The BIG Difference between Ashtanga, Hatha, and Vinyasa yoga

The BIG difference between Ashtanga, Hatha and vinyasa

With so many types of yoga to choose from, it can get confusing trying to find the perfect class for you. Three of the most common types of yoga that you will find in yoga studios all around the world are: Ashtanga, Vinyasa yoga, and Hatha yoga.

Chaturanga in Mysore, India
This is a photo of me on one of my trips to Mysore, India (February 2018)

So which of the three is right for you?

Hatha yoga is the most commonly practiced type of yoga and is perfect for beginners as it involves a combination of standing and some gentle seated stretching poses. Vinyasa yoga is more dynamic and involves a flow between postures and Ashtanga yoga is a dynamic and structured type of yoga.

Definitely check out my detailed guide for Ashtanga yoga beginners if you are new to Ashtanga yoga and looking for more information.

What is Hatha yoga?

Hatha yoga is generally considered to be a gentle and slow yoga class, perfect for any beginners to yoga. It generally involves standing and seated postures, there to help strengthen the body and also increase flexibility. Time is spent explaining each pose thus making a perfect entry point to yoga.

Given that Hatha yoga is ideal for beginners, these types of classes will generally have many beginners in them. And so if you are just starting out in your yoga journey, you may be relieved to see many fellow beginners in the class.

When I decided to start yoga, my very first class was a Hatha yoga class. There were maybe 4 or 5 of us in the class and I remember the teacher being very sweet and guided us through a gentle sequence of mostly seated poses. At the end of the class, I thanked the teacher and I remember she said to me “I hope you find what you’re looking for”.

Upon reflection, I was looking for a more dynamic type of yoga. But that’s just me. I have many experienced yoga students who love my Hatha yoga classes as they want a gentle class to help them unwind at the end of a long day.

Hatha yoga classes can generally differ depending on the teacher and the time of the day. For example, a morning Hatha yoga class may be more energizing while an evening class may be calmer and may favor seated stretches over standing poses.

And of course, whether practiced morning or evening, a Hatha class will start with a focus on the breath that guides us through the poses and ends with a guided relaxation in the final pose, savasana.

Hatha yoga classes can vary depending on the studio, the teacher, and the time of day. For example, in the morning a Hatha yoga class may be more dynamic, helping people to wake up and feel energized for the rest of the day. On the other hand, an evening Hatha yoga class may focus more on static poses and long stretches in order to help the body relax and encourage quality sleep.

If you would like to try out a Hatha yoga for beginners class, here is one of my practice videos on Youtube:

What are the benefits of Hatha yoga?

When exploring the benefits of Hatha yoga, the first step is to have a look at research that has been carried out to examine the possible benefits. As Hahtah yoga is a very popular type of yoga, there are a number of studies that have aimed to examine its benefits. So here are some key benefits that Hatha yoga has been found to have.

Improvement in physical fitness

Hatha yoga may be able to help improve physical fitness. One study examined this with 10 healthy and untrained participants aged 18-27, who practiced Hatha yoga twice a week for a total of 8 weeks. Their classes included breathing exercises, warm-ups, strengthening, and flexibility-improving yoga postures and each class ended with a 10-minute relaxation.

The results from the study showed that after 8 weeks of Hatha yoga, the participants improved their muscular strength and endurance, flexibility, cardiorespiratory fitness, and pulmonary function.

Reduction in anxiety and depression

Hatha yoga may be able to help reduce anxiety and depression. One study examined this with 63 female participants aged 40-60 and split them into two groups. Group 1 was the yoga group, and they did a 90-minute Hatha yoga class every week for 8 weeks. Group 2 was the control group and did not practice yoga.

The results showed that even after a single yoga class, stress levels were significantly reduced for the yoga group when compared to the control group. The authors of this study concluded by saying that: “Our findings support the position that regular, long-term practice of Hatha yoga provides clear and significant health benefits.”

What is Ashtanga yoga?

Ashtanga yoga is a structured and dynamic type of yoga, practiced by thousands of people around the world, and follows a set sequence of poses. One of the beautiful things about Ashtanga yoga is that it is practiced in the same way across the globe, making it truly universal.

Ashtanga yoga is also referred to as Ashtanga vinyasa yoga and it is a dynamic and physically demanding yoga practice. We use the breath to guide us as we flow from pose to pose in the sun salutations and we then stay in each of the Ashtanga yoga poses for five breaths at a time.

