What Is Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga: The Ultimate Guide To This Life-Changing Practice

When you first start to practice yoga, it doesn't take long to discover that there are MANY different styles of yoga. And Ashtanga is one you've undoubtedly seen on the studio timetable. But what is Ashtanga Vinyasa yoga, and how does it differ from the other styles? That's what you're about to find out!

This article will give an easy-to-understand breakdown of what Ashtanga yoga is, how it compares to other styles, and what to expect from Ashtanga classes.

That way, you'll have all the knowledge you need to decide if Ashtanga is the right yoga style for you. 

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What to expect in an Ashtanga yoga class

Ashtanga yoga is a physically demanding, disciplined, and active practice making it one of the harder styles of yoga. There are four series, each composed of set sequences you follow in exact order in every class.

As a beginner ‘Ashtangi,' you'll start on the first series, which you'll continue practicing until you can master all those asanas.

The only way you can master the primary series and advance to the next one is with regular practice. Thus, die-hard Ashtanga fans practice six days a week (minus moon days and when you are on your menstrual cycle). This is the traditional recommendation by K. Pattabhi Jois. 

Difference between Ashtanga and Vinyasa and Hatha

So how does Ashtanga compare to the other common yoga styles, like Vinyasa & Hatha, Bikram or Iyengar?

First, most yoga styles (with a few exceptions like Yin yoga) originate from the same source – Patanjali's Yoga Sutras. 

As both Ashtanga and Hatha come from the same source, both styles share many of the same poses. The critical difference Hatha and Ashtanga is the instruction style and the class's pace.

Hatha yoga is better suited to beginners, as it's slower and gentler, so it is easier to learn the yoga poses and their alignment.  While Vinyasa is better for weight loss because of the constant movement.

Ashtanga is often considered the hardest yoga style because of its dynamic and strenuous style. But in my opinion, Bikram yoga is more challenging. Bikram yoga is performed in a hot room heated to 105 degrees Fahrenheit and 40 percent humidity. Unless you cope just fine with intense heat, you'll likely struggle more with this style than Ashtanga!

Vinyasa and power yoga are more modern styles based on Ashtanga yoga. Vinyasa was created to be a more flexible and creative dynamic yoga style. It combines the standing poses into a flow (known as a Vinyasa flow), which makes it feel like a moving meditation. 

Power yoga is similar to Vinyasa but incorporates more fitness-based movements and core work. This is a typical style you will find in gym environments and is very loosely based on the traditional practice of yoga.

Hatha yoga is the oldest, most traditional style, believed to originate from the legendary Hindu yogi Gorakhnath in the 11th century. Ashtanga yoga comes from the Hatha yoga tradition which is what many online yoga instructor courses draw their teachings from.

Ashtanga yoga came about through ‘the grandfather of yoga,' Krishnamacharya‘s teachings. This is who K. Pattabhi Jois learned from before founding the Ashtanga Yoga Research Institute in 1948, establishing this interpretation of yoga.

Ashtanga vs Vinyasa yoga – 3 key differences

Ashtanga Vs Vinyasa 3 key differences: 1. Ashtanga classes comprise a set sequence of poses performed in the same order each class. Vinyasa classes are flowy, have no set sequence, and have creative transitions between poses. 2. Ashtanga yoga enters each pose from Tadasana (mountain pose). Vinyasa includes transitions between poses to move fluidly from one pose to the next. 3. The primary role of Ashtanga teachers is to offer assists rather than demonstrate poses. Vinyasa yoga teachers often demonstrate flows and offer hands-on adjustments to students.

So how does Ashtanga differ from Vinyasa classes? Let’s compare the two.

1. Sequencing of Ashtanga vs Vinyasa yoga classes

Ashtanga yoga follows a set sequence. It begins with five repetitions of Surya namaskar A and B (sun salutations) and a set sequence of standing poses. You'll then progress onto one of the six Ashtanga series' combining standing and seated poses – if you're attending a drop-in Ashtanga class, it will likely be series one. Sequencing is one of the most dramatic differences between Ashtanga and Vinyasa which makes them not the same.

In contrast, the only familiarity you will find in a Vinyasa class is sun salutations – although even those are often modified. Sure, you'll do the classic postures like Warrior 1 and Warrior 2, but you'll also do some lesser-known, newer poses.

Moreover, a Vinyasa teacher has total flexibility with the order of the poses and how they link them together. As a result, it's always a surprise what flows you'll do in Vinyasa yoga classes. 

2. Flow/pace of Ashtanga vs Vinyasa yoga classes

Ashtanga yoga and Vinyasa are dynamic styles, but the key difference is that the latter is more ‘flowy.' This is because Vinyasa poses are linked with transitions to create a seamless, dance-like flow.

Ashtanga yoga is very different as you enter each pose from Tadasana (Mountain Pose). For example, you might step back from Tadasana into Warrior 1, return to Tadasana, then step back into Warrior 2. 

So, Vinyasa yoga is more about the transitions between the postures, while Ashtanga focuses on the asana itself. 

3. Teaching method of Ashtanga vs Vinyasa yoga classes

One of the other things I noticed about Ashtanga and Vinyasa yoga is the difference in teaching style. Most Vinyasa yoga teachers (myself included) like to demonstrate the flows while teaching them. Then, when students are holding an asana, I go around to check alignment and sometimes offer hands-on adjustments. 

However, an Ashtanga teacher spends much less time on their mat and mainly cues the poses verbally, without demonstrating. The primary role of an Ashtanga yoga teacher is to offer assists to help their students go deeper into the postures. 

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The Ashtanga primary yoga series

YouTube video

There are approximately 50 postures in the primary Ashtanga series, not including the sun salutations. But bear in mind some poses have three to four variations, all of which are to be practiced. Thus, the actual number of Ashtanga poses is about 75.

