In this article I am referring as Ashtanga Yoga to the sequential yoga handed down via T Krishnamacharya, KP Jois and BNS Iyengar (do not mistake with BKS). This method was seen for the first time in writing in Krishnamacharya’s Yoga Makaranda in 1932 but it is claimed to come from an ancient text called Yoga Korunta (likely to refer to Kapala Kurantaka as mentioned in Hatha Yoga Pradipika). The term Ashtanga however is confusing as it traditionally refers to Patanjali’s eight-limbed yoga (sutra 2.29 “ashtau angani = these are the eight limbs). When I came across Ashtanga Yoga thirty years ago it was still called Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga due to the importance of the sequential movements.
The term vinyasa in the meantime has been reinvented to refer to a newly created yoga that combines elements from Ashtanga and (BKS’s) Iyengar Yoga. From Ashtanga it took the fact that all postures are woven together with sequential movements to form a continuous flow. From Iyengar Yoga it took the fact that the order of postures is made up by the teacher and often fluctuates from class to class.
In this article I will analyse the problems with this new approach and show in what way Ashtanga excels. I will also however delve into the setbacks of the Ashtanga method and later down the track why Vinyasa Yoga still has merit.
- Vinyasa sequences are made up daily depending on the preference of the teacher. This is something that disturbed me already when practising Iyengar Yoga, which I did prior to changing to Ashtanga 30 years ago. How much do we know about the sequence of the day? Is it proven to work? How long is the track record? How much do I know about the abilities of this teacher to sequence postures?
In Ashtanga we have proven sequences, which date back to Krishnamacharya’s research or older. The problem with the current Ashtanga orthodoxy is that there is too much emphasis on sticking to a particular sequence even if it doesn’t work that well for an individual student. This was not Krishnamacharya’s approach.
The problem with discarding all established sequences is that we have no base to start from. My suggestion is to teach the established Ashtanga sequences and then modify them if necessary and adapt them to individual needs.
- Another important setback of Vinyasa Yoga, which it took over from its Iyengar roots, is that you may not be able to work on your weak spots as the teacher daily determines what you practice. When I used to practice Iyengar Yoga I used to hope that the teacher on that day wasn’t picking forward bending as a theme, which I hated. And I rejoiced when the theme was back bending which I loved. Correspondingly, when I did self-practice at home forward bends did not feature prominently in my practice. As a result I did not improve in forward bending until I hit Ashtanga. Once confronted with the Primary Series I had to face my demons and from there improved swiftly in forward bending.
A criticism of Ashtanga here: Teachers need to be trained to recognize problems such as flexion predominance, which is caused by too much forward bending. In this case an alternative sequence needs to be created until the student can return to the Primary Series. There is a ridiculous myth in orthodox Ashtanga that if you practice yourself long enough you know everything that’s good for the students. That’s silly. There are so many variations amongst human bodies that you never come across all problems in your own body. Teachers must formally study to supplement their own practice.
(A footnote regarding my use of the term orthodox Ashtanga. The term “traditional Ashtanga Yoga” should be reserved for Patanjali’s eight-limbed yoga, which dates back millennia. However, the term is often claimed by followers of the Jois-method. When I practised with KP Jois in the 1990’s things were still much more fluid and things were changed sometimes. Also, if you do compare the vinyasa count in all available sources (books and videos) you will notice that it was fluid, too. Today’s Jois-method therefore has an age of possible 20 in some aspects 40 or 50 years but no older. I am proposing the term orthodox Ashtanga instead of “traditional” for a system that places adherence to set sequences above the needs of individual students.
- Teaching Vinyasa Yoga is not sustainable for the teacher as the teacher always demonstrates postures and practices in front of students. How long can you do that as a teacher? Being 40 years into yoga practice I would say you can do that for about 10 years, give and take a few years based on the level of stability and flexibility you start with. There are exceptions of course but the majority of teachers won’t teach a follow-the-leader type class for more than ten years. Teaching such classes demands of you that you focus on how your practice looks from the outside (some teachers even watch themselves in a mirror to make sure their postures look good). While that is good for looks it makes proprioception and interoception go out the window. Sustainable asana practice is relying on proprioception and interoception. That is you must learn to feel and listen to your body to find out whether a posture is right. If you don’t do that, wear and tear on your body such as arthritis, free radicals and injuries will eventually take their toll.
