Sunday, August 12, 2012

A signpost: on the (cultural and physical) differences between Vinyasa (power, flow, etc.) yoga and Ashtanga Vinyasa

As someone who teaches both Flow and Ashtanga, I am often struck by the subtle and not so subtle differences between the two practices. Lately, as I get ready to teach Ashtanga at Breathe, I'm finding myself making a list of the common differences and the possible reasons for them. I've chosen to break them down so as not to overwhelm the reader. This is by no means exhaustive, nor is it intended to be a critical list of either practice. Please feel free to ask questions, or add any new items to the lists. 

On the (mostly) physical differences:

1. In a traditional Ashtanga class, you don’t walk, bicycle, or wiggle your downward dog. While in many Flow style classes the teacher might encourage you to move around in downward facing dog, and 'do what feels good' (the pros/rationale being that you use the stretches to wake up the body, warm up, move to not become static, etc.), in Ashtanga Yoga, you hold this posture for the duration of the breath count (the pros: with the movements coming from a more subtle place, we work the body into alignment with small, energetic movements and actions).

2. Variations are commonplace in most Flow style classes. Variations like binding in Parsvakonasana, moving the legs into different positions in headstand, adding full handstands in the transition from standing to chatturanga dandasana give more advanced students in a vinyasa class new challenges, and also add a degree of variety to the class. In an Ashtanga class, since the series are set and the student progresses through them at their own pace, the thinking is that one is always properly challenged within the set series.
3. Modifications are also commonplace in Flow style classes for obvious reasons: to prevent injury, and be mindful of where the body is today. Modifications such as using a block in revolved triangle, and bringing the elbow to the knee in parsvakonasna help the students with tighter hips and hamstrings to safely approach the postures. Although in a strict Ashtanga class props and modifications are not offered, many senior teachers who appreciate and have studied the Iyengar system encourage the students to modify as needed. I especially recommend the blanket-supported shoulderstand, and use of blocks in revolved triangle.

4. How one enters into the postures matters in Ashtanga. For example, the transition to warrior 1 is connected to the breath count, and it does not involve the lifting of the leg. It is downward dog (2 feet on the ground) to warrior 1.  In Flow style classes, there maybe several options for entering and exiting an asana, again to properly challenge and engage students of varying abilities.

5. In a Flow class, it’s not uncommon for students to stop to drink water, use the restroom, walk to get a prop mid-practice, etc. In Ashtanga, one is encouraged to have everything one may need nearby before the practice starts. Though virtually impossible, the goal is to stop the flow of the practice as little as possible to keep it a more meditative process.

Stay tuned for my post on the cultural differences between the two styles of practice...

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