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Yoga is translated as ‘to yolk,’ meaning to bring two things together. 

If we look back at what yoga means, it is an ancient technique for uniting the mind, body, and spirit. 

This article contains a brief history of yoga, its varied styles, branches, and families of poses. 

You’ll learn about the six main branches of yoga. 

This post also provides an overview of some popular contemporary yoga styles, including Ashtanga, Vinyasa, and Hatha.

Vinyasa Yoga has roots in Ashtanga Yoga, but there are a few differences.

Keep reading to learn more about the unique attributes of each style and the founders of yoga as we know it today.

The History of Yoga 

Sri Pattabhi Jois is the Father of Ashtanga Yoga. 

Jois was trained by S.T. Krishnamacharya (the Father of Modern Yoga as we know it today) – he attended a lecture at the age of 12 and immediately signed up to be his student. 

Jois trained with Krishnamacharya for 25 years. He opened the Ashtanga Yoga Research Institute in 1948 in Mysore, India. Ashtanga was nicknamed the Mysore style after the city where it was originally founded and taught. 

Ashtanga Yoga is a popular style today and provides the framework for Ashtanga Vinyasa or simply what we know as Vinyasa yoga. 

In addition to teaching some of the leading influencers of yoga as we know it today, Krishnamacharya was the architect of vinyasa yoga. 

His method was the first to combine dynamic movements (asanas) with the breath (pranayama), specifically linking each movement to the breath in the Ashtanga practice. 

This particular style of yoga is called Vinyasa Krama Yoga or Viniyoga. 

Krishnamacharya also drew from Ayurveda AND yoga to create a holistic approach to living that many yogis express today. 

Yoga is an ancient practice dating back to The Vedas, approximately 5000 years ago. 

The earliest form of yoga was scriptures – hymns sung to express the divine. 

Rishis – mystics – outlined the initial practices of yoga in the Upanishads

Another notable yoga text is The Bhagavad Gita

All of these scriptures were composed around 500 B.C.E.  

Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras came to be in approximately the 2nd Century BCE.  

The Sutras were Patanjali’s means of organizing yoga thought, practices, and processes into a cohesive Eight-Limbed Path to achieve liberation. 

How Yoga Came to the West

Many of Krishnamacharya’s students came to the West and began performing and teaching to attract a following in the late 1800/1900s. 

Swami Vivekananda, Sivananda, Jois, Iyengar, and Krishnamacharya’s son assisted in making yoga accessible worldwide by opening yoga centers, writing books, and training students. 

Indra Devi, the first woman to teach yoga in the West, opened her studio in Hollywood in 1947. She was the first to popularize Hatha Yoga and gain global notoriety. 

In the West, Hatha Yoga unites the practical (physical) aspects with yoga’s transcendental (meditative) elements. 

Hatha Yoga is the technique of using physical postures to express, align, and engage particular energies and energy points in the body. 

Hatha yoga was used to release energy to prepare the body for meditation. 

The Six Main Branches of Yoga 

There are six main branches of yoga – Raja, Jnana, Bhakti, Karma, Hatha, and Tantra. 

The practices are (briefly) outlined as follows: 
  • Raja – yoga of meditation discipline of the mind
  • Jnana –  yoga of knowing, intellect, study 
  • Bhakti – yoga of devotion, focus on a deity/the divine, mantras and prayer
  • Karma – yoga of action, service, emphasis on deeds
  • Hatha – yoga of force, creates balance through opposing forces
  • Tantra – yoga of visualization, to weave the energies through the body

Four of the six branches of yoga are mentioned in the classic and much-loved text, The Bhagavad Gita

The best part of the six branches is that all paths lead to the same source – the divine, love, total consciousness, liberation, or whatever you want to call it. 

There is no ‘one path’ or ‘right path’ – all branches provide the same thing with practice: freedom. 

If you prefer the yoga of action, there is something for you. 

If you prefer the yoga of intellect, there is something for you.

If you prefer the yoga of devotion, there is something for you. 

At its roots, yoga’s essential purpose is to connect to the self.

The practice creates a space to align with the true nature of the self.

In yoga, this is the Atman – the Supreme (big S) Self that never changes. It is the part of YOU that is eternal. 

The practice of Patanjali’s Eight Limbs helps the practitioner become more aware and attentive to the mind and its fluctuations. 

Vinyasa yoga’s philosophical roots are in Patanjali’s Sutras, based on the Samkhya belief in dualism

Samkhya holds that self-knowledge leads to conscious liberation.