Here's a complete list of the primary series of Ashtanga yoga:

Ashtanga warm-up

  • Surya Namaskar A – 5 times 
  • Surya Namaskar B – 5 times 

Standing Postures (all held for 5 breaths)

  • Padangusthasana ( hand-to-big-toe forward fold)
  • Pada Hastasana (hands under feet forward fold)
  • Trikonasana (triangle)
  • Parivrtta Trikonasana (revolved triangle)
  • Utthita Parsvakonasana (extended side angle)
  • Parivrtta Parsvakonasana (revolved side angle)
  • Prasarita Padottanasana (wide leg forward fold)
  • Parsvottanasana (pyramid pose)
  • Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana (extended hand to big toe)
  • Ardha Baddha Padma Uttanasana (half-bound lotus intense stretch)
  • Utkatasana (chair pose)
  • Virabhadrasana I (warrior 1)
  • Virabhadrasana II (warrior 2)

Seated & Reclined Postures

  • Dandasana (staff pose)
  • Paschimottanasana (forward fold with legs together)
  • Purvottanasana (upward plank)
  • Ardha Baddha Padma Paschimottanasana (half
  • bound forward fold)
  • Trianga Mukhaikapada Paschimottanasana (1 leg folded back, forward fold)
  • Janu Sirsasana (head to knee pose) A, B & C
  • Marichyasana A, B, C & D (twists)
  • Navasana (boat) X5
  • Bhujapidasana (arm pressure pose)  
  • Kurmasana (tortoise)
  • Supta Kurmasana (reclining tortoise) 
  • Garbha Pindasana (embryo in the womb)
  • Kukkutasana (rooster)
  • Baddha Konasana (bound angle) 
  • Upavistha Konasana (wide angle seated forward fold)
  • Supta Konasana (reclining bound angle)  
  • Supta Padangusthasana (reclining big toe pose A & B) 
  • Ubhaya Padangusthasana (both big toes pose)
  • Urdhva Mukha Paschimottanasana (upward-facing fold)
  • Setu Bandhasana (bridge pose)

Finishing Sequence (most held for 10 breaths)

  • Urdhva Dhanurasana x5 (upward bow)
  • Paschimottanasana 
  • Savasana 
  • Salamba Sarvangasana (Shoulderstand)
  • Halasana (plow)
  • Karnapidasana (ear pressure)
  • Urdhva Padmasana (upward lotus)
  • Pindasana in Sarvangasana (embryo)
  • Matsyasana (fish.)
  • Uttana Padasana (intense stretched feet or legs)
  • Sirsasana (headstand)
  • Balasana (child's pose)
  • Baddha Padmasana (bound lotus and bow) 
  • Padmasana (lotus)
  • Tolasana (scale)
  • Savasana 

Ashtanga Vinyasa yoga for beginners 

Now we’ve covered what is Ashtanga Vinyasa yoga, you may wonder if it's suitable for you as a beginner. It is, but I recommend finding an Ashtanga yoga class for beginners.

I've seen many beginner-level Ashtanga Vinyasa yoga classes modify the primary Sequence a bit, taking out the most challenging postures to make it more newbie-friendly. 

Most yogis who practice Ashtanga yoga often find it takes about three years to “learn” an Ashtanga series. Though it may take longer to truly master it. That is a bit shocking, right?!

If you're yet to take your first Ashtanga class, there's one thing I recommend you learn beforehand – Ujjayi breathing.

The Ujjayi breath is the foundation of any Ashtanga Vinyasa yoga practice. It is the breathing technique you'll use throughout the class. The method requires you to inhale and exhale through the nose, but as you exhale, you constrict your throat to make an ocean-like sound – or “Darth Vader” impression, as one of my teachers used to say!

This type of breath control builds heat, which provides the energy and resistance you need to get through your Ashtanga yoga practice.

Ashtanga & the Eight Limbs of Yoga

Female yogi practicing yoga in upward facing dog pose.

Ashtanga is a traditional form of yoga developed by K. Pattabhi Jois in 1932. It is part of the eightfold path (eight limbs of yoga) first taught by Patanjali in the Yoga Sutras. Ashtanga is an asana (or movement practice) and part of the 8 fold path to samadhi (enlightenment).

While Ashtanga is known to be a strengthening physical practice, it's important to note that it is still a mental and spiritual practice.

Takeaway what is Ashtanga Vinyasa yoga

So let's recap, what is Ashtanga Vinyasa yoga? 

Ashtanga Vinyasa is a strong, dynamic asana practice where you practice the same set sequence intending to master that series. While it may not be the easiest yoga style, Ashtanga can be suitable for beginners. So why not give it a go and see what you think?

FAQ about Ashtanga Vinyasa yoga

Is Ashtanga the hardest yoga?

Ashtanga is considered to be the hardest style of yoga by many yogis because it is rigorous and intense. But a high-level Vinyasa class or a Power yoga class can be just as difficult as an ashtanga class.

What is the most relaxing type of yoga?

Restorative yoga is considered the most relaxing style of yoga because of its non-strenuous nature and use of props to support the body.

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Gemma is a Certified Yoga Teacher of over 5 years. Aside from being a CYT 200, Gemma is also certified in Yin and Yoga Nidra. Gemma is passionate about sharing her expertise of yoga and wellness through words, guiding others along the path of personal and spiritual development. She is in LOVE with everything related to personal-growth and psychology. Aside from helping others find more peace and stillness, Gemma runs a kitten rescue project in Thailand, where she is currently residing. Gemma can be reached at gemmac@theyogatique.com, or you can connect with Gemma on LinkedIn.

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