Each Ashtanga class follows the same sequence of poses. And so with time, our mind can switch off as we flow through the poses. No wonder Ashtanga is sometimes referred to as meditation in movement.

If I were to define ashtanga yoga in terms of traditional yoga teachings, think that it translates to 8-limbed yoga as taught by the great sage Patanjali. And yet, when we refer to the physical practice of Ashtanga yoga we refer to the practice taught by Sri T Krishnamacharya to Sri K. Pattabhi Jois who then made Ashtanga yoga popular around the world.

I still remember my first Ashtanga yoga class. It was a one-hour beginner class and I had no idea what to expect! I still remember the moment. It was like a spark. Flowing through all the postures, as a clumsy beginner with hardly any control of the breath, I caught myself loving what I was doing.

And that was the moment.

I had found a practice that was physically demanding and that had me focusing on my breath, my pose, and where I was meant to be looking and with that, I had no room for external thoughts. As if the outside world was even further away and I got to take a break from my problems all whilst moving through physically demanding yoga poses!

With regular yoga practice, you will very soon notice a big difference in your body, mood and energy levels.

For more information on what Ashtanga yoga actually is, I wrote this article: Ashtanga Yoga For Beginners: A Detailed Guide

There are many ashtanga yoga classes online, however, if you would like to try out my 30-minute Ashtanga yoga class, here is one of my YouTube videos:

What are the benefits of Ashtanga yoga?

There are fewer academic studies examining the effects of Ashtanga yoga classes when compared to Hatha yoga. But there are some out there that are able to give us an idea of the health benefits of Ashtanga yoga.

Reduced stress and increased upper body strength

Ashtanga yoga may be able to help reduce stress levels and increase upper body strength. One study examined this with 12 participants who were split into two groups. Group 1 was the control group that did not practice yoga and Group 2 was the yoga group that practiced Ashtanga yoga twice a week for 3 months.

The results of this study showed that 3 months of Ashtanga yoga practiced twice a week was able to increase upper body muscular endurance, increase trunk flexibility and also improve stress-related
psychological health.

Weight loss and improve well-being

Ashtanga yoga may be able to help with weight loss and improve well-being. One study examined this with 14 predominately Hispanic children, aged 8–15. All participants attended an Ashtanga yoga class 3 times a week for 3 months.

The results of this study found that at the end of the 3 months the average weight loss was 2 kg. Additionally, low self-esteem seems to have been improved as did symptoms of anxiety.

What is Vinyasa yoga?

Vinyasa yoga can be considered as a faster-paced Hatha yoga and a more freestyle Ashtanga yoga. Using elements of both Hatha and Ashtanga, Vinyasa yoga is a type of yoga that uses the breath as a guide whilst exploring a variety of yoga poses. Classes tend to differ depending on the teacher.

Vinyasa can also be referred to as Vinyasa flow or simply flow. It can be catered towards beginners, however, some knowledge of postures, sequencing, and control of the breath my ben required before being able to fully enjoy a vinyasa class.

Each pose is linked and combined, generally as created by the teacher. The teacher gets to decide the sequence to be followed that day. This generally depends on the student in the class, the mood of the day, and even the peak pose the teacher may be working towards.

For example, the teacher may plan the class with an intention to work towards the splits (or hanumanasana in Sanskrit). And so with this intention in mind, the class may involve a series of sun salutations to warm up the body and lengthen the hamstrings. Then some warrior sequences may be introduced to strengthen the opposite muscles.

Then after some seated hamstring and glute stretches, students will have prepared their body to at least try out the splits. And this is generally how a vinyasa class tends to be structured. All while moving the body through physically demanding poses.

If you would like to try out a Vinyasa yoga class, here is one of my practice videos on Youtube:

What are the benefits of Vinyasa yoga?

Exploring academic studies on Vinyasa yoga, there seems to be even less than I found for Ashtanga yoga. So let’s work with what I found.

Reduce stress

Vinyasa yoga may be able to help reduce stress. One study examined this with 20 participants, aged 18 and older. They were all asked to attend a Vinyasa class in a local studio twice a week for 8 weeks.

The results of this study found that Vinyasa yoga was able to reduce stress and increase a positive outlook for the participants of this study.

 Heart rate reduction

Heart rate is linked to stress levels and so one study examined the effects of vinyasa yoga on heart rate variability. Thirteen participants took part in this study and attended 3 yoga classes in the space of 10 weeks.

