Ashtanga Yoga

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Are you looking for a fitness routine that challenges your mind and body? Then you should definitely try out Ashtanga yoga. Ashtanga yoga is famous for its hands-on adjustments and it trains you to be a high performer. This spirit guides you in improving other areas of life as well, including your daily habits. 

This yoga form focuses on toning your muscles through deep abdominal work and works on both upper and lower body strengthening. Practicing it regularly, Ashtanga yoga gifts you with not only strength, purpose, vitality, but also radiant health.

An introduction to ashtanga yoga

Ashtanga means “eight-limbed” and is a yoga practice that was outlined in Yoga Sutra, which is a collection of 196 Sanskrit sutras, on the theory and practice of yoga. It is attributed to the ancient sage Patanjali, in India, who compiled them around 500 BCE  to 400 CE (1).

In Ashtanga yoga, the postures are so beautifully and sequentially composed, that by the end of the practice, the body sings like a finely tuned instrument. The sequence of postures in Ashtanga, flows uninterrupted from one posture to the next. This flowing style is referred to as Vinyasa and it is the basis of all the other yoga classes that are called Power yoga, Vinyasa yoga, or Flow Yoga.

Ashtanga yoga is the dance of the breath with the body that makes it one of the most beautiful asana practices. However, it is demanding and rigorous and needs the determination to continue (2).

The mystery and mysticism of ashtanga yoga

Rammohan Brahmachari, a saint who resided in a cave in the Himalayas, had told Krishnamacharya (Jois’s guru), that all the techniques and exercises of yoga, came from the ancient ‘Yoga Korunta’ book. Krishnamacharya had spent many years under him to learn philosophy, ancient texts, and physical yoga practice.

K. Pattabhi Jois (1915-2009), the creator of Ashtanga yoga, began his studies on yoga, under the tutelage of Shri. Krishnamacharya in Mysore, India, at the age of 12 years.

In the mid-1920s, Jois accompanied his yoga master Shri. T. Krishnamacharya to the Calcutta Library, where they were searching for the obscure, lost yoga text. This text. named ‘The Korunta, was written by the sage, Vamana Rishi, etched on banana/palm leaves. The glyphs described in detail the method of dynamic and vigorous Hatha yoga (3). This method consisted of set sequences of asanas that were linked through movement, breath, physical locks, and focussed eye gaze. 

Ashtanga yoga and it’s founder Pattabhi Jois

On finding the book there, Krishnamacharya started deciphering the text and taught the method to K. Pattabhi Jois. It is said that sometime after they were able to learn the text, the Korunta leaves disintegrated (or were eaten up by the ants) and were never seen again by anyone. Krishnamacharya and Pattabhi Jois had just read the only copy of the book (4). Nobody has seen or heard of the book anytime later.

Pattabhi Jois devoted his life to propagating the Ashtanga Vinyasa method, which originates from the traditional style Hatha yoga. He popularized this method and started teaching.  In the 1970s, he taught this style to three famous western yogis. They were David Williams, Nancy Gilgoff, and David Swenson. They learned and took this style in the West where it became popular. Ashtanga yoga was famously eulogized by several celebrities such as Madonna, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Sting. 

Ashtanga yoga, today is one of the most popular forms of yoga in the world. Pattabhi Jois’s book “Yoga Mala”, was published in 1962 and helped in further spread of this yoga style in the Western world (5).

The eight limbs of ashtanga yoga

Traditionally, the term Ashtanga refers to a yoga practice that includes all the eight limbs. Patanjali explains all of them. Asanas of yoga posture are one of the eight limbs of Ashtanga yoga (6,7,8).

The eight limbs of Ashtanga yoga are:

  1. Yama (Principles or moral code):

    They are the ethical rules in Hinduism and can be thought of as moral imperatives. The five Yamas that are listed in Yoga Sutra are-
  • Ahimsa (non-violence)
  • Satya (truthfulness)
  • Asteya (non-stealing)
  • Brahmacharya (chastity)
  • Aparigraha (non-possessiveness)
  1. Niyama (Personal Discipline):

    Niyama means virtuous habits and observances. They are listed as-
  • Shoucha (purity, clearness of mind, speech and body)
  • Santosh (contentment)
  • Tapa (persistence, perseverance)
  • Swadhyaya (studies of Vedas)
  • Eshwar Pranidhan (contemplation of Ishwara)
  1. Asana (Yoga positions or Yogic postures):

