Not to be confused with, but certainly not distinct from Patanjali’s classic ‘Eight (asha) Limb (tanga)’ system of yoga; this form of yoga has a common origin in contemporary times with both Iyengar and Viniyoga styles, in that it has at its source the great yogi master Krishnamacharya. It is considered of the ‘Mysore’ school of yoga.
Tirumalai Krishnamacharya (1888 –1989) is widely acknowledged as the father of modern yoga and was in turn the teacher of Krishna Pattabhi Jois, B.K.S Iyengar and his son T.K.V Desikachar.
K.Pattabhi Jois (1915-2009) formalised this popular vinyasa or ‘flowing’ style of yoga that is practiced widely throughout the world today. It has many celebrity followers including Madonna and Sting. He is succeeded by members of his family who continue to develop and build upon his legacy.
The complete system embraces all of the eight limbs formalised by the sage Patanjali. These are :
- Yama - moral restraints
- Niyama - moral disciplines
- Asana - poses
- Pranayama - breath control
- Pratyhara - sense control
- Dharana - focus/concentration
- Dhyana - meditation
- Samadhi - state of bliss
What is Ashtanga Yoga?
A form of modern yoga that has a very formalised and repetitive structure whereby students are disciplined to establish correct form within a sequence before moving onto the next set of postures. Each step or series is designed to prepare the body and mind for the next building block through intensive heat/energy raising purification posture and breath work.
This was a practice that was emphasised during Sri Pattabhi Jois’s apprenticeship with his teacher whereby new students would focus on establishing a strong foundation of mental and physical awareness within a limited practice, before being allowed to progress to more challenging yoga.
What to expect from an Ashtanga Yoga Session
Expect to be guided rather than having a great deal of one to one personal tuition. Students are expected to commit to memory, sequences which they will then practice on their own, both in class and outside, and at their own pace. Be assured however that a good teacher will always be monitoring your progress and ensure that what you do is both safe and appropriate for your body. Modifications will be made whilst your body adapts to new positions and physical demands.
You will almost certainly get hot! And it is a good idea to take lots of fluid and dress appropriately. Unlike some yoga styles such as Iyengar, Yin or Hatha yoga, whereby poses are held for longer periods of time, your initial experience will be one of flowing movement co-ordinated with a specific type of breath control. So closer fitting not baggy clothing is advised, this will be especially appreciated during all the times you will be hanging upside down in ‘Adho Mukha Savasana’ or the down faced dog pose!
Ujjayi pranayama or ‘the victorious’ breath is a technique used in many styles of hatha yoga; in Ashtanga Vinyasa it is used to co-ordinate movement with breath and is a powerful technique which will facilitate raising energy and heat in the body. In broad terms this is the physical practice of taking control of the flow of breath around the lower throat or glottis area, producing a sound not unlike ocean waves or in extremis ‘Darth Vader’! This practice requires specific expert instruction from your teacher so do not be afraid to ask for guidance.
Somewhat unfairly, this style is sometimes viewed as yoga for the young and flexible. But as with any yoga class, a good and appropraitely qualified teacher with an established training programme will bring the benefits of this exciting and invigorating style to any willing new students, whatever their age. What is required is the application of patience, ‘tapas’ or heat, and dedication to a long and rewarding journey.
The Ashtanga Framework comprises of six series :
- Primary Series - Beginners
- Secondary Series - Intermediate
- Tertiary Series - Advanced
Ashtanga Vinyasa style yoga commences with what are termed the ‘Primary Series’ (also called Yoga Chikitsa or ‘therapy/treatment’). The purpose of this early discipline is to:
- Warm up the body and purify and to release toxins
- Stretch tight muscles and joints
- Tone the central core
- Introduce important fundamentals at the beginning of a students journey such as the use of bandhas (physical/energy locks) and the specialised form of breathing.
- Commit to memory the base sun salute sequence, surya namaskar which underpins the entire system.
There are two primary series termed ‘A’ and ‘B’, each of which has five sequences to be learnt (i.e ten in total). These need to be mastered before moving onto the next. The foundation of all series is the sun salutation, ‘Surya Namaskar’ which is also found, in different forms and adaptations, in many other styles of modern yoga. There is much academic speculation as to the origins of the sun salute with some suggestions of an ancient ‘Vedic’ origin, these being the holy scripts of the Hindu faith.
Once a teacher considers that a student has mastered the primary series, the secondary or intermediate series (Nadi Shodhana - meaning energy channel cleansing) will be introduced. These include stronger backbends, seated and twisting poses.
Many years and practice hours will lead some, but not necessarily all, to the tertiary advanced series, termed Sthira Bhaga (strong, prosperity or more completely ‘Divine stability’). This then is the pinnacle of this form of yoga and requires much focus and dedication to get here. All the foundations of previous groundwork provide a physical and spiritual preparedness for the most challenging postures such as arm balances and even deeper backbends.
As Sri Pattabhi Jois so succinctly puts it.
“Practice, practice, practice and all is coming”
A key component in a students growth within their practice is the development of combining focus (dristi), within posture (asana) and breathing (pranayama), these collectively are termed Tristhana.
All classes will start with sun salutations and end with the same series of finishing posture work.
Is it for me?
If you seek and commit to a rigorous physical yoga, with lots of repetitive known sequences, often working alone, done week in week out without variation, then yes Ashtanga may be for you.
If you perhaps need more variety on a class by class basis, perhaps check out a few other options first, such as an Iyengar or a more traditional Hatha yoga class.
In all forms of yoga there is never an ‘all sizes fit’ option and it’s important to understand your options before wholeheartedly embracing one particular path.
Effects and Benefits of Ashtanga Yoga
Expect to become stronger, more flexible and to gain stamina. This is a dynamic practice so cardio vascular health is improved along with an increased sense of well being, ergot mental health. There is also a lot to commit to memory and understand initially, so expect your mental capacity to improve! The core focus of co-ordinating flowing movement with breath and ‘dristi’ will improve your co-ordination and ability to balance. Ultimately all yoga leads us to embrace our true selves leading to inner peace.