The results found that those who attended all 3 Vinyasa yoga classes were found to have reduced heart rate variability and reduced respiration rate.

What are the biggest similarities? 

They are all Hatha yoga practices

Hatha yoga is a branch of yoga that involves yoga practice that works with the body. And so, Ashtanga and Vinyasa yoga are actually types of Hatha yoga practices.

The poses are similar

Vinyasa and Ashtanga yoga are more dynamic practices when compared to Hatha yoga, and yet there are many common poses. For example, in all three types of classes, you will find yourself in downward facing dog, triangle pose, and warriors 1 and 2.

What differs is their intensity, as in a Hatha yoga class you may spend more time in each pose with the teacher paying more attention to explaining the correct alignment. In a Vinyasa class, you may flow in and out of these poses in a single breath and in an Ashtanga class, we generally hold each pose for 5 breaths.

Modifications are given

All three types of yoga are open for beginners and as such, modifications are given. In no type of yoga will you find ‘one size fits all’. Ashtanga yoga may feel like that sometimes, but even there the practice can be tailored to each individual’s needs.

Hatha yoga is a slower type of yoga where modifications are offered as it does cater more to beginners’ needs. Vinyasa yoga has a faster tempo than Hatha yoga and so as long as a beginner can keep up with the pace, modifications are offered on the poses practiced. The Ashtanga yoga primary series also allows for modifications, especially in the case of injury.

The basis is the breath

All three types of yoga place a strong emphasis on the breath. And this is generally how each class begins. In Vinyasa and Ashtanga yoga this breath is there to guide practitioners in and out of each set of poses as smoothly as possible. Given that there are more dynamic practices, it does take a while until someone is able to flow through poses without losing their breath.

Hatha and Vinyasa classes are designed by the teacher

Indeed, for each Hatha and Vinyasa class, the teacher decides the structure of the class. This is the main difference between these two types of yoga and Ashtanga. Ashtanga yoga is a set sequence and each class follows this set sequence of poses, as opposed to Hatha and Vinyasa where no two classes are the same.

All classes end in Savasana

What may differ is the duration and whether or not it is a guided relaxation. All three types of yoga end in Savasana, which generally lasts from 5 to 10 minutes.

What are the biggest differences? 

Hatha yoga is slower

In a Hatha yoga class, poses are generally held for longer than in Vinyasa or Ashtanga yoga. When in the pose, the teacher will instruct on correct breathing, to be able to hold the pose, and learn not to tense up when challenged.

Additionally, in Hatha, you may transition to the next pose in a more calm manner, as opposed to the other types of yoga where we flow between poses. And this is what makes Hatha yoga a good practice for beginners who may not have the endurance and energy for more dynamic practices.

Ashtanga yoga is more structured

Ashtanga yoga follows a set sequence of poses and so Ashtanga classes are always the same. We start off by finding the breath and then move on to sun salutations, standing poses, seated poses, and finishing poses. Day in day out, we practice the same thing.

To some this may seem boring and yet, there is beauty in repetition. Your body, your energy and your mood is never the same each day and so despite flowing through the same set os poses, there are so many other variables that differ. For anyone who likes change and variation, a Vinyasa yoga class may be a better option.

Vinyasa yoga is a faster Hatha

Vinyasa yoga can be considered as a faster-paced Hatha yoga. The poses can be similar and yet it is how they are practiced that differs. Vinyasa or vinyasa flow places emphasis on flowing in and out of poses, thus making this type of yoga physically demanding. And for this reason, a Hatha yoga class may be a better fit for a beginner.

Vinyasa is a free style Ashtanga

Ashtanga yoga follows a set sequence of poses. These are primary series that focus more on forwarding folds, the intermediate series which focuses more on back bending and the advanced series that works on elements of the previous sequences, with added arm balances. Each series gets progressively harder and in reality, most people stay with the primary series.

Vinyasa yoga classes may use poses from the wide spectrum of Ashtanga yoga poses and mix them up in a way that can make them more accessible. This is generally done by working towards a peak pose in each class, thus using the class to help prepare the body for the advanced pose.

Given that Vinyasa yoga classes are structured by the teacher for each class, this means that no two classes are the same.