An important sub-point here is that many Vinyasa teachers I know do not have much of a self-practice outside of teaching. To be honest, I wouldn’t have much either after teaching a few follow-the-leader type practices per day. Ashtanga is really neat in that regard. As you slowly turn into a senior or elder you simply teach Led and Mysore and nobody expects you to strut your stuff in front of others. That’s sustainable into high age. With Vinyasa my impression is that it is relying on a constant influx of young and capable teachers bodies with the aging ones being spewn out at the other end of the conveyor belt.
- With Vinyasa Yoga you cannot take your practice home as you are always dependant on the teacher for what sequence you do (unless you study sequencing yourself but then you are pretty much a teacher already). Why would you want to take your practice home? Maybe there are days when you can’t make it to the studio or your teacher gets sick or leaves town and it takes you some time to find a new one. Maybe you don’t find a new one. Maybe there is no teacher in your town. And ultimately going to yoga classes and learning from teachers is something that needs to crystalize into your own practice, that is at some point in your life you need to take responsibility for what you practice. I see that process more difficult to achieve with Vinyasa. It seems to rely heavily on the stimulatory effect of the teacher.
A criticism towards Ashtanga here: our problem is the other way around. Students can get attached to their own practice really early on, we are talking a couple of years into their yoga journey. A sixty-year-old Ashtanga-colleague of mine once told me that he taught a group of young students in the Mysore-format and gave them a lot of input about improving their postures. This meant that he had to talk a fair bit about fundamentals. The young students attached to their pace and count eventual screamed at him (in class before all students), “We just want to do our own practice. We just came here to do our own practice.” They obviously wanted to be simply adjusted to get deeper into the postures but didn’t want to learn anything new. This can be an issue in Ashtanga.
- Any guided class whether Vinyasa, Ashtanga or any other style can only address the smallest common denominator in class. In most classes as a teacher you will see that the majority of the students need a set of instruction that we could call the standard-model. It works for about two thirds to 80% of students in class. But then you see groups of students whose bodies divert from the standard-model in various ways. If I break the instructions down and discuss the variations in actions to the whole group, including why somebody has to practice which subsets of instructions we will never get past Surya Namaskara A.
Ashtanga is very elegant here. You teach the standard model in Guided classes and workshops and then address individual needs in the Mysore-style format. I can’t think of any other method to teach a student long-term.
Ultimately if you really drill down there is no set of instructions that works for two people. There are always slight differences. No chance of conveying those when addressing a group. In other words as long as we teach Guided we can and must hover on the surface. Guided is nevertheless vital as a quite large set of surface instructions should be learned before we drill down to the particulars. This set is so large that it is not feasible to address each student individually in the Mysore-format. But the drilling down to the particulars can take place only in the Mysore-format when teaching individually. That’s really important to understand: for a sophisticated practice learn Guided early on and gradually transit to Mysore with a few Guided classes speckled in between now and then.
- In Vinyasa Yoga you always focus outwards and look what the teacher is doing or what the teacher is saying. For this reason the focus is not as meditative and internalizing. You may say it is still a meditative and internal experience and that may be true to some extent but not in the sense that I’m using the terms here. In my workshops and Led/Guided classes I am sometimes demonstrating a few postures and definitely in all of them I do give a lot of technical instructions. I do not expect the students to meditate but to intellectually understand the instructions and the reasons for them, replicate them in their postures and memorize them, too. Led/Guided classes therefore are an intense cerebral learning environment. At some point you have done enough of them (although you may come back periodically for new input) but then you take all of that into the Mysore-style format and practice it (with the teacher there to give individual attention and help).