    Asana is a posture that one can hold for a period of time, staying relaxed, steady, comfortable, and motionless.
  2. Pranayama (Yogic Breathing):

    Pranayama is the control of breath. The word comes from Sanskrit Prana means breath and Ayama means restraint.
  3. Pratyahara (Withdrawal of Senses):

    Pratyahara means drawing within one’s awareness. It is to retract the sensory experience from external objects.
  4. Dharana (Concentration on Object):

    Dharana means concentration, introspective focus, and one-pointedness of mind.
  5. Dhyan (Meditation):

    Dhyana literally means ‘contemplation, reflection and profound, abstract meditation.
  6. Samadhi (Salvation):

    Samadhi means putting together, joining, combining, with, union, harmonious whole, trance.

The 5 characteristics of ashtanga yoga

Ashtanga yoga has five characteristics (9,10) that make Ashtanga yoga unique:

  1. The first characteristic is to focus on the breath. Ujjayi (victorious) breathing technique regulates this yoga practice. In this technique, the inhalation and exhalation are of the same length of time and quality.

  2. The next characteristic of Ashtanga practice is asana or yoga postures. The poses here are performed sequentially one after the other in a constant flow that is connected to the breath.

  3. The third unique characteristic is Vinyasa. For each movement, there is one breath. One such example is the Surya Namaskar that consists of nine vinyasas. The first is inhalation. This is done while raising the arms over your head and putting your hands together. The second one is exhalation. This is done whilst bending forward, placing your hands next to your feet, and so on. Similar to this, all asanas are assigned to a number of vinyasas.

  4. The fourth characteristic which is very unique to Ashtanga yoga practice is the engagement of the deep core muscles known as bandhas or locks. As the valve regulates the flow of blood in your body, these locks operate to regulate the flow of prana, which is the life force energy. The energy in the body is regulated through mula bandha, uddiyana bandha, and jalandhara bandha.

  5. The fifth and the last in Ashtanga yoga practice is Drishti or looking place. The eyes are open and the gaze is focussed upon set points but in a relaxed manner.

‘Trishana’, which is the foundation of Ashtanga yoga, is made up of the asanas (postures), vinyasa breathing system, and Drishti together (11). It is believed that practice with perseverance, have the ability to purify your mind and body, getting your consciousness ready for the revelation of God.

Ashtanga series of poses

Ashtanga Yoga is made up of six series (12,13,14). They are the Primary, Intermediate, and four advanced series, and all of them have a set order of poses. These poses are described in Yoga Mala.

  • The primary series also known as Yoga Chikitsa, means yoga therapy, because of the cleansing and toning effect it has. It is intended to realign the spine, detoxify the body and build strength, flexibility, loosens tight muscles, and stamina. The series has about 75 poses and it takes an hour and a half to two hours to complete. It begins with sun salutations ( Surya Namaskara A and Surya Namaskara B) and moving on to standing poses, seated poses, inversions, and backbends before relaxation. The primary series works therapeutically and clear obstacles in your energy channels in the body (known as Nadis).

  • The intermediate or second series is called Nadi Shodhana, which means nerve cleansing or nervous system purification. As the name suggests, it cleanses and strengthens the nervous system and the subtle energy channels throughout the body. They focus on the backbend asanas that encourage and maintain the suppleness of the spine. It helps open the energy channels allowing Prana to flow freely. Only after mastering the primary series, the second series is introduced. The intermediate series sequences have more intense backbends, hip-opening poses, and headstand variations. The specific pose combination works strongly on your nervous system therefore it is important to end it with a long Savasana.

  • The advanced series of Ashtanga Yoga consists of four stages, A, B, C, and D, and are called Sthira Bhaga, which means divine stability. In this series, the practice is integrated in a manner that requires higher levels of endurance, flexibility, and humility. In these series difficult arm balances are emphasized and are only appropriate for extremely advanced students. 

What makes ashtanga yoga special

The order of asanas in ashtanga yoga is entirely predefined and that is what makes it special and unique in comparison to the other types of yoga (15).

The practice consists of four parts:

  • Opening series
  • The main series
  • A back-bending sequence
  • Finishing sequence

The opening series begins with ten sun salutations and several standing asanas. Based on experience and skill, the yogi can choose from six different kinds of the main series.

Ashtanga yoga aims to maintain internal focus throughout the practice. That is why, daily practice is highly emphasized in ashtanga yoga.

In ashtanga yoga, students move through the practice at his or her own level and pace. So during a class, the instructor will supervise all students as they go through their sequence by themselves. Once the students master the sequence, they can practice alone.

