What is the Difference Between Vinyasa and Ashtanga Yoga?

Both Vinyasa and Ashtanga are terms derived from the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, the bible of yoga. However, I have a feeling that when this question is asked in Internet forums, as I have found to be the case twice in the past week, it seems to relate more about what can one expect in an American class offering either of them.

In this light I have divided the answer in three layers, listing the differences (or similarities) according to (a) the Yoga Sutras, (b) according to today’s lineage holders, and (c) according to how it is taught in America these days, to the level of my understanding.


Patanjali is the sage who lived about 2000 years ago and of whom we know rather little. He compiled with excellent detail and a handful of words (196 sentences) the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali.

The Sutras are divided into four chapters.  The first chapter deals with very advanced yogis who can attain the goal of yoga (stopping the projections of the mind) at once.  That is not my case and most people’s case.

So for people who cannot fly into the goal and reach eternal peace while being rooted in the crest of the present, there is chapter two and three.

In chapter two he explains the eight limbs of yoga or ASHTANGA (Ashto=8, Anga=limbs).  The eight steps or limbs work as a ladder which we can use to climb into the state of yoga.  We purify the body and our actions with the first four and then access higher states of inner concentration with the last four so that we can be liberated.

A yogi that attains the goal of yoga becomes completely detached and un-interested in the world. Nothing disturbs her, not even death.  She abides in peace and has tremendous discrimination, all delusions end.  See here for 7 signs that you are a realized yogi.

This is a great introduction based on a lecture
That Master Ramaswami gave

Recently at a Ramaswami workshop I asked about where in the yoga sutras do we derived the term “VINYASA” from?  Ramaswami, a student of Krishnamacharya for 35+ years explained to me that this is related in two sutras from chapter two:

2.46 is the most famous sutra in the world (make that in my world):  2.46 Sthira Sukham Asanam, or: Sitted position should be comfortable and steady. AND
2.47 prayatna saithily anantasam apattibhyam, or: Effort should be accompanied by smooth breath

That, Ramaswami explained, is where Krishnamahcarya taught him we derived the term VINYASA, where we accompany the effort of asana with smooth long breath.  Here is Ramaswami himself:

Sri T Krishnamacharya had said in his Yoga Makaranda (read it here for free) and also in Yoga Rahasya that full benefits of yogasana cannot be obtained without vinyasas.  Regarding the Yoga Sutra reference it would be about the use of breath in the practice of asanas. The interpretation of the terms in the sutras “sthira, sukha, prayatna saitilya and aananta samapatti” the four paramenters mentioned. These refer to comfort, steadiness, smooth breathing and focus on the breath while practicing asanas which is the way Sri TK taught me vinyasa practice.

For more on that see: Where oh where does Patanjali say anything about Vinyasa in the Yoga Sutras?

So, in brief: Ashtanga refers to the system of eight limbs that dedicated yogis will learn about and follow on their quest to reach the state of yoga, or liberation.  Vinyasa is the art, one could say, of utilizing the breath, in deep and smooth ways, as in the “hissing of a serpent” (as Krishnamacharya puts it in his book Yoga Makaranda (honey)) while practicing the asanas or poses of yoga.

Vinyasa is also the way in which we enter each pose and come out of it, or as Desikachar would tell us in his book “Health Healing and Beyond”, the process by which the teacher receives the student at the door, takes it to the studio, teaches and then sees the student out to the door again”, the steps we take.  For more on that see comment below on Richard Freeman’s talk.


ASHTANGA: Sri K Pattabhi Jois coined his style ASHTANGA.  His institute, the “Ashtanga Yoga Research Institute” is located in Mysore India, and the way the system is taught is also called “Mysore”.

The starting point is asanas or poses as this ends the delusions of the mind quickly, coupled with the codes of conduct of the first two limbs of yoga, the yamas and niyamas.  There are 6 series of asanas that grow in difficulty.  The poses are done by breathing deeply and with a strict count, no breath or movement is left to chance.

The series are taught individually in a setting where students come to class at their own time and practice their own series or to wherever they are.  Teachers come around and adjust students depending on their own individual level.  New poses are given only when the student has mastered what she or he already has.

A LED Intermediate Series Class at the Ashtanga Yoga
Research Institute in India – Sharath Jois is leading the class

The poses are practiced using bandhas (internal locks) the hissing of the serpent type of breath and specific looking points (hand, alongside the nose, side etc).  Jois has taught students that the yoga Korunta (a book in which he based his system but that was unfortunatelly eaten by ants, or so we are told, with no copy left behind) it says “Oh yogi, do not do yoga without vinyasa”.

