Yoga Focus – What is Ashtanga Yoga?

If you’ve ever taken a vinyasa class with me, you will be familiar with a lot of the poses from the ashtanga lineage. Vinyasa yoga is essentially a free flowing version of ashtanga – anything goes. Ashtanga is itself quite the opposite; a set number of postures, in a set order…every time.

You may think this sounds a little restrictive and (gasp!) boring, but that is not the case with Ashtanga. There are so many poses and vinyasas (breath with movement) in and out of the poses, that boredom is the last thing on your mind. Lets take a closer look…

Historically speaking…

Ashtanga is a dynamic form of Hatha yoga that has its roots in the town of Mysore, south India. The ashtanga method is an ancient system of yoga that was taught by Vamana Rishi in the Yoga Kurunta. It is believed that the text was imparted to Sri T. Krishnamacharya in the early 1900’s by Guru Rama Mohan Brahmachari.

Ashtanga means ‘eight limbs’ as described by Patanjali (an Indian sage) in the Yoga Sutras (the Sutras are believed to have been written between the 2nd and 4th century CE). This text is the authority on the practice and true nature of yoga – the eight limbs must be practiced in order to realise our true potential, our true nature and transcend human suffering. Ashtanga embodies these eight limbs:

  • Yamas (behavioural observances – things that we should do)
  • Niyamas (behavioural restraints – things that we should not do)
  • Asana (physical yoga postures)
  • Pranayama (yogic breathwork to control the flow of our life force energy)
  • Pratyahara (withdrawal of the senses)
  • Dharana (concentration)
  • Dhyana (meditation)
  • Samadhi (liberation)

The practice that we know today as Ashtanga yoga was first developed, practiced and taught by the yogi Krishnamachrya in Mysore, India. A student of Krishnamacharya, Pattabhi Jois continued the work of sharing the ashtanga method throughout the world. Today the method is continued by Manju and Sharath Jois (son and grandson of Pattabhi respectively). Ashtanga yoga is therefore a lineage as well as a practice and encourages many dedicated, life-long practitioners throughout the world.

What to expect

Ashtanga yoga is taught in series’ of postures and each student of ashtanga practices the postures according to their own ability. Students are ‘given’ postures by the teacher and practice their sequence individually (although in classes with others) under the guidance of the teacher. Each student therefore is carrying out their individual practice, broadly the same as the other students and yet unique to them. More postures are added to the series as the student grows in strength and flexibility until completion of a series. The next series can then begin (phew!).

This individual approach to yoga (rather than being in a class where everybody is taught the same thing and follows the teacher through the class) is known as ‘Mysore style’ after the place it was originally taught by Krishnamachrya and Pattabhi Jois. Ashtanga can also be presented as a ‘led’ class in the style that we are familiar with, where everybody works through the poses at the same time guided by the teacher – this style is a great place to start your practice.

All students of ashtanga start by learning the postures of the Primary Series. This series is known as Yoga Chikitsa or yoga therapy. The aim is to loosen the body and free the practitioner from stiffness or weakness and allow them the freedom to practice fully. You will find hip opening, hamstring lengthening, spinal flexibility, strength and stamina in the Primary Series.

Is it for me?

Ashtanga yoga is a dynamic practice so you should be prepared to work hard. However, it isn’t yoga for the advanced only and it certainly isn’t reserved for the flexible. Ashtanga often has a reputation for rigidity, but the practice lends itself to variation and modification to suit the individual. Nobody starts an ashtanga practice able to ‘do’ all of the postures. There is work for everybody in this practice.

So what exactly will you find at an ashtanga class?

Structure – the Primary Series (where we all start) consists of sun salutations, fundamental asanas (postures), standing sequence, seated sequence, backbends and a closing sequence. You will learn to know what to expect, but no two days are the same for your body.

Sweat – the practice of ashtanga builds heat in the body. It can be strenuous and definitely raises the heart rate.

Breath-work – each movement in ashtanga is accompanied by the breath. We use the breath to move in and out of poses or hold poses for a breath count. This is the vinyasa – breath with movement.

Meditation – ashtanga, though a strong dynamic practice, becomes a moving meditation due to the structure, breath and counted nature of the vinyasas. You leave the mind behind and crowd out thoughts with the practice.

Accomplishment – The yoga journey is never about achieving postures but about moving beyond the ego to reside in peace; the true nature of the self. Due to the dynamic nature of ashtanga, you will also feel like you have achieved great things. Your body and mind will change with a consistent practice.

Ashtanga is a great place to advance your practice. If you’ve been a yogi for a few years and have felt the magic of yoga, the ashtanga method might be for you. Step outside the comfort zone, try new things and surprise yourself; find strength in backbends, find balance in headstand, find calm in deep twists.

Join me twice a month on Wednesday evenings to get to know the ashtanga method. Master the mind and the body and feel the endorphins flow!

Om shanti shanti shanti

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