.
Recent studies have also shown that music can allow a person to enter what’s become widely recognized as a “flow state,” a term coined by the renowned psychologist and author Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi as an “optimal state of consciousness where we feel our best and perform our best.”
3. Ashtanga is taught two ways
Vinyasa yoga is taught in a guided class setting, where the teacher guides the class both with verbal cues and by demonstrating the sequence. Ashtanga yoga on the other hand can be taught in two ways: in a Led (or guided) class or in an Ashtanga Mysore style class.
- What happens in a led class
As in any guided yoga class, the teacher guides the class through the set of poses. This is generally done verbally, but of course, there is demonstrating of poses, especially in beginner’s classes.
What sets an Ashtanga-guided class apart is that each breath is counted and each pose is named in Sanskrit. Also, as we flow in and out of each pose, when we actually do stay in poses, we generally stay for 5 breaths. These 5 breaths are counted in English.
- What happens in an Ashtanga Mysore style class
Ashtanga is traditionally taught this way. And this is the real beauty of this practice. You can have a room full of people, ranging from beginners to advanced practitioners, all practicing next to each other, all following their breath.
This is what I have experienced in many Mysore classes that I have been to over the years. I practiced with a beginner to my right and a very experienced teacher to my left. The former was moving slowly through the sun salutations while the latter was doing the most amazing things with her body. And there we all were, simply following the set sequence of poses, each of us breathing at our own pace and doing our best to stay present and focused.
This type of class seems intimidating to most beginners. However, it is actually the perfect place to learn Ashtanga yoga. The reason being that each beginner is given a few poses to slowly memorize and their task is then to sync those poses with the breath. Just that. And then in each practice, some more poses may be added. All the while going at one’s own pace.
For more information read my article: Ashtanga Yoga For Beginners: A Detailed Guide.
4. Ashtanga focuses on the Tristhana method
Ashtanga yoga uses the Tristhana method to help us stay focused in our practice. Tristhana means the union of the three places of attention:
- Asana (Postures)
- Dristi (Gaze)
- Breath (breathing with sound)
Moving through the Ashtanga yoga practice we always come back to these three points of focus.
As Taylor Hunt pointed out: “When practiced simultaneously, the tristhana method allows the physical practice to be transformed into a moving meditation.”
And so this is one of the key differences between Ashtanga yoga and Vinyasa. In Ashtanga yoga, we are trying to move inward and steady the mind, something that is not always the case with Vinyasa yoga.
5. Vinyasa may use props
As a general rule, most traditional Ashtanga yoga teachers do not encourage the use of props. Yoga probs include yoga blocks, straps, and bolsters. The reason is not to disrupt the flow of the practice.
And yet, Vinyasa yoga uses props, which if practiced correctly, can really help deepen pose or may even help correct poor alignment.
Props can also help those with injuries as they may help the body find better alignment or they may help the practitioners find an easier version of the pose.
6. Ashtanga starts with the opening mantra
Most yoga classes may begin and end with an om. Sometimes there may be three oms. And depending on the teacher, we may chant a mantra, such as the Gayatri Mantra:
Om bhur bhuvah svah | tat savitur varenyam | bhargo devasya dhimahi | dhiyo yo nah prachodayat.
Or perhaps the peace mantra, the Shanti Mantra:
Sarvesham svastir bhavatu | sarvesham shantir bhavatu | sarvesham purnam bhavatu | sarvesham mangalam bhavatu
Ashtanga yoga on the other hand has a set ashtanga opening chant which is chanted at the start of every class.
It offers gratitude to the lineage of teachers who have enabled this ancient practice to survive over the years. It helps to cleanse the energy of the practice space and prepares the mind for the practice.
Vande gurunam charanavinde
I bow to the lotus feet of the gurus,
Sandarsita svatmasukhava bodhe
who awakens insight into the happiness of pure being,
like the jungle healer, who brings great well-being,
Samsara halahala mohashantyai
‘Relief from delusion, the poison of Samsara’
The upper body having human form,
Holding a conch, discus and sword,
Sahasra sirasam svetam
Having a thousand branched heads of white [light].
I bow to Patanjali
If you would like to find out more, you may find this article interesting: Ashtanga Yoga Opening & Closing Chant (Plus Their Meaning)
7. Vinyasa classes can be offered on multiple levels
Most yoga studios, especially ones with many classes, may offer a variety of Vinyasa classes to fit different levels.
These are called Gentle Vinyasa Level 1 class or even Power Flow Level 3 class.
Level 1 is best for beginners and yet modifications are generally offered and so depending not the teacher, maybe even all classes can be attended by a beginner.
Ashtanga yoga on the other hand is taught differently. The more traditional Ashtanga yoga studios tend to mainly focus on Ashtanga Mysore style classes (as discussed in point no. 3). These studios may offer a beginners workshop or may even teach an afternoon Ashtanga yoga half primary class. There may also be weekly Full led primary classes, but these are generally not open to beginners.
And so if you want to be more flexible with what you practice and when you practice, then Vinyasa is perhaps the better option for you. If on the other hand, you want a more disciplined practice that is also a moving meditation, then perhaps Ashtanga yoga is perfect for you.
8. Ashtanga uses Sanskrit counting
In a Vinyasa class, the teacher will call out the poses in English, and in some cases, they may use the Sanskrit term. The more experienced teachers may be able to offer insight into the meaning of the Sanskrit names.
On the other hand, go to an Ashtanga yoga class and there will be a lot of Sanskrit. We use Sanskrit in the Ashtanga opening chant, in the names of the poses, and also, in the count.
And so as mentioned above, we count every breath in Ashtanga yoga.
The teacher counts every single breath.
Sanskrit is used to cue in and out of a pose.
We use English (or the language of the country we are in) when we stay in a pose (generally 5 breaths).
So for example, we always start with the Sun Salutations. There are 9 distinct poses and 9 distinct breaths:
|Upward facing dog
|Downward facing dog
|Jump through, lengthen
The use of Sanskrit helps us connect our practice to the tradition with a common vocabulary used by yoga practitioners and teachers all over the world.
See more: Why We Use Sanskrit in Yoga
9. Ashtanga has Mysore
Mysore is the town in the South of India where Ashtanga Yoga became popular and where the Pattabhi Jois started teaching. Each year hundreds of Ashtanga yoga practitioners travel to Mysore to practice now under the guidance of Sharath Jois.
And so Ashtanga yoga has its own Mecca, its source, its magnet that attracts practitioners from all over the world.
Check out this video to see more about Mysore and it’s magic!
Ashtanga vs Vinyasa – Which one is right for you?
This really is a personal preference. If you want to challenge yourself physically then both types of yoga are perfect.
You may like to mix and match until you find one that resonated more with you.
Here are some tips if you are trying to decide between Ashtanga and Vinyasa.
- Try out as many classes, studios, and teachers as you can, as this will help you find the one combination that is perfect for you.
- As a beginner, you may find yoga hard. And that is completely normal! If so, you may find my article interesting: Why Yoga Is So Hard & My Favourite 15 Tips For Beginners.
- At the end of the day, embrace the experience and explore the wonderful world of yoga. If you want to know what to do before your first yoga class, you may find may article useful: The Ultimate Guide Of What To Expect In Your First Yoga Class
Ashtanga vs Vinyasa YouTube classes
If you would like to try out these two classes from the comfort of your own home, then here are two beginner videos from each type. Practice one and then practice then the other a few days later (as you may be stiff the following day). And so this little project may give you a little idea of their differences and you may even quite quickly find which one resonates with you.