We connect to the divine through the control of the mind. 

Patanjali called this state ‘Chitta vritti nirodha,’ free of anger, worry, frustration, envy, and fear. He believed that a consistent yoga practice results in a clear, focused, and attuned mind to the present. 

About Ashtanga Yoga 

Ashtanga Yoga is very repetitive.

This is why it appeals to people—the consistency creates a progressive, anticipated rhythm that allows one to perfect postures. 

The word Ashtanga translates as Eight-Limbs, referring to Patanjali’s Eight Limbs of Yoga. 

In the Ashtanga primary series, there are 49 poses and 35 vinyasas. 

Ashtanga Yoga is composed of six series (Primary, Intermediate, and four Advanced series). In the Mysore style, the student performs the same postures each day until they are perfected.

The traditional sequence starts with five Surya Namaskara A and five B, standing poses, and one of the six series, and ends with a finishing sequence.  

The primary series is the first of the six Ashtanga series. Each has a specific and fixed order of postures.

Other things to note about Ashtanga Yoga are that it’s dynamic and powerful and features a strong Ujjayi breath—no music is played during the practice, so you can hear your breath. 

About Vinyasa Yoga 

Vinyasa Yoga, as we know it today, has existed since the 1960s and 1970s.

Born of Ashtanga Yoga, Vinyasa has many similar components, including:
  • Dynamic breath (ujjayi)
  • Linking of movement to breath 
  • Poses from the Primary and Secondary Series 
  • Engagement of the bandhas 
  • Use of Dristhi to direct and focus energy
  • Powerful movement that builds strength and stability in the body 
  • A blend of standing and seated postures 

So, how do Vinyasa and Ashtanga yoga differ? 

Depending on the teacher, here is how Vinyasa stands out from Ashtanga: 

  • There is no set series; the postures are used, but the sequence is unique to the individual leading the class 
  • Vinyasa yoga classes may or may not include peak postures 
  • Vinyasa classes may have music
  • Vinyasa classes may include a theme 
  • The sequence and poses are adjusted based on the level of the student – the teacher may adjust based on what they see shifting in the student/room 

Many vinyasa yoga teachers studied with Jois or Mysore Ashtanga to create their own style of yoga. 


Notable vinyasa yoga teachers Clara has trained with include:

Sharon Gannon and David Life – Jivamukti Yoga
Shiva Rea – Prana Flow Yoga
Ana Forrest – Forrest Yoga 


All of these styles include similar elements, such as:
  • Dynamic sequencing, peak postures, powerful practice
  • Spiritual invocation to anchor/theme the class 
  • The embodiment of yoga philosophy to honor this sacred tradition 
  • Expression of bandhas, mudras, pranayamas, and mantras 

About Vinyasa Yoga – Jivamukti 

Pioneered by Sharon Gannon and David Life, Jivamukti Yoga is close to the Mysore series with a few twists. 

Sharon Gannon and David Life studied directly with Jois and brought much of the Ashtanga Yoga style into Jivamukti.

Jiva means soul, and mukti means liberation. 

Jivamukti yoga includes chanting, mantras, ethical awareness, and an Ashtanga-based approach to the postures. 

There are five main tenants of Jivamukti Yoga:
  1. Shastra – study of the sacred scriptures of yoga 
  2. Bhakti – devotion, realization of total consciousness 
  3. Ahimsa – non-harming/non-violence 
  4. Nada – the power of sound, chanting, and deep inner listening
  5. Dhyana – meditation and watching one’s mind. 


About Vinyasa Yoga – Prana Flow

Clara took her first teacher training with Shiva Rea, the founder of Prana Flow Yoga.

Many of the classes on Practice with Clara Virtual Yoga Studio feature a variation of Wave Theory Sequencing, which Shiva also devised. 

Shiva created this style of vinyasa yoga in 2005. It is more fluid and offers less force in the transitions and application of the poses. 

This style of yoga appeals to Clara for its flowy and dance-like nature. 

The purpose of Prana Flow is to connect to a greater presence, pleasure, and awareness. 

It works with the Tantric idea of Spanda, the sacred tremor/vibration that is available to us at any moment. 

Spanda is the sacred vibration; it connects us to the contraction and expansion of the breath and the universe. It is a reminder that we are all energy that is vibrating and tremoring together. 


About Vinyasa Yoga – Forrest Yoga 

The other style of yoga Clara embraced and teaches on the virtual yoga studio is Forrest Yoga. 

Ana Forrest is a yoga teacher and author of Fierce Medicine. She created her own style of yoga to heal from personal trauma. 