The instructed class format (teacher addressing all students) is very important in the beginning but ultimately if you want to deepen your practice the majority of it needs to take place in the Mysore-style format because it is a meditative and deeply internalizing format. The Ashtanga-method excels here because instructed classes are clearly seen only as a conduit towards the Mysore-style format. Developing a meditative and deeply internal asana practice is so important because it forms the bedrock on which the later practices of pranayama and yogic meditation rest. Also pranayama and yogic meditation need to initially be instructed in the guided format but then later to be practiced Mysore-style, that is in the self-practice format.
A critique on the orthodox Ashtanga method: the importance of instructed classes and conveying cerebral/technical information about the postures is often not emphasized enough and therefore the practice of students regularly stunted.
- In any guided class, Vinyasa, Ashtanga or other, you cannot practice synchronized to your own breath as you have to keep up with the teacher instructions and/or breath. Having started yoga with a very hard, stiff body I cannot imagine how my body would have ever opened up if I had not learned to surrender to my own breath when moving through asana. Gliding through choreographed sequences of postures on the wave of my breath, literally to be moved through asana by the breath or surfing the waves of the breath through asana is what ultimately gave me yoga.
Krishna says in the Gita, “All things are moved by my prakrti. Only a fool believes to be the doer”. Prakrti, the divine creative force, is a complex term but amongst other things it means prana and breath. In asana we ultimately must put Krishna’s words into practice and give up the sense of agency. That means to give up the idea that we are the doers, that we are breathing, that we are performing the asanas. The magic of asana practice ultimately consists in sitting back inside our bodies and watching as the breath moves us effortlessly through the paces like the autumn wind picks up a leaf and moves it around. As long as we are the doers of the asana practice we are fools in Krishna’s words.
Of course we are talking about a high level of skill here but it is this level of skill that Ashtanga aims at and it is this level of skill that ultimately blossoms in higher-limbs practices such as pranayama and yogic meditation.
Such higher-limbs practice organically grows out of Ashtanga-asana-practice due to its reliance on the Mysore-style teaching format. I cannot see how it can be achieved to that extent by any method that does not employ largely set sequences and the self-practice format.
For all of the above reasons I believe the Ashtanga method to be superior to Vinyasa. I think that Vinyasa currently has its place in the sun but as practitioners want to dive deeper into yoga the above shortcomings will become clear. This is not to say that there is no value in offering Vinyasa Yoga. For a lot of yoga newcomers Ashtanga with its demand on commitment and its seriousness is too much of an ask. I remember teaching novices who told me that they simply wanted to be led and told what to do and did not want to develop their own practice. Vinyasa definitely has a place in introducing new people to yoga.
In the meantime, Ashtanga has a lot to learn to get ready for students who want to take it up. A few obvious points would be:
- A higher level of training of teachers in yogic anatomy and how to adapt it to individual student’s needs. Learning how anatomical knowledge must inform technical instruction in guided and Mysore style classes.
- Knowing the anatomical limitations of bodies, which adjustments are unsafe and how far the safe ones can be taken. This is not something that can be learned by watching or simply by adjusting. It can only be learned by somebody who is a long serving senior teacher and at the same time has done formal training in anatomy. Unfortunately students are often hurt because teachers believe no formal expertise is required.
- Understanding the differences between bodies and how they must be accommodated by altering the sequences if necessary. Many students have left Ashtanga for good because their teacher could not or would not modify their sequence.
- Understanding that the Ashtanga-asana practice is a preparation for the higher limbs (pranayama, yogic meditation) and not an end in itself. This is obvious from studying the Sutra and other yogic texts. When exactly did the idea originate that simply doing your asana practice would bring you everything? It’s unfortunate that Ashtanga Yoga has been watered down so much.
- Having a sophisticated understanding of pranayama and yogic meditation, having had experiences stemming from them and the ability and readiness to convey the techniques to students.
I believe there is a great opportunity for Ashtanga in the future but we need to ready ourselves to grow and evolve as Ashtanga teachers. Students are also playing an important role here in that regard that they need to inform themselves which teachers tick all of the above boxes.