Two of the most popular styles of Yoga classes are Ashtanga and Vinyasa. The defining characteristic of Vinyasa is the alignment of movement and breath; and, technically, Ashtanga is a form of Vinyasa. Both styles stem from the Krishnamacharya Yoga lineage, and both highlight breath-centered movement. However, that is where the similarities end.
The biggest difference between Ashtanga and Vinyasa lies in the sequencing. Ashtanga Yoga consists of three series of postures: primary, secondary, and advanced. The series are sequential in that a practitioner must master one before he or she can move on to the next. Each series consists of a predefined order of postures (asanas) that students practice the same way, every time. On the other side of the coin, Vinyasa class sequences vary, and the practitioner might experience an entirely different sequence each time he/she practices.
Each Ashtanga series revolves around a category of asanas: the primary series centers on forward bends, the secondary series focuses on back bends, and the advanced series emphasizes arm-support and arm-balancing poses. As the class progresses, the postures in the series, become more complex. Vinyasa Yoga sequences, on the other hand, often feature a peak pose. The peak pose is a challenging and complex pose that the teacher has selected for a particular practice. The teacher leads the class through a sequence of postures that helps students prepare for practice and recover from the peak pose.
Both Ashtanga and Vinyasa employ a three-pose transition, called a “Vinyasa,” which includes Chatturanga, Upward-Facing Dog, and Downward-Facing Dog. In the Ashtanga practice, the student performs an asymmetrical pose on the right side, moves through a Vinyasa, and then repeats the pose on the left side. In Vinyasa Yoga, a student may link several asymmetrical poses together before performing the Vinyasa and switching to the other leg.
Ashtanga classes can be either teacher-led or “Mysore,” which means self-led. In a Mysore class, each student practices an Ashtanga series from memory, moving at his or her own pace. The teacher walks around and provides individual adjustments and instruction, as needed. In contrast, a Yoga teacher almost always leads a Vinyasa class. The Vinyasa teacher will cue the entire class together and offer some individual adjustments on an as-needed basis.
Finally, students of Ashtanga Yoga do not use props, posture modifications, or music. In Vinyasa classes, some teachers make props available, use background music, and encourage their students to modify postures, as needed.