Ashtanga and Iyengar yoga are as different as night and day. The first is for the extremely fit and the second is mild enough that it can serve those people who are challenged by injuries or even illness. In an Iyengar yoga practice, each pose is carefully cultivated and often helped along by the use of props such as chairs and straps. An Ashtanga practice is seen as a whole; no one pose is held for more than five breaths, and all meld one into the other in a pre-set sequence. Discover the differences between Ashtanga and Iyengar yoga through their histories, modalities and benefits.
The Inventors of Ashtanga and Iyengar Yoga
Sri K. Pattabhi Jois and B.K.S. Iyengar were contemporaries. They were both born in the second decade of the 20th century in India, and both studied under the venerated yoga master Krishnamacharya. But after that their paths diverged. Pattabhi Jois was a vigorous man who took the teachings of ancient texts, such as the "Yoga Sutras" of Patanjali, and interpreted them in his own way to develop the demanding practice of Ashtanga yoga.
Iyengar, on the other hand, grew up sickly and puny. Since he couldn't embarrass himself in front of his brother-in-law and teacher Krishnamacharya, Iyengar took to using whatever was at hand to develop his strength and stamina in yoga poses. He recalls placing cement blocks on the insides of his legs to stretch his groin muscles in Cobbler's pose. When Iyengar came to North America, his practice of using props to deepen a pose intrigued Western yoga teachers enough that they started offering this method under his name.
The Practice of Ashtanga and Iyengar Yoga
Ashtanga yoga falls under the category of a Vinyasa, or flowing method of practicing yoga poses. A typical Ashtanga practice will consist of performing a set of Sun Salutations followed by 11 fundamental poses and then rounded out by the 50 poses that comprise the Primary series of Ashtanga yoga. Even though the poses are taught individually at first, it's up to the student to keep them all in order when ready for a full Ashtanga practice. Particular attention is paid to the quality of your breathing, while not as much to the correct alignment of your limbs.
Iyengar yoga -- unless because of illness or injury you need assistance from a certified instructor knowledgeable in the use of props -- is based on personal preferences. If you want to spend a whole hour exploring back bending poses, then it's up to you. B.K.S. Iyengar wrote what is considered the "bible" of yoga, "Light on Yoga." In this book he performed and then photographed, described and listed the benefits of each yoga pose. For a how-to on the kind of yoga practiced and perfected by an Indian master, you can't do better.
The Benefits of Ashtanga and Iyengar Yoga
Ashtanga yoga will strengthen your muscles and improve your dexterity if practiced regularly. You move from standing to kneeling to sitting to crouching or lunging poses in the space between one breath and the next. The Ujjayi breathing technique, which is employed throughout your 90-minute Ashtanga practice, will slow your respiratory rate and enhance your lung capacity even off the mat.
Iyengar laid out all the benefits of each yoga pose in his book "Light on Yoga" and these benefits range from reduced blood pressure to stronger muscles to an increased ability to balance, among hundreds of others. But for those people with disabilities or chronic illnesses like multiple sclerosis, Iyengar yoga gives them the ability to enjoy more freedom of movement. In some Iyengar studios, specially designed walls that have been embedded with straps and ropes that, along with rigorously trained instructors, assist challenged students in achieving a pose they couldn't perform on their own.
If you’re fit there’s no reason not to try both styles. There are enough differences between Ashtanga and Iyengar yoga to add spice and variety to your life, not to mention the benefits that can improve your fitness level and health. For those of you who are physically challenged, seek out a qualified Iyengar instructor who can guide you through a modified but satisfying yoga practice.
- Light on Yoga; B.K.S. Iyengar
Linda Kaban is a certified yoga teacher and professional life coach who specializes in helping people achieve their fitness goals. With a bachelor's degree in the humanities, Kaban has been writing since 1998 and has been published in YOGALife magazine along with other healthy living publications.