When you just start out with yoga, all these different styles and Sanskrit names can be quite intimidating. Vinyasa and ashtanga yoga are offered at most yoga schools. What’s the difference between these two dynamic yoga styles and which one should you start out with?

What does the word vinyasa mean?

There are several definitions:

The word Vinyasa means: ‘to arrange something in a specific way.’

The classic definition of the term vinyasa is:

“A breathing and movement system, the movements of rechaka (exhalation), puraka (inhalation) and dhyana (meditation) , dhrishti (sight or gazing place) and the bandhas (muscle contractions or locks)”, as quoted from Yoga Mala by Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, p37.

What to expect at a vinyasa yoga class?

In a vinyasa yoga class you will work around a theme. Under the guidance of a teacher, you will be guided through a series of postures that prepare and open up your body to a peak pose, which is the most intense and challenging asana of the class.

Every class will be a new sequence, depending on the topic. But the general build-up remains the same:

  • A meditation or breathing exercises
  • Warm-up
  • Sun salutations
  • Core poses
  • Main poses related to the chosen theme (balancing, hip openers, shoulder openers, arm balances,..) 
  • Inversions/backbends
  • Cool-down in seated poses
  • Final relaxation: savasana.

What does Ashtanga mean?

Ashtanga means 8 limbs or steps and these comprise out of yama, niyama, asana, pranayama, pratyahara, dharana, dhyana and samadhi. The third limb, asana, refers to the postures that we do in a yoga practice to keep the body healthy. The reason why you want to keep the body strong, is to be able to practice the other 7 limbs of yoga.

What to expect at an ashtanga yoga class?

There are two types of ashtanga yoga classes: guided or Mysore style.

In a guided ashtanga yoga class, you will perform a fixed series, instructed by a teacher. There are three series in ashtanga yoga: primary, intermediate and advanced. Every class you do the same sequence of poses. As these series build on each other, you need to master the whole primary series before you can go to the intermediate series.

In a Mysore style class there’s no verbal instruction, you will practice the sequence in group but at your own pace, under the supervision of a teacher who walks around in the room. The teacher will correct your alignment, guide you deeper in the pose, if necessary. The teacher decides if you’re ready to go to the next pose. 

What do vinyasa and ashtanga yoga have in common?

What the two styles have in common is that they both connect the breath with movements and the other elements such as inhalation, exhalation, gazing point, meditation and muscle contractions. 

In both classes you won’t stay longer than 5 breaths in a pose.

The poses are very similar: you will do the sun salutation sequence or a variation on it, and other poses are connected through a specific sequence: Plank Pose, Chaturanga Dandasana (Four-Limbed Staff Pose), Upward-Facing Dog, and Downward-Facing Dog Pose. Commonly, this is referred to as ‘a vinyasa’.

Eddie Modestini, a student of Pattabhji Jois and vinyasa yoga teacher, explains in Yoga Journal that “both styles follow a very specific order and intentional theme that open up the body in a systematic distinct way.” The ashtanga primary series focusses for instance on detoxification and loosening tight muscles through forward bends, twists and hip openers.

Should you start with vinyasa or ashtanga?

Personally, I started with ashtanga yoga (by accident, but that’s another story 😉 ) and I think it’s a good style to start with as its a fixed sequence and you’ll learn the basics of each pose pretty fast as there’s more focus on alignment in ashtanga classes.

The best way to start in my opinion is with a Mysore practice, guided by a dedicated teacher. He will help you learn the full series by heart by letting you repeat small parts of the series, until you know it and then he will add the following pose to your sequence. If you have to start from scratch, you will repeat Surya Namaskar A until you know it by heart (and with the correct breathing), then B, then padangusthasana, padahastasana, trikonasana etc.

You will experience more of the meditative benefits of the yoga practice than a led class as you’re more focussed on the breath and the movements, than listening to instructions.

If you choose to go to a led class for the first time, make sure to go a half primary class or ashtanga basic class.

As soon as you know the basic poses, you can go to a vinyasa classes. Starting with vinyasa classes can be quite overwhelming as you don’t know any of the poses and it’s pretty fast paced. Vinyasa classes are nice if you want to explore more poses and work around different themes.

Most yoga studios note the level of the class on their schedule. Start with all-levels or basic classes in both styles.

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