Ashtanga has been one of the most popular forms of yoga in the western world since the late 1990s. Ashtanga focuses on intense physical practice that involves a series of poses that are connected with the breath to form a continuous sequence. The exercise requires high levels of physical strength, flexibility, and endurance, which explains why many people view it as a rigorous and challenging workout. Whether you are just starting out with yoga or looking for something new when your goals change, adding an Ashtanga yoga class to your daily workout is a great way to keep your mind and body healthy and strong.
What is Ashtanga Yoga?
The word Ashtanga is made up of two Sanskrit words, “Ashta” and “Anga”. “Ashta” refers to the number eight while “Anga” means limbs or body parts. Therefore Ashtanga is the union of the eight limbs of yoga into a complete, holistic system. These eight limbs of yoga represent the various branches of the philosophy of yoga sutras that form the basis of the Ashtanga Yoga School. The Ashtanga philosophy consists in integrating all eight limbs of yoga, including: Yama (moral codes), Niyama (self-discipline), Asana (posture), Pranayama (breath control), Pratyahara (deprivation of the senses), Dharana (concentration), Dhyana ( Meditation) and samadhi (unity with the self).
Ashtanga is a very dynamic and athletic form of Hatha Yoga that consists of six series or levels with a set sequence of postures. It is rooted in Vinyasa, the fluid movement between postures, with a focus on energy and breath. While it is a very physical practice, it also promotes mental clarity and inner peace.
Ashtanga pose sequences
Typically, students begin an Ashtanga practice with five repetitions of Sun Salutation A and Sun Salutation B. This is followed by a series of standing poses of five repetitions and a series of sitting poses. After you’ve mastered these three pose sequences, your instructor will guide you through the advanced series Advanced A and Advanced B, Advanced C and D.
Where did Ashtanga Yoga start?
Originally, Ashtanga Yoga was created by T. Krishnamacharya as an individualized practice for his young energy student K. Pattabhi Jois in the early 20th century. It is believed that the quick sun salutation movements were influenced by the practice of Indian wrestlers and gymnasts. Jois was a dedicated student and he continued to refine and nurture this new style and soon began teaching others. These exciting and challenging postural flows were designed to purify the body to provide peace of mind and eventually resulted in many different types of hot yoga, flow or vinyasa yoga, and power yoga.
The Ashtanga Yoga Research Institute, which promotes the teaching and training of Ashtanga, is located in Mysore, India. Pattabhi Jois’ grandson, R. Sharath Jois, is the current director of the institute and the lead agency for the practice. There are many other famous Ashtanga yoga teachers teaching around the world including David Swenson, Kino MacGregor, Richard Freeman, Maty Ezraty, Tim Miller, David Williams, Chuck Miller, and Tim Feldmann.
Key principles and yoga practices
There are several key principles underlying the practice of Ashtanga. This multi-faceted approach promotes physical health and mental wellbeing. These five principles are necessary for successful Ashtanga practice.
- Ujjayi pranayama: This special breathing technique is used throughout the practice. The Victorious Breath is a slow, audible breathing technique used to warm, energize, and increase focus and concentration. Additional pranayama techniques are only taught to advanced students.
- Drishti: Each asana uses a specific drishti or focus. This helps create a more focused and meditative practice.
- Vinyasa: The core of the exercise is to synchronize your breath with the sequence of postures and transitions in the series.
- Bandha: The intervention of the bandhas or body barriers is encouraged throughout the class to lock in the pranic energy and create core stability.
- Daily practice: A routine of six days a week is recommended, with Saturday being the rest day. “Lunar days”, the days on the full and new moon, are also days of rest, and women often forego exercising during menstruation.
What is the difference between Ashtanga and Vinyasa Yoga?
Ashtanga is a set sequence of asanas, while Vinyasa is more free and improvised. The Ashtanga class begins and ends with the chanting of Sanskrit mantras. More popular in gyms and yoga studios, Vinyasa classes are often heated and play music during exercise.
What is the purpose of Ashtanga?
The intense physical processes in Ashtanga are about overcoming mental blocks and emotional baggage in order to promote mental clarity, mindful breathing, physical strength, flexibility and endurance. The structure and frequency of the exercise are designed to help you improve your body and general well-being quickly. The established order of posture creates a strong framework that allows one to focus on the inner limbs of the yoga sutras.
Benefits of Ashtanga Yoga
The benefits of Ashtanga Yoga are numerous. It is known to be strenuous, making it ideal for athletes and people looking for a good workout. Like most forms of hatha yoga, Ashtanga focuses on breath, poses, and meditation. Regular yoga practice can improve your flexibility, breathing, and balance. It can increase your stamina, bone density and muscle strength, control your body weight, lower your blood pressure, and relieve stress. The benefits of Ashtanga Yoga are not limited to physical factors. It also helps mentally and spiritually by promoting mental clarity, creating mental calm and developing better focus in daily life.
You can find two different types of classes: Ashtanga Led and Ashtanga Mysore. During the classes led by Ashtanga, the participants are guided through the basic, intermediate and advanced series together by a teacher.
Mysore-style Ashtanga is an open practice time in which students move through the same asanas in each sequence, but at their own pace. You will still have the guided help of a trained yoga instructor, but you need to better learn and memorize the asanas and sequences in this studio class. In a Mysore-style yoga class, you can expect more personal attention and practical adjustments.
Can beginners do Ashtanga yoga?
Because it is complicated, precise, and physically demanding, Ashtanga is not the best style of yoga for beginners, but beginners are welcome to get started anyway. Since it offers specific and structured movements, you can clearly see your improvements and progress. It’s also helpful because the primary sequences start with the types of movements and poses that are more suitable for beginners. The primary series, also known as Yoga Chikitsa or Yoga Therapy, focuses on centering and building a strong and healthy body for the more challenging series that follows. With an emphasis on one-to-one tuition in Mysore-style classes, knowing when to do your asanas correctly is also good.
Is Ashtanga for me?
If you are a person in need of one-to-one tuition, Ashtanga courses can benefit you. If you are a skilled yogi or want something that makes it easier to measure your progress in the movements and can easily adjust the asanas to suit your needs, ashtanga may be the style of yoga you need. It’s also great when you want to focus your yoga practice on building strength and physical health. Ashtanga can help everyone from beginners to advanced yoga practitioners.
Ashtanga offers people a highly structured approach to asana practice. You’ll always know when you’re making progress and be able to customize your approach to best suit your needs. With regular practice, it can bring flexibility, strength and focus, and also improve your mental state, which gives you more focus and clarity.