Who can do ashtanga yoga?

For those who prefer fast-paced and more rigorous styles of yogic practice, Ashtanga yoga is typically recommended to those. Compared to the other regular yoga practices, in Ashtanga yoga, the flow of the poses is more challenging.

The Primary series alone involves a lot of contortion-esque poses and many of the poses require a strong arm and core strength, which is built over time through multiple vinyasas.

If this is your first time doing yoga and you haven’t quite been physically active for some time, ashtanga may not be the style for you. Those who want to do yoga more for meditation and spiritual purposes may find better styles to try, such as Anand yoga. That said, anyone who is up for a challenge that requires coordination as well as strength and knows their physical limits well enough can definitely do Ashtanga yoga.

The six-day a week, mysore style, ashtanga yoga method

Traditionally, Ashtanga yoga is practiced every day except for Saturdays, full moons, and new moon day (16). They are observed as yoga holidays in Ashtanga practice. If the moon days are included, it is 22 days in 4 weeks. That means, 6 days of practice every other week and 5 days of practice on alternate weeks.

The purpose of practicing Ashtanga yoga six days a week is to help develop the kind of mental, spiritual, and devotional determination that is needed to make progress along the internal path of yoga.

If yoga is meant to be a lifelong commitment to inner peace, it benefits yoga practitioners to practice as much as they can.

The benefits of ashtanga yoga

Ashtanga yoga practice has several benefits on your mind and body (17,18,19,20,21,22,23,24). They are:

  • Improve flexibility
  • Increase strength
  • Increase muscle tone
  • Improve Cardiovascular fitness
  • Reduce body fat
  • Reduce stress and anxiety
  • Increases focus and creativity
  • Lower blood pressure
  • Improve balance
  • Lowers cholesterol level
  • Lowers blood sugar level
  • Increase stamina and vitality
  • Prevent injuries
  • Increases lung capacity for fuller, deeper breathing
  • Changes hormonal levels bringing them into balance
  • Improves relationship
  • Experience greater happiness

Frequently asked questions (FAQs) related to ashtanga yoga

What is the name of the self led style of ashtanga yoga?

The name of the self-led style of ashtanga yoga is called “Mysore Style,” which refers to the way classes were taught by Pattabhi Jois, the founder of Ashtanga yoga, in Mysore, India. This style is mostly practiced in a room with other students, who are also on a personal Ashtanga path.

How long does it take to learn ashtanga yoga primary series?

It takes on an average of 90 minutes to complete the Full Primary Series, which is longer than most yoga or fitness classes. 

What is the difference between ashtanga yoga and ashtanga vinyasa yoga?

Ashtanga yoga is Patanjali’s eight-limbed path to yoga whereas Ashtanga Vinyasa yoga is the physical practice of the series of Ashtanga yoga by Pattabhi Jois (25).

Is ashtanga yoga the hardest?

Ashtanga yoga is indeed the hardest form of physical asana (posture) practice in the world. It is a moving meditation and a breathing practice. The set sequences are practiced every day and the repetitiveness can be maddening. But this is the exact purpose of this yoga practice, where you need to lose yourself wherever you are in the sequence. Also, it demands your full participation and effort. 

What is the main focus of ashtanga yoga?

The purification of the body and mind is the ultimate purpose of the Ashtanga yoga practices. The quick and powerful movements, help a lot of tapas and everything extra, to get out of the way. The strong sense of purpose forces you to focus and grow.

Does ashtanga yoga build muscles?

Yes, you can definitely build muscles with Ashtanga style. Ashtanga yoga, focuses on muscle training and develops physical strength. This yoga style rejuvenates your body, makes it stronger, toned, more flexible, and controlled. The opening series includes lots of contortion-esque poses and many of them require core and arm strengtht

The final note

Ashtanga yoga, also known as the eight-limbed yoga, is not just a workout to stay fit but an exercise in mindfulness, flexibility, and meditation. Created by K. Pattabhi Jois, it lets you nurture your body and mind. 

It encourages you to sweat and help the body get rid of toxins. It makes you focus on your breathing as you move from pose to pose.

The foundation of Ashtanga yoga is “Trishana”. It consists of three actions which are asana, Drishti, and vinyasa breathing system. They go hand in hand.  Even though Ashtanga yoga is named as the hardest form of yoga, considering its set sequences and repetitive practice every day, it can be deeply transformative. It offers innumerable physical and psychological benefits and if you can measure up to the challenges it poses, you can experience your inner self.

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