The four tenants of Forrest Yoga are: 

One of the aspects that we love about Forrest Yoga is the core work and abdominal release with the roll.

You can see Forrest Yoga in action in these classes on the virtual studio:

How Yoga Styles Are Unique

There are so many unique styles of vinyasa – no two classes are EVER the same. 

No two Ashtanga classes are ever the same, given that we are different at every moment.

Vinyasa yoga provides such a vast space to play with so many variables, including the following:
Warm-up, Postures, Sequence, Transitions, Cool down, Music, Theme, Mantras, Subtle Body Practices.

One of the biggest differences between vinyasa and Hatha yoga styles is the transitions—a feature of vinyasa is how one moves from pose to pose to create a cohesive sequence. 

In Ashtanga, the postures are held for a specific duration. Jois recommended 5-8 breaths per pose. 

In Vinyasa, the number of breaths per pose may vary depending on what the teacher wants to express, and the breaths between the poses are just as emphasized! 

One of the ways to examine and classify vinyasa classes is through the elements.

In Ayurveda, the Pancha Bhuta creates everything in the universe. 

The Pancha Bhuta is the Five Great Elements: Earth, Water, Fire, Air, and Ether. 

Classes with longer holds and less flow would be considered Earth + Fire. Classes with bigger postures (advanced asanas) are also in this combination because they build a lot of heat. 

Power yoga is a good example of an Earth + Fire practice. 

Classes with more flows would be an Earth + Water combination. Classes without a peak pose that are move theme/expression based would be a water-inspired practice. 

Mandala Namaskars by Shiva Rea exemplifies this combination of Earth + Water. 

A few other styles of yoga (that are less transition-based and feature longer holds) include Anusara, Hatha, Yin, Restorative, and Iyengar. 

All of these practices are more static, especially yin and restorative. 

The other thing that stands out about vinyasa yoga is its emphasis on developing or building toward a peak pose. 

Advanced asanas are one way to build heat and open the body. 

In other practices, such as Iyengar and Hatha, it’s more of a holistic experience that touches the whole body. 

Let’s break down a typical vinyasa yoga class (with me) to see how the sequence is structured. 

How to Structure Your Vinyasa Yoga Class:

Here are the components Clara works with to construct the sequence of her vinyasa yoga class: 

  • Warm-up 
  • Wave Theory – 1 or 2 waves depending on the length of the class
  • Peak wave or peak pose 
  • Lunar (floor) series 
  • Meditation 

In the warm-up, she often starts with sun salutations. There are three styles of sun salutations, and I like to play with all three, depending on where she is going with my sequence. 

In the lunar part of the class, she counterposes to neutralize the muscles that were worked during the waves and peak pose. 

The most important pose of every class – no matter what style you practice – is savasana. Always leave ample time at the end for people to assimilate the experience in meditation or corpse pose. 

How Vinyasa Yoga Stands Out

The word vinyasa means ‘to place in a sacred way.’ 
One of the ways vinyasa yoga stands out is the progressive sequence that builds to a peak pose

The first 25-45 minutes are usually for warming up the specific muscles and body parts used in the advanced asana. 

There are six families of poses that we work with and choose from:
Arm balances, Leg balances, Backbends, Twists, Inversions, Hip openers 

Whenever Clara teaches a peak pose class, she chooses the featured posture from one of these families. 

In the lunar portion of the class—the cool-down—she chooses poses that neutralize and counter what we’ve done in the standing series. 

For example, if we worked toward a crow pose, an option would be to do a lot of heart opening to express the front line and the chest. You could also do inner groin stretches such as seated or reclined bound angle pose. 

Music is another key feature of vinyasa classes. 

Clara loves bringing music into class. It creates a wonderful bhava (mood) and helps establish a space for people to open and release. 

Sound has such a profound effect on the body.

A good playlist is one that takes you on a journey.

The final aspect that makes Clara’s vinyasa classes unique is how she adds different components to spice things up! She adds strength training that she learned from physical therapists and massage therapists. 

She also likes to include themes and questions for students to chew on as they breathe

Remember that whatever resonates with YOU will often resonate with your students if your expression is honest and heartfelt. 

Seraphina Dawn

Seraphina has a BA in Literature from Simone Fraser University and participated in the Creative Writing Program at UC Berkeley. She is a Kundalini teacher, writer, and poet. She admires Clarice Lispector’s prose, Octavia Butler’s fiction, and Simone Weil's philosophy. Seraphina currently lives in Istanbul.