I was inspired to write this article after Ashtanga teacher Kino MacGregor posted a letter written to Yoga Journal by Pattabhi Jois, the father of Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga, about this very subject on Facebook. In the letter, he passionately and eloquently explains why Ashtanga Yoga is not Power Yoga. This article is by no means is meant to be a comparison to his, I wanted to talk about my personal experience with both and the differences that I experienced as a practitioner and teacher.
Why am I qualified to write this article? My first love is Ashtanga and it was my sole practice for about 5 or 6 years. I was living in Atlanta, which at the time, had several strong Ashtanga studios and awesome teachers. You could easily find classes to fit your schedule. When I moved to Charlotte, it quickly became obvious that Ashtanga was not popular. As a matter of fact, people were downright terrified of it. There were a sprinkling of teachers who knew just about as much as I did and one or two who knew more and could help my practice develop but they rarely taught it. It quickly became obvious that if I was ever going to practice outside of my house, I was going to have to start embracing Power Yoga. Ashtanga has started growing in Charlotte but classes are still very limited and sparse. My practice that used to be 100% Ashtanga has now switched to about 40% Ashtanga.
Many people who give their opinions on Ashtanga are either hard core Ashtangis or hard core Power people. Which usually means that have never fully immersed themselves in both and have extremely biased opinions. My viewpoint is unique. I have immersed myself in both. I am certified to teach Vinyasa and will teach Ashtanga to anyone who requests it. No my Ashtanga purists, I have not been certified by the Jois family but when the closest authorized/certified teachers are over 15 hours away and people need help with their practice, they look to the next best thing. Below in no particular order, are the similarities and differences with pros and cons.
Note, I am using Power Yoga and Westernized Vinyasa Yoga interchangeably here. When I say Power, I am not talking about Baron Baptiste. I will also be mainly comparing Ashtanga Mysore style self led practice to Power Yoga. I am also referring mainly to class settings. I will be talking about Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga as passed down by Krishnamacharya to Pattabhi Jois.
Power Yoga and Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga are both Hatha Yoga and they are both Vinyasa Yoga. This means that are both physical based and poses flow together seamlessly. Power Yoga sequences can change from teacher to teacher and allow for great creativity. Ashtanga yoga uses set sequences.
- Pros Of Ashtanga Sequences. Have been used for over 70+ years and has been proven to transform lives, bodies and minds. Simply stated, Ashtanga works. It is systemic and scientifically set up to unlock the physical and energetic body. Great for home practice because Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga is perfectly sequenced and requires no guess work, teacher training or extensive knowledge of yoga in order to practice. You can be assured that you will get the perfect amounts of strength, flexibility, breath work and mental tempering. The set sequences encourage a state of moving meditation because the student knows where they are going which frees up the mind for a more internal practice. You can practice at your own pace and have time to thoroughly focus and understand a posture before moving to the next.
- Pros of Power Yoga Sequencing. You never know what you are going to get which can be very exciting and fun. Free to do what feels good and what your body needs for that day. Unlike Ashtanga, you can practice any posture you want without having to wait to get to that point in the sequence. Can use fun music and props. You are free to be creative as you want. You can even make things up. Very freeing. Poses are specific to the western lifestyle and body type. Postures also tend to be more simple.
- Cons of Ashtanga Yoga Sequence Okay, I am biased. I love it but I will list what many students complain about. To get the full benefit of the practice, it requires memorization. It requires that students meet certain developmental milestones in order to progress to the next posture which causes frustration for many students. It can take a student years to move to another sequence. It is also quite possible that they never move to another sequence. Therefore, they end up practicing the same postures over and over again. Requires lots of dedication to learn. These poses are not easy and take consistent practice to master. Poses are not friendly to Western body types. Many of the poses are old school and are difficult for westerners who have very tight hips from sitting in chairs all day.
- Cons of Power Yoga Sequence Student is at the mercy of the teacher. There are some guidelines for Vinyasa sequencing but the teacher has creative license. While many teachers do sequences based on mastering skills and opening up energy, many put them together just to look pretty and some just flat out don't know what they are doing and just mimic others. The sequences are geared towards the general studio population. It doesn't matter if you are in the beginner class or the advanced class, their are always outliers. So if you are more advanced then the average student in your class, your practice is held back. If you need more help then the average student in your class, you are left behind. There are also a lot of distractions that hinder a moving meditation practice. Music, the teacher constantly calling out postures and you having to listen to figure out what is next all take way from an internal practice.
Intensity and Level of Difficulty
Over the years, I have found that this depends on what you started out with. People who start with Ashtanga find a hard core Power Yoga Class to be difficult. Those who started with Power Yoga find Ashtanga to be extremely difficult. It is all about what you are used to.
- Physical Workout Both provide an amazing physical workout when practiced without breaks and at the proper pace.
- Mental Workout Both bring about self inquiry over time especially when guided by a teacher with an understanding of the non physical side of yoga.
In the beginning, Led or guided Ashtanga classes were not meant for beginners. They were a way for practitioners to come together as a community once a week and also aided in learning proper breath counts and pacing. A guided class done with traditional counting and pace is a real butt kicker and leaves no space for lengthy demos and pose descriptions. You have five real breaths to get into a posture and that is it. Over the years, guided Ashtanga classes have started to be paced more like Power classes. The teacher waits for the majority of the students to get into the posture before counting, will give more instruction and demos and will even add counts. However, since the poses cannot be changed(then it is not Ashtanga anymore), only modified, it is still a hard pill for most beginners to swallow.
Ashtanga Mysore style, however, is great for beginners because they can move at their own pace. Most studios divide Power yoga classes up into different skill levels and their is usually one that is appropriate for beginners. Power Yoga postures are meant to be accessible to everyone so they tend to be more simple whereas Ashtanga poses can be very complicated.
How Soon Can You Join Cirque Du Soleil?
There are some of us who have a conqueror spirit. We like a nice gentle stretch but deep down we want to know what it feels like to float in and out of postures, put our legs behind our heads, and touch our heels in a back bend. Hands down Ashtanga will get you in the circus quicker then Power Yoga. The first Ashtanga sequence has legs behind the head and floats built in! Power yoga teachers rarely include stuff like that in their classes because you always have that one person who has no business doing it trying to do it anyway and ending up hurt. Also it just takes too long to explain and perfect. When you have a class that changes every day, you can't focus on any one thing for too long. In Ashtanga it is built in so you can't help but learn it.
Injuries are not caused by yoga poses. They are caused by humans improperly doing yoga poses. When done properly, the poses are therapeutic and life changing. Both of these types of yoga have unique issues when it comes to injuries. Power Yoga is very fast paced and is often taught in packed rooms where there is no way the teacher can pay attention to everyone. When moving quickly, alignment is often lost and injuries occur. The same is also true for guided Ashtanga classes.
Something unique to Ashtanga is that the postures are more complicated so when done improperly, the potential for injury is greater. While Power Yoga uses the same poses as Ashtanga, you will rarely see postures like full lotus which is a major part of Ashtanga and when done improperly, is the number one cause of knee injuries in yoga students.
Which one should you do? It is up to you!
Video of the Day: Jumping into Bakasana