Ashtanga, Hatha, Vinyasa, Flow... huh?

T Krishnamacharya demonstrating Upward Facing Dog

T Krishnamacharya demonstrating Upward Facing Dog

I was inspired to write this post by the countless conversations I’ve had with yoga students and teachers about the variety of styles on offer in the modern yoga scene. Inevitably, these conversations point to a general confusion of terms when describing a particular class style or approach. 

In a chat I had with a teacher earlier today, she was speaking about “Hatha” and “Vinyasa” yoga, and so I asked her what she felt the difference was. She said that Hatha classes focus more on longer held postures and that Vinyasa was “faster and more flowing”, definitions which are in line with how the terms are usually used by studios.

I think it’s important to begin by understanding what these terms actually mean and what they represent. Hatha Yoga is a term used to describe the practice of postures and breathwork with the goal of strengthening the body and clearing the energy channels that run throughout the body (what the yogis called “nadis”), which brings about mental clarity and the ability to focus the mind.

“When the breath is agitated, the mind is unsteady. When breath becomes steady, the mind is also steady, and the Yogi attains steadiness and stillness. Hence, one should practice pranayama (breath control).” — Hatha Yoga Pradipika, II.2

According to the ancient yogis, the postures and breathwork of Hatha Yoga prepare us for Raja Yoga, the practice of meditation.

The great yoga teacher and scholar T. Krishnamacharya introduced the world to the practice of Vinyasa, which means “to place in a special way” and refers to the mindful and intelligent linking of breath and movement — which can be experienced by simply raising your arms as you inhale, and lowering them as you exhale. Notice that when we raise our arms, the chest expands and the spine lengthens, allowing for a fuller inhalation. When we lower our arms the chest relaxes, complimenting the exhalation. In this case, the movement serves the breath. As in other forms of Hatha Yoga, the breath is given the primary importance.

“The breath is primary to yoga, because the breath is primary to life, and yoga is about life."
— attributed to Krishnamacharya

Krishnamacharya always stressed that the breath should be made long and smooth, which we do in Vinyasa by practicing Ujjayi pranayama — gently constricting the throat to slow down the passage of air on both the inhale and the exhale. As the yogi gains more control over their breath, it becomes slower and deeper and, because we’re mindfully linking breath and movement, the movements also become slower. 

In all Hatha Yoga, the emphasis is on lengthening the breath, so it is never meant to be practiced quickly. This makes sense, because when our breath becomes long and smooth it has a calming effect on our nervous system which then leads to a more clear and steady mind state.

To summarize, you could simply say that Vinyasa is a method of practicing Hatha Yoga, with the goal of cultivating the mental clarity and focus needed to meditate.

The term Flow Yoga comes from the yoga explosion in America in the early 90s when teachers like Ganga White and Shiva Rea, inspired by Vinyasa Yoga, started to create flowing sequences that linked postures together in a kind of meditative dance. In the modern yoga scene, the terms “Flow” and “Vinyasa” are often used interchangeably, which leads to the idea that in Vinyasa Yoga we never stay in the postures, which just isn’t true. Krishnamacharya would recommend staying in asanas like paschimottanasana (seated forward bend) for upwards of 10 minutes (!), and even in Ashtanga Vinyasa, the method popularized by Krishnamacharya’s early student Pattabhi Jois and the inspiration for Flow Yoga, the postures are held for at least 5 breaths, often longer.

The way that I explain it to my students is that practicing the postures first dynamically (vinyasa) allows the body to get used to the shape we’re making so that we can stay in the posture (asana) with greater ease, and focus more deeply on the breath (pranayama), which becomes a meditative practice. 

“Just as music without sruti (pitch) and laya (rhythm) will not give any pleasure, similarly asana practice done without vinyasa krama will not give good health.” — Krishnamacharya

To me, Vinyasa Yoga is an incredibly intelligent and elegant system for cultivating strength, flexibility, focus and relaxation. I’m forever grateful to my teachers who have passed on this method with such integrity and care, and I hope that this article has helped to clarify any confusion you might have had about all the various terms floating around the modern yoga scene.

Please let me know in the comments if you have any questions!