Differences Between Ashtanga & Iyengar Yoga

Yoga props are common in Iyengar practices.

So, you're going to yoga — you know what to expect, right? Not so fast — the kind of yoga you're attending matters.

Some types move with the breath in a rigorous style, while others have you honing postures deliberately, sometimes spending several minutes on just one pose. Other yoga practices may use props and position cues to get you into optimal form, meaning you'll work just a one or two postures in an entire class.

Two class styles you'll likely hear of or encounter are Ashtanga and Iyengar. Both grew out out of the teachings of the same master yogi, Tirumalai Krishnamacharya, but are quite different in execution.

While Ashtanga is athletic and gymnastic in practice, Iyengar is precise and deliberate. Ashtanga flows with the breath in a vinyasa style, while Iyengar favors long holds and support with props to get you into proper alignment. Expect to sweat and burn some calories in Ashtanga, while you'll delve deeper into stretches and build mental fortitude in Iyengar.

A Little History

Krishnamacharya taught numerous yoga students in the early 1900s, including K. Patthabi Jois, a proponent of Ashtanga vinyasa, and B.K.S. Iyengar, the founder of Iyengar. Krishnamacharya put emphasis on the physical practice of yoga, and was quite the disciplinarian when instructing the physical practice to younger students.

The two forms of yoga persisted outside of Krishnamacharya's teachings, with Jois introducing the vigorous practice of Ashtanga to the West and Iyengar taking a more therapeutic approach and using yoga to heal his students.

Ashtanga Vinyasa Principles

Ashtanga is often considered the root of "power" or "vinyasa" yoga. It follows a specific sequence of postures, depending on which "series" you've mastered, but always moves with the breath. Sun Salutations, arm balances and complex twists are often part of an Ashtanga practice.

Challenging postures feature in Ashtanga.

Through the rhythmic repetition of effort, equanimity of mind is to be achieved. Because it moves at a relatively swift pace and puts your body into what some may consider extreme positions, it's definitely a workout and not for everyone.

Iyengar Yoga

Iyengar yoga puts emphasis on finding your perfect positioning in a pose. Sometimes, that comes naturally in your body, but sometimes, you need assistance from a prop — such as a block, strap or padded blanket — to assist your body in finding the right direction. Iyengar has a more analytical approach to yoga, when compared to Ashtanga, and places less emphasis on movement. The practice recognizes that people are built differently — the props are the great equalizer to help you find your optimal alignment.

It's unlikely you'll sweat in an Iyengar class, but that doesn't mean you're not putting forth any effort. The mental focus required to position your body just right and hold a pose can be challenging — just a different challenging than Ashtanga. Regular practice is said to create balance in the body, and consequently, a balanced mind.

Iyengar popularized Headstand in modern yoga practices.

Which Should You Practice?

One yoga is not superior to the other, it's simply a matter of what's right for your goals and body. A person who is recovering from an injury, deconditioned or interested in precise instruction might enjoy Iyengar the most. While someone who wants structure and is fit might gravitate toward Ashtanga. Both yogas are rooted in tradition, however, and have a lot to offer the mind, body and spirit.