Ashtanga yoga can be considered to be harder

Ashtanga yoga and Vinyasa yoga are harder and more physically demanding than Hatha yoga. One thing that can make Ashtanga yoga feel harder is the strong emphasis on the Tristana method. This is bandhas (energy locks), breath (ujjayi or also known as breathing with sound), and also drishti (gazing point).

And so aside from the physically demanding poses in Ashtanga yoga, each practitioner is asked to pay particular attention to their energy locks, breath, and gazing point, thus making the mind and soul also involved in the practice.

Ashtanga yoga doesn’t 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.

Of course, this is not a general rule. Some Ashtanga yoga teachers encourage the use of pros, myself included. I like to use props in my Ashtanga class and also in my own practice. These can help with alignment and can help those with injuries and they can even help us get deeper into certain poses, especially when we are practicing alone at home with no teacher to adjust us further and deeper into the pose.

Hatha yoga, in particular, makes use of props, again, especially because it focuses on beginners, who may not have the flexibility to get into certain poses without props.

Ashtanga yoga can be taught two different ways

Hatha yoga and vinyasa yoga are taught by the teacher guiding the students through the sequence of poses they have decided for the day. They may choose to only guide the class orally, or they may also demonstrate some or all of the poses.

Ashtanga yoga can also be taught this way, which is referred to as a led class. There is also another way Ashtanga yoga is taught. This is called a Mysore class, where students start to memorize the ashtanga yoga poses, and so in this class practitioners get to practice the Ashtanga set sequence at their own pace. For more information read my article: Ashtanga Yoga For Beginners: A Detailed Guide.

Which one is right for you?

This really is a personal preference. If you are new to yoga and haven’t been exercising much, then perhaps it is wise to start with a Hatha yoga class. If you have a good level of fitness then try out an Ashtanga yoga class or a Vinyasa class. If you want to relax and focus more on stretching then aim for a Hatha yoga class. If you want to challenge yourself then aim for a Vinyasa or an Ashtanga yoga class.

At the end of the day, you may even want to mix and match until you find the type of yoga and the teacher that resonates with you. As a general rule, those who start to practice Ashtanga yoga on a regular basis may find Hatha yoga as too slow and Vinyasa yoga as being more unexpected.

Similarly, someone who practices Vinyasa yoga more consistently may find Ashtanga yoga as being too structured. And finally, someone who practices Hatha yoga regularly may find Vinyasa yoga and Ashtanga yoga as too fast-paced.

It is all a personal preference!

My recommendations

Here are my tips for deciding on the type of yoga and starting your yoga journey.

  • Go to google and search “vinyasa yoga classes near me”,
    “ashtanga yoga classes near me” or “beginner yoga classes near me”.
  • Go to your local yoga studio (or local yoga studios if there are many), check out the class schedule and ask to try out their beginner’s classes of all three types if they have one available.
  • 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.

If you like analysis like this, and want support getting started with Ashtanga Yoga, my new course, Ashtanga Yoga for Beginners, might be just the place for you. Click here to get on the waiting list!

Is Ashtanga and Vinyasa the same?

Ashtanga yoga is also referred to as ashtanga vinyasa yoga. This refers to the flow between poses and sets of poses. The main difference between ashtanga and vinyasa yoga is that Ashtanga yoga follows a set sequence of poses, while a vinyasa yoga class varies from class to class.

Can beginners do ashtanga yoga?

Beginners can definitely do Ashtanga yoga. Most Ashtanga yoga studios offer beginners classes or a series of beginner classes. Alternatively, speak to your local Ashtanga yoga studio and you may be able to start with their Mysore classes where you will be given tailored instructions for beginners.

Does Ashtanga Yoga build muscle?

Ashtanga yoga is a physically demanding practice that can help improve strength and flexibility. A study carried out in 2004 found that Ashtanga yoga helped improve core and upper body strength. This is no surprise given that Ashtanga yoga is a physically demanding practice.

Is Ashtanga harder than Vinyasa?

Both Ashtanga yoga and Vinyasa are physically demanding practices. Someone may find not knowing the pose that comes next in Vinyasa as being difficult. Similarly, someone might find the attention to breath, energy locks, and gazing point in Ashtanga as being more difficult.

Hatha yoga vs yin yoga

As a general rule, the main difference between hatha yoga and yin yoga is that hatha yoga involves a lot more movement than a yin yoga class. In a typical yin yoga class, we may stay in each pose for 3 to 5 minutes. Whereas in a hatha yoga class we transition out of poses more frequently.

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