Once a week there are “led classes” where the teacher leads by counting in and giving the names of the poses in sanskrit.  This is a way to help students learn the proper count.

VINYASA yoga was popularized by Srivatsa Ramaswami a living yoga master and student of Krishnamacharya for a long time, in his book “The Complete Book of Vinyasa Yoga”.

It also has series, although these are called routines. It is done at a much slower pace than Ashtanga yoga and including small resting -corpse pose- when one gets winded or out of breath.  The breathing component is of course key and done in a deep way, with sound.

The practices are more integrative than those of Ashtanga as each practice will not only include asana or poses but also pranayama (breathing extension exercises), pratyahara (sense withdrawal) and concentration on one point with singing of mantra.  See here for the weekend workshop I recently took with Ramaswami, and here for a session of Vinyasa Krama in photographs.

You can also of course visit Grimmly’s blog who is an adept student of this tradition (together with Ashtanga), and visit Ramaswami’s page.

A Vinyasa Krama Teacher Training with Ramaswami adjusting
and Grimmly demonstrating


ASHTANGA in general tends to keep to the tradition fairly well and teach Mysore programs with one led class per week.  Instructors in most cases tend to be authorized or certified by India (Ashtanga Yoga Research Institute) and stick to the traditional way of teaching it.

A Mysore room where everyone is practicing at their own
level and at their own time a pre-set series

In these rooms you can expect to go and find all practitioners already going for their own practices.  A teacher will show you the beginning of the first series and you will start from there.  He or She will add poses as you become comfortable with the series and can breathe well in the poses you already have. You will have your own practice from day one and build from there.

It is a vigorous style of yoga that demands focus and dedication, it is practiced 6 times a week with rest on Saturdays and moon days.  See 21 Things I Wish I Knew Before I Started Practicing Ashtanga Yoga.

VINYASA.  I cannot speak for all vinyasa classes given in the country, but the term vinyasa has been used in context that differ greatly from the original, there is vinyasa flow, flow, trance, etc, and other terms of the kind.

Vinyasa in America is more associated with a practice that flows and never stops with breathing, but studios tend to add things to it, like music for example, and turn it into a bit more of a scene that draws the mind out rather than in.  This is not a criticism just an observation.

a Vinyasa class with live music

Also in Vinyasa classes as taught in America the instructors create the sequences that are to be taught rather than follow pre-established methods or routines, meaning that one cannot tell in advance what to expect.

As I said, this is to the level of my understanding, the rabbit hole gets much deeper and for those of you interested in yoga this is just the tip of the iceberg, there is a lot more to be discovered.

Keeping it Real: 8 Things To Know About the 8 Limbs Of Yoga
Krishnamacharya Yoga: A Weekend With Ramaswami
12 Suggestions on How To Find a Good Yoga Teacher

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8 Responses to What is the Difference Between Vinyasa and Ashtanga Yoga?

  1. tom April 25, 2012 at 3:47 pm #

    The most recent talk posted on Richard Freeman&#39;s website also explores what Vinyasa is, in it&#39;s most traditional view and how it relates to the practice of yoga.<br /><br />

  2. Claudia April 25, 2012 at 5:26 pm #

    Tom, thanks, love Richard&#39;s style and how he manages to make me laugh as I listen. (Like when he says that someone in Boulder someone names his kid OM then suddenly it is an eight year old and gets in trouble and so the word gets basically ruined temporarily)<br /><br />Vinyasa, he says, and as a way of summarizing and posting some notes from it:<br /><br />Is used as way of empowering

  3. James Altucher April 26, 2012 at 9:02 am #

    Great summary of Freeman&#39;s audio.

  4. Claudia April 26, 2012 at 10:42 am #

    Thanks James. I love how Richard takes it more towards the direction of chapter one, of the &quot;leaping into the goal of yoga&quot;, by saying they are the steps we take to fall into pure awareness, similar to the asking ourselves &quot;Who Am I&quot;? or &quot;Who is it that is me&quot;? that we have been talking about

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  6. Brian June 13, 2012 at 7:40 am #

    Claudia, thanks for the great explanation. I was hoping that you would explain why some people use the term &#39;Ashtanga Vinyasa&#39; when describing what you call &#39;Ashtanga.&#39; Ashtanga Vinyasa would imply that Ashtanga is a variant of Vinyasa. From this blog, I take it that you would disagree. Did Jois ever use the term &#39;Ashtanga Vinyasa&#39;? What are people who use this term (and

  7. ClaudiaYoga June 13, 2012 at 6:47 pm #

    Brian I am not sure of the full answer to that question, will try to find out.  

  8. Claudia September 12, 2013 at 5:37 am #

    Its was an amazing experience reading your post!<br /><br />