sorry about the pause in posting, my wireless card bit the dust and I'm waiting on the arrival of a new one...
once upon a time in a 75-minute Ashtanga class a student asked me, "Well what's the difference between ashtanga and vinyasa flow anyway?" I didn't have a good answer at that point, particularly because the poses we were doing in 75 minutes were, really, pretty much like any other vinyasa class taught at that studio.
now, from Larry, I can say, "Ashtanga is a science of sequencing poses according to breath, bandhas and dristi (gazing point)." Another go-to answer is that ashtanga poses occur in a set order which, classically, is not deviated from (note that since the 1930s, various changes to the sequences have occurred; Pattabhi Jois has been reputed to say, "Series not changing, students forgetting!" about this, haha!).
David Swenson, when he was in town in mid-August, said that it's not incorrect to say that almost all "vinyasa this and that" yoga (flow, hot flow, vinyasa flow, vinyasa yoga, power yoga, whatever your studio calls it) comes in one way or another from ashtanga sequences. Ashtanga has been taught in India since the 1930s, and the earliest of the power yogas/vinyasa yogas (I'm thinking of folks like Baron Baptiste and Beryl Bender Birch), as far as I can tell, appears in the 1980s. This is not to say that there has never, on the planet, been a vinyasa yoga that isn't ashtanga, and also it is not to say that inventive and cool stuff cannot be done with a vinyasa yoga class (look, for example, at Shiva Rea's stuff or Andrey Lappa's stuff).
This is to say that much Western and specifically American vinyasa/power yoga in one way or another can be tracked back to ashtanga sequences. Check out the primary for a minute: sun salutations, standing poses (revolved and not), hand-to-big-toe balances, half-lotus poses both seated and standing, about a dozen seated poses including twists, internal rotation of the thigh and external rotation of the thigh, navasana (the boat), an arm balance, intense hip openers, bandha-builders (like when you roll up from your back, hands to big toes, and balance on your sit bones) and then a pack of backbends, inversions, and various cooling poses, all capped off by "uplifting," where you suspend your full/half/no-lotus off the ground for up to 100 breaths. That's a lot of asana, and I didn't even mention the vinyasa between poses, the full expressions of which are jumping your legs and body through your arms as you move from seated to chaturanga dandasana (the low push-up), updog, downdog and then back to seated. There are about 50 of those in a full Primary series.
Ok, so maybe the various vinyasa flows and power yogas can be tracked back to this. The all-important follow-up question is, "Well which one is BETTER, then?" Better? What is this "better" of which you speak? Do you see this tendency? Come on, even I have it. If you put two things in a room together, the tendency is to choose between them. "Do you do ashtanga OR vinyasa flow?" And my favorite (kidding) verion of this is the identity game, where you BECOME one practice and have to put down members of the other "team." Check this out: "Are you an ashtangi or do you do vinyasa flow?"
I do both ashtanga and vinyasa flow classes. Sure, my home practice is ashtanga and I teach an ashtanga-flavored vinyasa sequence (the Rocket), but I enjoy a vinyasa flow class here and again (there are some I don't care for, but that's instructor-specific; I've lost my will to play the "either-or" game above).
To follow up a thread from a recent blog posting out there, what about when students in an ashtanga class do something "vinyasa" from another class they've taken? Well, it depends on what they do and who is teaching how traditional a sequence (this is my two cents).
In the Rocket, I invite students to press up into tripod headstand from a standing wide angle pose (Prasarita Padottanasana A, to be precise) because that's what the Rocket likes. We also add side splits and front splits into that sequence. In my Mysore-style ashtanga class, I don't invite that because it's not part of the sequence and I want to follow the tradition as I've seen it taught and experienced it first-hand. There is no "better than/worse than" to be done here. In the same way that the Rocket is clearly derived from classical Ashtanga practice but is not inferior to it (why would one be interested in putting down any given sequence? what kind of use of energy is that? to quote Swenson here: if you change the ashtanga sequence, and don't call your change "ashtanga," great, do whatever you want), vinyasa sequences are also not inferior to Primary. Still, if I see someone pop a headstand in my Mysore-style class I'll probably want to encourage that student to stay targeted on bandhas/breath/dristi rather than the extra "fun" of the vinyasa flow move.
Ashtanga sequences are set; there are days when I'm not sure I'm down for the specific rigor of my home practice. But there are days I love and adore knowing what comes next without having to brainstorm a sequence or wait for the next pose to announce itself. Ashtanga is like looking in the same mirror every day: what am I all about TODAY? Vinyasa flow classes have a bit more carnival to their mirror. Challenge-wise (and again this is my two cents) I find that vinyasa classes demand a bit more fluidity from me: is the next pose going to be one I like, or not? How long are we going to hold this bound angle variation? Ashtanga practice comes with easy sections and difficult sections and I know what's coming when, so it's very much a matter of how much or little focus I've got on my energy in the "now." Sometimes a crazy hard pose is easy because I've got focus and energy and I do a modified version that suits my "today" rather than shooting for a full expression that doesn't (or maybe the full expression comes when I wasn't expecting it; that's how energy works). This also happens in vinyasa flow classes, but the management of "now" is more fluid: half-moon pose! and I have to do one sort of mind-body energy arrangment and sensing, to see how I feel about it, and then later, bakasana! and i have to do ANOTHER mind-body arrangement, check in with variations or not, and then whatever happens happens.
I was reading something not long ago about "Buddha mind" and whether the Buddha is the subject or the object of causation, and the wise man said, "The one with Buddha Mind is one with causation." This echoes something I've discovered about ashtanga and vinyasa flow: when I'm practicing, on very "on" energy days, I AM practicing. The way that someone once saw an American Indian rain dance, and said, "They ARE raining." The whole idea of "moving meditation." In Ashtanga's set poses, it is movement from one to the next, like riding a well-loved roller coaster: here comes that big drop again, how will you react? In vinyasa flow, it is movement from one to something else, which you discover moment to moment, a bit like highway driving. Will someone cut you off? How will you react? Will you make this green light or not; how will you react?