Ashtanga and Vinyasa yoga are rooted in similar ancient principles like breath work, focal point, meditation, postures and sequences of movement. Still, when comparing Ashtanga vs Vinyasa, you’ll see that they are two very distinct and rewarding types of yoga. They’re as similar as they are different, but they’re equally rewarding! In this post, we’ll look at what the terms “Ashtanga” and “Vinyasa” mean, how their practices are different, what they have in common, and what to expect in traditional classes from each practice.
Literally translated, Ashtanga means “8 limbs” (ashta=eight, anga=limb). This refers to the Eight Limbs of Yoga, as outlined in Patanjali's Yoga Sutra. These limbs are the quintessential pillars to the foundation of yoga, and each one signifies a different value:
A traditional Ashtanga Yoga practice emphasizes all the core values listed above and moves the yogi through a fixed series of postures designed to strengthen them from the inside out.
Vinyasa is derived from the Sanskrit term “Nyasa,” which means "to place," and the prefix “Vi,” which means "in a special way." Vinyasa yoga is a classic yogic system that combines many of the 8 Limbs listed above, including Asana (posture) Pranayama (breath), and Dhyana (meditation). It calls upon a focal point, or Drishti, and the engagement of various muscle locks, or Bandhas, to move through a series of yoga postures that increase flexibility and spinal mobility, strengthen and stretch the muscles and bring calmness to the mind.
A traditional Vinyasa involves lowering from High Plank, through Low Plank, into Cobra Pose or Upward Facing Dog, and back to Downward Facing Dog. This flow is seen as the ideal way to rinse out the spine and prepare it for the subsequent asanas.
With all that in mind, what are the main differences between Ashtanga Yoga and Vinyasa Yoga? Here are the key components and how they differ:
Ashtanga Yoga adheres to a very specific sequence of asanas that occur in three series—the Primary Series, or Yoga Chikitsa, the Secondary Series, and the Advanced Series. The Primary Series focuses on forward bends and sun salutations, seated postures, and a set finishing sequence. The Secondary Series is called Nadi Shodhana, and it emphasizes the purifying of energy channels or “nadis” in the body. The Advanced Series is called Sthira Bhaga. “Sthira” means “to stabilize” and “bhaga” means radiance. In the Advanced Series, yogis focus on challenging arm balances and inversions, energetic back bends and binds.
Each Ashtanga Yoga series builds upon the other, with an instructor who is specifically trained to guide the yogis in a safe and accessible way. One series is not embarked upon until the other is completed.
In Mysore style yoga, students practice primarily based on the level they have personally attained, with instructors circling to offer individualized guidance, rather than leading an all-encompassing group practice.
In Vinyasa Yoga, there’s a similarly intuitive unfolding of asanas. But the flow is based on the preferences of the individual teacher or practitioners, often revolving around a theme (i.e. heart openers, hip openers, twists or binds).
Vinyasa sequences also begin with Sun Salutations, evolve into twists, balancing sequences, inversions, back bends and hip openers. But there’s liberty for each practice to be customized based on what the teacher instructs and what the yogis prefer.
Vinyasa classes often have a “peak pose,” which is built up to, preparing the yogis for a beautiful expression that contains elements they’ve already practiced in the sequence.
When comparing Ashtanga vs Vinyasa yoga, you’ll find that they still have plenty of things in common. Most importantly, they both link breath and movement with a deep emphasis on mindfulness, meditation and alignment.
The unfurling of both practices is systematic and distinct. The body must move through certain postures before you are physically ready to experience others. For this reason, both Ashtanga and Vinyasa focus on practicing safely, and at the level that best suits the practitioner.
If you’re a student of structure, ritualistic advancement and the desire to practice with limited instruction and assistance, Ashtanga Yoga might just be the practice for you. It places an emphasis on a healthy, ayurvedic existence and fortifies the body and brain for optimal health—not to mention the intense release of stuck energy from the body!
If you’re looking for a bit more flexibility in the sequence with some hands-on guidance and a communal, all-levels spirit, Vinyasa Yoga might be well-suited for your yogic needs. It underscores variety that never veers too far from its foundation, and the signature vinyasa sequence that resets the spine.
We’re glad you asked. Both Vinyasa and Ashtanga Yoga provide incredible opportunities to open your body and break a sweat. The Inspired by Stephanie Rose Collection has a fresh selection of yoga attire that’s well suited for either practice.
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